On this day while in Tembe Elephant Park we were working to habituate three African Wild Dogs (also called Painted Dogs) to the sound of the vehicle. The goal was to get them used to our vehicle so that we could both identify all the members of the pack, check their health, and eventually dart them for translocation to a safer area. To do this, we routinely had to locate the alpha female which wears a radio-collar and place parts from a dead Nyala or Impala on the ground, chained or tied to a tree.
A recording of Painted Dogs making a kill was played and usually after 10-20 minutes the pack would have found us and sniffed out the free food. This was the first time that we saw the puppy come out from its den.
Painted Dog pups typically den for their first several weeks, suckling from their mother and, when they’re old enough, eating food regurgitated to them from their older pack members or small bits of food brought back for them. After only a couple of months they must be strong enough to follow the pack’s nomadic lifestyle and keep up on the exciting hunts. Once old enough to keep up with the pack, Painted Dogs typically let the youngest eat first to make sure that they have enough nourishment, which is why we see the adult deferring to the youngest member. The twittering sounds heard int his video mostly come from this feisty pup who is excited to have this feast and also bravely guarding his meal!
Like their canine cousins, Painted Dogs give birth to several pups per litter. Unfortunately the little pup in the video, probably 8-12 weeks old, was the only survivor. While it’s not uncommon for pups to be lost due to weakness or disease, it’s most likely that predator persecution by lions was the cause of this pup losing its siblings.
The pup was very strong and active during the observation period, as shown in this video. The high-pitched vocalizations that are heard are characteristic of Painted Dogs and serve as a means of expressing excitement over their meal and letting others in the pack know that there is food to share.
Many people have mistaken the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) as a diseased Wolf, Domestic Dog, or even Jackal. However there are several defining visual characteristics which set the African Wild Dog apart from its distant relatives in the Canidae family. The most obvious feature is the coloration of its coat. Often they have three distinct colors represented: white, black, and tan, although there are some dogs with little or no white. Close-up, it’s also easier to make out their ears which are larger than a similarly-sized dog’s or wolf’s and much more rounded than triangular.
African Wild Dogs are better described by their other name, “Painted Dogs,” because they are naturally wild and evolved independently from the other extant species in the Canidae family, which includes Wolves, Jackals, Coyotes, and Domestic Dogs. Painted Dogs live in packs with usually around a dozen members, but packs have been observed with three times that many members. They are among Africa’s most successful hunters. Painted Dogs achieve their goals at least 30% of the time, about twice as often as large cats including Lions which may hunt as a pride.
Unlike Lions and other species that live in a close-knit group, Painted Dogs often let their young eat first. This suggests that the dogs are not only grouping for social reasons, but because they are stronger as a pack and only as strong as their weakest member.
The Asian Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus) lives in the far east of mainland Asia extending from Russia through the Korean peninsula south into China as well as Southeast Asia and parts of India. A narrow band reaches along the more temperate areas immediately south of the Himalayas across to Afghanistan. The species also has historically existed on the island of Taiwan as well as the southern three main islands of Japan.
Bears have played an influential role in the mythologies of prehistoric people and are even recognized as the national symbols of both Russia and South Korea. Belief systems involving the Bear as one’s spiritual ancestor or kin may have led to arctolatry, Bear worship, which is still represented by the traditions of some indigenous cultures. There are also a number of Bear related folklore and myths in traditional Indian and Hindu cultures.
The Ainu people, who live on islands now belonging to Japan and Russia, have special ceremonies involving the release of the Bear’s spirit so that it might leave the world of man and return to the world of the gods. The Nivkh people indigenous to the Russian Far East have a very similar traditional ceremony which they still observe. The Ainu word kamuy, meaning “God” or a “divine spirit,” is also used to describe a Bear and in modern Japanese Kamui (カムイ) is one of the modern terms for a god or spirit.
Certain Japanese dog breeds of the Akita have been used to hunt the Asian Black Bear. Before the widespread use of firearms in Japan these hunts would have involved a group of several Akita taking down one Bear so that the hunter or community could make use of the Bear’s pelt, meat, and claws.
Conservation Status & Threats
Many countries, including China, have laws protecting Asian Black Bears and other species from being hunted. However many countries overlook similar protections for the habitats which leads to deforestation causing habitat loss and insufficient food supply being one of the largest threats to the Asian Black Bear and other Bear species in parts of China and Southeast Asia.
In Asia the main threat of predation seems to be from humans either from hunting and poaching or due to human-wildlife conflict when bears raid farms for sustenance and are killed by property owners (sometimes proactively). In Russia, Japan, and India the Bear is illegally hunted, typically for its skin and body parts that are in demand in the Asian market, however Indians prize the gall bladder. Meanwhile in China and Korea Bear farms have been legalized so that parts demanded by traditional Chinese medicine can be harvested.
Wildlife conflict also sometimes occurs, particularly in the northern part of their range adult Asian Black Bears have been known to be predated on by Brown Bears and Tigers. In Southeast Asia young Asian Black Bears have occasionally fallen prey to Leopards.
Due to the omnivorous nature of Bears and the ability for the Asian Black Bear to adapt to and survive in a variety of climates, it’s important that their normal food sources, succulent plants in the spring; fruits and insects in the summer; and high-fat and high-protein nuts in the autumn, having sustainable vegetation is important not just for shelter, but also so that they can survive hibernation during the winter in northern latitudes. Asian Black Bears in warmer climates do not need to hibernate, but are still susceptible to habitat loss through logging, slash and burn, and changes in agricultural land usage in south Asia.
