By Lorraine Scotson, Free the Bears Fund Inc.
Free the Bears Fund Inc. (FTB) is expanding in-situ research of bear species in Southeast Asia to aid the successful conservation of wild populations. From January to May 2010 we conducted a baseline bear population survey in Nam Et Phou Louey (NEPL) National Protected Area (NPA). This study marked the first ever formal study of Asiatic black bear Ursus thibetanus and Malayan sun bear Helarctos malayanus (hereafter black bear and sun bear) in this region. Until now, black bear and sun bear were known to persist in NEPL, but density, relative abundance and status were unknown. This study served as the pilot season for a national mapping project in Lao PDR (hereafter Laos). Research was undertaken in collaboration with the Lao Government and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) who assisted with permissions and logistics.
NEPL encompasses an area of 5,959 km2 and is the largest protected area in Lao PDR. Habitat is dominated by mixed-deciduous forest interspersed by stands of dry evergreen and upper montane forest. Steep, mountainous terrain ranges in elevations of 400m to 2,257m. NEPL is globally important due to its wealth of biodiversity; in particular it is one of the last places in Southeast Asia with the potential to support a breeding population of tigers Panthera tigris. The tiger population is currently estimated to be among 9 and 24 individuals. Since 2002 WCS, in collaboration with the Department of Forestry of the Government of Laos, has been working unreservedly to turn NEPL into a model for conservation, sustainable use, ecotourism, culture and scientific research.
We completed 19 straight line transects ranging in length from 100 – 500 meters and 10 meters wide. The total transected area was 9.04 ha dominated by mixed-deciduous forest. A total of 144 bear sign were observed with scratch marks on climbed trees forming 80% of data. Other sign include; tree and ground nests (6.25%), broken bees’ nests (4.9%), digging (4.9%), footprints (2%) scat (1.4%) and trails (0.69%) We calculated a sign index of 22.41 sign per ha in NEPL (mixed-deciduous forest). The ratio of Fresh and Recent sign (within 1 year) to Old and Very old sign (> 1 year) is high compared to other sites in Southeast Asia (Fig. 1). Mean density of sign did not increase with distance from the nearest village although there was a moderate positive correlation with increasing elevation (Fig. 2). Mean sign density in the core zone was slightly higher than in the buffer zone but the difference was not significant (independent 2-tailed t-test, p = 0.890).
Scratch marks were observed on a minimum of 45 different tree species. Climbed trees ranged from 9.5 to 86 cm diameter at breast height (mean = 37cm, SD = 15.9). Scratch mark templates were analysed for species identification from 58 different locations. 42 (72%) of the samples were identified as black bear and 16 (28%) identified as sun bear. Black bear scratch marks were found at a mean elevation of 1178m (min = 506, max = 1663). Sun bear scratch marks were found at a mean elevation of 1434m (min = 935, max = 1717). Evidence of mother and cubs was recorded in 6 different locations (5 of 6 = black bear, 1 of 6 = species unknown).
Fruit tree species, ant and termite nests were counted within transects as a measure of habitat quality. These data have not been analysed but are awaiting sample processing by the Botanic Department of the Lao National University, Vientiane.
We conducted 52 interviews (51 male, 1 female) in 14 villages within the NEPL NPA. Black bear and sun bear were reported as being present in forested areas surrounding all 14 villages. Populations were said to be declining in 7 areas, stable in 1, and increasing in 3.
Hunting of bears for trade was reported by at least one person in 10 out of 14 villages. In the remaining 4 villages the existence of hunting was not confirmed although it is suspected that it does occur. Hunting of bears was most commonly reported to be with guns but also included foot snares, explosive snares, and arrow spring snares. In the past decade international demand has risen and bears and bear derivates are desired by consumers in Vietnam and China. We had several reports of Vietnamese traders crossing the border into Laos and empowering locals to hunt and sell wildlife. Travelling salesmen give snares, guns and ammunition to locals with the incentive that they will purchase any quarry on a subsequent visit. Wildlife is thus caught to order with an emphasis put on particularly valuable species such as pangolin, tiger and bear. Villagers were very reluctant to divulge knowledge regarding trade in bears and bear parts. Table 1 summarises the average or range of prices of bears and bear derivates and provides a comparison with prices in Vietnam.
11 villages (79%) reported annual bear-related crop raiding, sweetcorn being particularly affected. Other commonly raided crops include pumpkin, watermelon, sweet potato and cucumber. Crop raiding peaks during the wet season from August until October when sweetcorn crops are ripening. Methods used to deter bears from crop fields include loud banging, fires, foreign structures, strong smelling soap rubbed on cloth and scarecrows. We heard some reports of setting explosive and arrow spring snares to kill bears upon entering fields, hiding in fields with guns to shoot invading bears or following the tracks from fields to hunt bears with guns.
Black bears were described as being the shyer of the two species, tending to live in remote forested areas far away from villages. Conversely, sun bears were frequently reported as inhabiting secondary forest, close to villages and being more likely to raid crops. Sun bears are also described as being very aggressive, not scared of humans and likely to attack if encountered in the forest or in crop fields, especially in the case of a mother with cubs.
Project costs and funding
Project costs totalled $13,585.62 US. Funding bodies included the International Bear Association ($5,000), Perth Zoo, Australia ($4,500) and Free the Bears Fund Inc. ($2000).
The status of bears in Nam Et Phou Louey
This study marked the first of its kind in this country and provided valuable and encouraging information on the status of bears in Laos. NEPL has a high density of bears relative to other regions in Vietnam and Thailand when using sign index as a measure of abundance. This could be largely attributed to the long term management and conservation initiatives of WCS.
Sun bear and black bear are active in all areas of NEPL with black bears occurring in higher densities. Low numbers of sun bears could be due to a natural population gradient which decreases moving into the northern parts of their range. Sun bears could be more vulnerable to poachers as they venture closer to villages than black bear and exhibit bolder behaviour towards humans. Poachers may also favour sun bears as their bile has a higher market value.
Bear populations in NEPL are threatened by habitat disturbance (shifting cultivation, livestock grazing, logging, collection of NTFP’s and other illegal forest activities). However, hunting for the international wildlife trade poses an even bigger threat. Laos is rich in resources in comparison to neighbouring countries with bears likely to be more abundant. Bears and bear parts are sold at lower prices in Laos than other countries and the proximity to Vietnam makes NEPL an attractive source for Vietnamese traders.
The intensity of human-bear conflict issues in NEPL was a surprising result of this study. Both species are raiding crops on an annual basis, putting both bears and humans in danger. The level of human-caused mortalities is unknown, as is the annual volume of crop damage. A further study into the driving factors of human-bear conflict is necessary to understand this problem and explore methods of mitigation. As part of FTB’s commitment to increasing local capacity, Mr Kongseng Vannachomchan was recently awarded a scholarship to undertake this project as part of his MSc project, to begin in 2011.
The Bear Specialist Group recently proposed the identification of Bear Conservation Units (BCU’s) – important habitat blocks for the long-term survival of bears. The findings from this study suggest the NEPL should be considered as one of these areas. Bear activity in NEPL seems to be relatively high compared to other sites in Southeast Asia and the future looks optimistic. While in comparison other protected areas have a less than certain future, long term management by WCS gives NEPL the capacity to protect and monitor bears populations concurrently with already established wildlife protection projects. The successful conservation of bears represents an opportunity to increase the ecological value of NEPL on a national and global scale. WCS and the Lao Government have made NEPL a model for conservation, sustainable use, ecotourism, culture and scientific research. I propose that NEPL should also become a model for the research and conservation of bears.
Please contact the author for a full report and for any further information. email@example.com