Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus)


HB: 1200-1500; T: 65-100; HF: 175-195; E: 120-180; W: 100-160kg.

Asian black bears are similar in general appearance to brown bears, but are more lightly built and are more slender limbed. The skulls of Asian black bears are relatively small, but massive, particularly in the lower jaw. Adult males have skulls measuring 311.7–328 mm (12.3–13 in) long and 199.5–228 mm (7.9–9 in) wide, while females have skulls measuring 291.6–315 mm (11.5–12.4 in) long and 163–173 mm (6.4–6.8 in) wide. Compared to other bears of the genus Ursus, the projections of the skull are weakly developed; the sagittal crest is low and short, even in old specimens, and does not exceed more than 19–20% of the total length of the skull, unlike in brown bears, which have sagittal crests comprising up to 41% of the skull's length. Although mostly herbivorous, the jaw structure of Asian black bears is not as specialised for plant eating as that of pandas: Asian black bears have much narrower zygomatic arches, and the weight ratio of the two pterygoid muscles is also much smaller in Asian black bears. However, the lateral slips of the temporal muscles are thicker and stronger in black bears. In contrast to polar bears, Asian black bears have powerful upper bodies for climbing trees, and relatively weak hind legs, which are shorter than those in brown bears and American black bears. A black bear with broken hind legs can still climb effectively. They are the most bipedal of all bears, and have been known to walk upright for over a quarter mile. The heel pads on the forefeet are larger than those of most other bear species. Their claws, which are primarily used for climbing and digging, are slightly longer on the fore foot (30–45 mm) than the back (18–36 mm), and are larger and more hooked than those of the American black bear. The ears, which are bell shaped, are proportionately longer than those of other bears, and stick out sideways from the head. The lips and nose are larger and more mobile than those of brown bears. On average, adult Asian black bears are slightly smaller than American black bears, though large males can exceed the size of several other bear species. They measure 70–100 cm (28–40 in) at the shoulder, and 120–195 cm (47–77 in) in length. The tail is 11 cm (4.4 inches) long. Mature males typically weigh between 100–200 kg (220-440 lbs), with an average weight of about 135 kg (about 300 lbs). Females weigh about 65–90 kg (143–198 lbs), with large ones up to 140 kg (308 lbs). The famed British sportsman known as the "Old Shekarry" wrote of how a black bear he shot in India probably weighed no less than 363 kg (800 lbs) based on how many people it took to lift its body, though Gary Brown, author of The Great Bear Almanac writes that the largest Asian black bear on record weighed 200 kg (440 lbs). Zoo-kept specimens can weigh up to 225 kg (500 lbs).Although their senses are more acute than those of brown bears, their eyesight is poor, and their powers of hearing moderate, the upper limit being 30 kHz. Easily distinguished from the sun bear by its very long pelage. It is also twice as heavy as the sun bear and as relatively longer ears. The white area of the muzzle seldom extends as far as the orbits. As in the sun bear, there is a white mark on the chest though it is more V shaped than U shaped as in the Sun Bear. The skull is flatter and narrower than in Helarctos, with the mastoid width seldom exceeding the length of the palate. The bullae is flat, not swollen as in H. malayanus. The muzzle is longer and narrower, and not as much extended over the canines. The incisors and canines are smaller, but the cheek teeth are further apart and the molars are longer, more premolars are generally retained. Asian black bears are diurnal, though they become nocturnal near human habitations. They may live in family groups consisting of two adults and two successive litters of young. They will walk in a procession of largest to smallest. They are good climbers of rocks and trees, and will climb to feed, rest, sun, elude enemies and hibernate. Some older bears may become too heavy to climb. Half of their life is spent in trees and they are one of the largest arboreal mammals. In the Ussuri territory, black bears can spend up to 15% of their time in trees. Asian black bears break branches and twigs to place under themselves when feeding on trees, thus causing many trees in their home ranges to have nest-like structures on their tops. Asian black bears will rest for short periods in nests on trees standing fifteen feet or higher. Asian black bears do not hibernate over most of their range. They may hibernate in their colder, northern ranges, though some bears will simply move to lower elevations. Nearly all pregnant sows hibernate. Black bears prepare their dens for hibernation in mid October, and will sleep from November until March. Their dens can either be dug out hollow trees (sixty feet above ground), caves or holes in the ground, hollow logs, or steep, mountainous and sunny slopes. They may also den in abandoned brown bear dens. Asiatic black bears tend to den at lower elevations and on less steeper slopes than brown bears. Female black bears emerge from dens later than do males, and female black bears with cubs emerge later than barren females. Asian black bears tend to be less mobile than brown bears. With sufficient food, Asian black bears can remain in an area of roughly 1–2 sq km, and sometimes even as little as 0.5–1 sq km.Asian black bears have a wide range of vocalisations, including grunts, whines, roars, slurping sounds (sometimes made when feeding) and "an appalling row" when wounded, alarmed or angry. They emit loud hisses when issuing warnings or threats, and scream when fighting. When approaching other bears, they produce "tut tut" sounds, thought to be produced by bears snapping their tongue against the roof of their mouth. When courting, they emit clucking sounds