Note: This section on the conservation status and threats to Bears in Asia is continued at the end of the article.
Habitat & Life
Like its American relative the Asian Black Bear is omnivorous and occasionally eats large prey. But its diet will vary based on the season and region that it lives in, particularly if it lives in a climate where hibernation during cold winter months is mandatory. Asian Black Bears that do not hibernate because they live in warmer climates will forage year round to supplement any large prey that becomes part of their diet. During the spring, particularly for Bears just coming out of hibernation, the diet will primarily consists of seeds and nuts, then shift toward insects and larva during the early summer to supplement a diet inclusive of meat from large prey. Fruits and vegetation make up a large part of their diet during summer months and explains their desire to raid orchards and farms for food during this period.
Asian Black Bears live in dens, and if they live in cold climates will hibernate in their den from November through March. These dens also serve as a place for giving birth to young, of which there may be as many as four, but typically only two. They will learn to crawl before they are able to open their eyes, which occurs when they are about seven days old, and will be weaned after around 115 days. Cubs will stay with their mother for two to three years as they learn to be self-sufficient.
Around this time the cubs will become sexually mature and will move off to find their own territory. Asian Black Bears in southern Asia tend not to travel very far each day, covering perhaps only a few hundred meters depending on the level of human disturbance to the area. In the expansive northern regions they may have territories of several square kilometers. This differs dramatically from large cat species that live in the same regions, such as the Tiger who has a territory of 20-100 km2 and the Leopard with a 15-80 km2 territory.
On average Asian Black Bears can live to be 35 years old in the wild, but their lifespan may more typically range between 25-45 years.
Due to the large historic range of Asian Black Bears, and the subsequent isolation of some of their populations on islands of Japan as well as isolated areas of China and Russia, a total of nine subspecies of Asian Black Bear emerged. Two species native to Western Europe and the Eastern Europe/Central Asia area are extinct, leaving seven subspecies today all located in Asia.
The American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) is a separate species that descended from the Asian Black Bear more than 4 million years ago and has historically lived throughout Canada, the United States, and parts of Central America. American Black Bears can be a similar size or much larger on average than their Asian counterparts and adult males can weigh 115-270 kilograms (253-594 pounds).
The Sun Bear, while inhabiting some of the same regions as the Asian Black Bear, is classified as being in a different genus than its relatives and is exclusively found in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia.
Male and female Asian Black Bears are significantly different in size, demonstrating sexual dimorphism. Males typically weigh between 110-150 kg (242-330 lb) while females weigh 65-90 kg (143-198 lb), with as much as an 85 kg (187 lb) difference between the smallest female and largest male.
The Asian Black Bear is also called the Moon Bear because of the white, V-shaped marking on its chest. The Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus) has a similar U-shaped or V-shaped, typically reddish marking on its chest and occupies similar regions in Southeast Asia. However these two species are very easy to tell apart due to their size, with the Sun Bear weighing less than half of the Asian Black Bear’s 135 kg (297 lb).
Comparison (Figures are approx.)
Asian Black Bear
Head and body length
1.2-1.8 meters (3.9-5.9 feet)
1.0-1.4 meters (3.2-4.6 feet)
6.5-10.0 cm (2.5-4.0 inches)
3.0-7.0 cm (1.2–2.8 inches)
110-150 kg (242-330 lb)
less than 65 kg (143 lb)
65-90 kg (143-198 lb)
more than 27 kg (60 lb)
Conservation Status & Threats: Bear Farming
Warning: This continuation of Conservation Status & Threats may contain disturbing or graphic descriptions.
In China, Korea, Laos, and Vietnam the Asian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos), Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus), and Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus) are captured or killed for their parts for use in traditional medicines or are served as delicacies. Some of these countries have alleged efforts to curb illegal hunting and the decimation of the species through the use of farming. However there is little interest in creation of captive breeding programs so that Bears are being bred on the farms. Instead most Bears seem to be coming from the wild and thus these farms contribute to depleting the wild population, not protecting it.
In China Bear ranching has been legalized so that Bears can continue to be actively farmed for their parts. South Korea also has laws protecting the farming of the Asian Black Bear for both bile and paws. According to the Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan 2,700 kilograms (5,940 pounds) of Bear paws, a modern delicacy, were exported from just one Chinese province in 1990.
In folk medicine Bear bile has been used to treat a variety of illnesses, including muscle ailments, hemorrhoids, sore throats, and even epilepsy. While Bear bile has been shown (warning: graphic images) to possibly have medicinal value there are synthetic and herbal medicines available to treat virtually every ailment that Bear bile allegedly cures.
To farm bile Bears are stored in small cages, some so small that they are forced into a permanent prone position. A catheter is used, or a hole created, to drain bile from the gallbladder. This extraction of bile is thought to occur once or twice a day, but only provides a small amount of fluid. Due to the generally poor conditions that the Bears are subjected to their health, and overall life expectancy, is considerably reduced. However some Bears are fitted with vests to prevent them from killing themselves because of the pain. Malnourished and without adequate living conditions to prevent severe illness these Bears have been recorded showing severe psychological stress and physical problems. In one instance a mother Bear escaped its cage and killed its cub before killing herself. After several years of living in these conditions Bears may not be able to produce adequate supplies of bile and are then killed. Their paws and meat are then sold as delicacies.
The American Black Bear is also targeted by poachers who sell the gallbladder and other parts to practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine living in the West or is shipped to Asia.