During the fall, Natural Habitat Adventures operates expeditions to southwest China, where guests may have the chance to spot the magnificent moon bears of the Minshan Mountain range—a hidden, enchanted place where the bears are thriving.
A moon bear, also known as Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), is similar to the North American black bear except it has far larger ears, a bushy mane around its neck, and a large moon-shaped patch of white on its chest. The thick neck fur likely evolved to help protect it from tiger attacks, as did the notorious hair-trigger temper. To appreciate seeing these bears in the wild, one must understand how rare moon bears are. Moon bears have an incredibly vast range, from Siberia all the way to India, throughout China and including Taiwan and Japan. Imagine an area the size of the United States, but then realize that only 15,000 moon bears exist in the wild. The statistic is truly shocking.
It is a species highly targeted by hunting and poaching due to the demand for bear bile, which is used in traditional medicine for the treatment of liver and gallbladder conditions. With my intimate knowledge of the plight of the wild moon bear in Asia, I figured I would never see a moon bear in the wild. When I saw my first one in four years, I was “over the moon.” Here is a video I put together of one of the most exciting wildlife experiences in my life….
In a special wildlife reserve that we visit on our expeditions, I have learned that a population of moon bears is doing well. Moon bear signs, according to my observations, have increased dramatically with time. Assuredly these bears, and the rest of the wildlife, are very well protected in this reserve. A strong core of antipoaching rangers has obtained a fierce reputation since the 1990s, and now remote camera surveillance throughout the reserve makes poaching impossible. The habitat is unique, and much of the forest is dominated by relic walnut and chestnut trees—a fantastic food source for the bears. Bears have plenty to eat to fatten up in the fall and make baby moon bears. I also think the bears are losing their fear of people, so they are becoming easier to spot.
It is such a thrill to see moon bears in the wild. I am sure this is a very special refuge for a species that faces a real possibility of extinction. This is another animal that benefits from the umbrella of giant panda conservation. It is fantastic for the locals to see our groups get so excited about wild moon bears, which I know reinforces their own appreciation of this species. In a world where wildlife faces so many challenges, it is great to see little successes such as this one, with the magnificent moon bears of the Minshan Mountain range!