Range Description:

Fossil remains of the Asiatic black bear have been found as far west as Germany and France, but in historic times the species has been limited to Asia. This species occupies a narrow band from Southeastern Iran (Gutleb and Ziaie 1999) eastward through Afghanistan and Pakistan, across the foothills of the Himalayas, to Myanmar. It occupies all countries in mainland Southeast Asia except Malaysia. It has a patchy distribution in southern China, and is absent in much of east-central China. Another population cluster exists in northeastern China, the southern Russian Far East, and into North Korea. A small remnant population exists in South Korea. They also live on the southern islands of Japan (Honshu and Shikoku) and on Taiwan and Hainan. The species now occurs very patchily through much of its former range, especially in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, mainland southeast Asia and China. Its distribution in parts of China and Myanmar remains very poorly known. The distribution of the Asiatic black bear roughly coincides with forest distribution in southern and eastern Asia (FAO 2006), except that in central and southern India this species is replaced by the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), in Southern Thailand and into Malaysia it is replaced by the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) and north and west of the Russian Far East it is replaced by the brown bear (Ursus arctos). However, the Asiatic black bear overlaps the ranges of each of these species, especially the sun bear in a large portion of Southeast Asia.
Countries: Native:
Afghanistan; Bangladesh; Bhutan; Cambodia; China; India; Iran, Islamic Republic of; Japan; Korea, Democratic People's Republic of; Korea, Republic of; Lao People's Democratic Republic; Myanmar; Nepal; Pakistan; Russian Federation; Taiwan, Province of China; Thailand; Vietnam
Range Map: Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.


 No rigorous population estimates exist for this species. Japan formerly posed estimates of 8–14,000 bears on Honshu Island, but these are no longer considered valid. Russian biologists have presented a number of density estimates, yielding a range wide estimate of about 5–6,000, but the reliability of these is unclear (Aramilev 2006). Likewise, rough density estimates have been made for some portions of India and Pakistan, which have been extrapolated country-wide (7-9000 in India: Sathyakumar 2006, 1000 in Pakistan: Sheikh 2006), but without corroborating methodology or data. A host of recent countrywide estimates have been posed for Asiatic black bears in China, ranging from 15–46,000 (summarized by Garshelis 2002, Gong and Harris 2006), with an official government estimate (in 2003) of about 28,000; none of these estimates have been substantiated.
Population Trend: Decreasing

Habitat and Ecology:

 Asiatic black bears occupy a variety of forested habitats, both broad-leaved and coniferous, from near sea level to an elevation of 4,300 m (in northeastern India, A. Choudhury, Rhino Foundation for Nature pers. comm.). They also infrequently use open alpine meadows. Individual bears move to different habitats and elevations seasonally (Izumiyama and Shiraishi 2004), tracking changes in food abundance. Foods include succulent vegetation (shoots, forbs and leaves) in spring, turning to insects and a variety of tree and shrub-borne fruits in summer, and finally nuts in autumn (Bromlei 1965, Reid et al. 1991, Huygens et al. 2003). In some places the diet contains a sizeable portion of meat from mammalian ungulates (which they either kill or scavenge, Hwang et al. 2002) In temperate forests, Asiatic black bears rely heavily on hard mast in autumn, in part to put on sufficient fat reserves for winter denning (hibernation). Therefore, these bears tend to focus their activities in habitats with high abundance of oak acorns, beechnuts, walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, or stone pine seeds (Schaller et al. 1989, Hashimoto et al. 2003). When Asiatic black bears feed in hard mast trees they often break branches and pile them up in the canopy, forming what appears to be a platform or “nest”. Males may socially exclude females from rich stands of hard mast (Huygens and Hayashi 2001, Hwang 2003).  In northern latitudes, where food becomes unavailable in winter, both sexes hibernate. In the most northerly parts of their range, bears enter dens as early as October and exit as late as the end of May (Seryodkin et al. 2003). They den in rock crevices, in hollow trees or stumps, under upturned trees, in dug-out earthen dens, or in ground nests. In Russia, Asiatic black bears have been reported to select flat river bottoms for denning (Seryodkin et al. 2003), whereas in central China they move to high elevation rocky outcrops on steep slopes (Reid et al. 1991). Hunters often have knowledge of the sorts of places and types of dens that the bears tend to use. Denning and active black bears are also subject to predation by other Asiatic black bears, brown bears, and tigers (Seryodkin et al. 2005).

In the tropics, Asiatic black bears generally do not hibernate, except females giving birth during winter (Hwang and Garshelis 2007). They still make use of hard mast, but additionally consume numerous species of soft fruits. In Thailand, for example, Asiatic black bears were found to feed on 160 species of tree-borne fruits. Sympatric sun bears also eat most of these same fruits. Both species most often climb (apparently for feeding) trees in the cinnamon (Lauraceae) and teak (Labiatae) families. Both species live together in lowland habitats. Asiatic black bears also use regenerating forests, which may have a high production of berries or young bamboo shoots. They also feed in plantations, where they may damage trees by stripping the bark and eating cambium, and in cultivated areas, especially corn and oat fields and fruit orchards (Carr et al. 2002, Yamazaki 2003, Mizukami et al. 2005, Gong and Harris 2006, Vinitpornsawan et al. 2006). Asiatic black bears generally breed during June–July and give birth during November–March; however, timing of reproduction is not known for all portions of the range. Age of first reproduction is 4–5 years, and they normally produce litters of 1 or 2 cubs every other year (at most). Maximum lifespan is over 30 years, but average lifespan is less in the wild.
Systems: Terrestrial

Major Threat(s):

 Habitat loss due to logging, expansion of human settlements, roadway networks, and hydro-power stations, combined with hunting for skins, paws and especially gall bladders are the main threats to this species.  Habitat loss and degradation is most severe in the southern portion of the range. In India, et al. 2006). Forest area has recently been increasing in Viet Nam, but much of the present remaining forest is highly degraded from both legal and illegal lumbering (Nguyen Xuan Dang 2006).  Forest area is increasing rapidly in China, which is now first in the world in terms of area gained per year. This increasing forest area stems from mandated government programs aimed mainly toward reducing flooding and erosion; the replanted trees may or may not be particularly suitable for bears. However, good forest habitat does persist in northeastern China, Taiwan, Korea, Russia, and Japan. In Japan, black bear range has expanded with increasing forest area and diminishing rural human populations (Oi and Yamazaki 2006). Meanwhile, the number of people killed or injured by Japanese black bears has been on the rise (presumably reflective of the increasing bear population), and the same may be true in some parts of China (J. Gong, Sichuan Forestry Dept., Chengdu pers. comm.). The major threat to bears in China and Southeast Asia is the commercial trade in live bears and bear parts, especially gall bladders (bile). China initiated commercial bear farming in 1984, ostensibly to satisfy the demand for bile by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM; and also Traditional Korean Medicine, TKM). The bile is periodically drained, so the captive bears do not have to be killed; it was claimed that this practice would thereby reduce the taking of wild bears. However, these farms were initially stocked with wild bears, and although the Chinese farms are purportedly now mainly self-propagating (with some continuing exceptions), there is no evidence that their existence has reduced the killing (poaching) of wild bears. In Viet Nam, many small-scale bile farms have been started, which were stocked by several thousand bears removed from the wild (from Viet Nam as well as from neighbouring countries). The condition in which these bears are kept precludes successful breeding and cub rearing; in fact, most of these farms do not attempt to breed their bears. Moreover, although this practice has been illegal since 1992, with regulations strengthened in 2002, the number of wild-caught farmed bears in Vietnam is estimated to have increased by an order of magnitude in less than a decade (J. Robinson and G. Cochrane, Animals Asia Foundation pers. comm.).  A surplus of bile is produced by the 8000–10,000 bears currently kept on Chinese bear farms, spurring efforts to find markets in non-traditional uses of bile (e.g., lotions, shampoos, cosmetics); meanwhile, many practitioners of TCM/TKM believe that bile from wild bears is more effective at healing various ailments, and are thus willing to pay higher prices for this product and may be disinclined to use substitutes (Chang et al. 1995, Kang and Phipps 2003). The market for bear paws also appears to be increasing commensurate with an increasing number of wealthy people who find it within their means to indulge in this very expensive delicacy.  The demand for these bear products has fuelled a growing network of international trade throughout Southeast Asia, and has turned many subsistence hunters into commercial hunters. Most commercial trade routes eventually terminate in China (Saw Htun 2006; C. Shepherd, TRAFFIC SE Asia pers. comm.). However, it is difficult to assess the true extent of this trade because only a small fraction of the parts are confiscated. Moreover, with no reliable population estimates or monitoring system it is not possible to evaluate the actual impacts on populations. Nevertheless, it seems highly probable that this commercially-driven trade in parts is unsustainable and therefore causing populations to decline. The capture of live bears presents yet another threat to this species. In several Southeast Asian countries Asiatic black bears are routinely confiscated from people attempting to raise them as pets. In Pakistan, several thousand bears were taken from the wild for exhibitions (referred to as bear baiting) in which individual bears (with canines and claws removed) fight with dogs. This practice was made illegal in 2001, but continues to some extent.

 Conservation Actions:

The most beneficial conservation measure for Asiatic black bears would be to substantially lessen the demand for bear products, and thus reduce hunting and trade. The species is protected under both international and national laws, but often these laws are not enforced. It has been included on CITES Appendix I since 1979. The so-called Baluchistan bear, a subspecies (U. thibetanus gedrosianus) living in the arid thorn forest in the Baluchistan region of southern Pakistan and Iran, was listed as Critically Endangered (B1+2abc, C2a) in the 1996 IUCN Red List, and is nationally listed as critically endangered in Pakistan. Authorities have proposed a protected area to assist in the recovery of this very small, isolated population (Sheikh 2006). In most range countries Asiatic black bears are listed as a protected species. For example, they are protected under Class 2 of China's Wildlife Protection Law (a limited number of permits are issued to kill nuisance animals), and under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act. In South Korea they are designated as a national monument (No. 329) within the Cultural Properties Protection Law and also as an Endangered Wild Animal. In Japan, this species is listed under the Law for Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which for trade requires certification of legal take; however, gall bladders and paws are exempted. Throughout Southeast Asia this species is totally protected in every range country, with the exception of Myanmar, where this species is classified as “normally protected”, meaning that it may be killed with a special license (although such licenses are rarely issued; Saw Htun, Wildlife Conservation Society, Myanmar pers. comm.). In Afghanistan, U. thibetanus is listed as a protected species, imposing a Government ban on all hunting and trading of this species within the country. Sport hunting of Asiatic black bears is legal only in Japan and Russia. Russia reports a legal harvest of 75-100 bears/year and an estimated illegal take of about 500 bears/year. Sport harvests of black bears in Japan average about 500/year and have been slowly declining since the late 1980s due to diminishing interest in hunting (Oi and Yamazaki 2006). However, a high number (generally 1,000–2,000, but as many as 4,000) of nuisance black bears are killed annually (using guns, traps, and snares) in towns or agricultural areas of Japan.  Farming bears for bile presents another conservation difficulty that needs to be resolved. In Vietnam, bears are still being removed from the wild to supply farms. In China, whereas the farms themselves may not require restocking from the wild, the excessive bile produced may fuel the market, and thus may actually increase demand for bile from wild bears. In South Korea, where wild Asiatic black bears have been nearly extirpated, 2000 bears are kept and propagated in captivity and it is believed that bile and other parts from this captive population supply an illicit market. Efforts are underway in South Korea to restore the wild bear population through restocking, initially with captive-born bears, but more recently with orphaned wild bears from Russia. Some Southeast Asian countries, like Cambodia and In Thailand are also considering reintroducing bears from captivity. Throughout much of the southern portion of the range of this species, efforts to reduce habitat degradation outside PAs and to increase the number and/or area of PAs would be highly beneficial. An increasing number of PAs are being established in China, India, and a few other countries within the range of Asiatic black bears (Chape et al. 2003), mainly to protect other species, but serving as well to increase protection for bears. Additionally, the recently amended (2003) Indian Wild Life (Protection) Act provides options for new categories of PAs that could be established to form travel corridors between existing PAs.