Bears are iconic and have been throughout history, playing a major role in art and mythology. They were traditionally been hunted by humans, often as a challenge to dominate a large, fierce species, or for their rich reserves of meat and fur.
Bears are beloved in book and on screen, but the reality is a different story. In modern times, bears are threatened by encroachment on their habitats, and illegal trade in bear parts, including the Asian bile bear market. Of the eight species that remain, six are vulnerable. Even the two that aren’t threatened – the brown bear and the American Black Bear – are still at risk. Laws have been enacted to protect bears, but education and conservation are needed to preserve the remaining populations.
These great, shaggy beasts are found throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia, but of all the bears that once walked the planet, only eight species are left. They are:
- Brown Bear (includes the Grizzly and Kodiak)
- Polar Bear
- Asian Black Bear
- American Black Bear
- Sun Bear
- Sloth Bear
- Spectacled Bear
- Giant Panda Bear
Modern bears share common characteristics: they have large bodies, stocky legs, long snouts, small ears, long fur, short tails, and paws with five non-retractile claws. But those are their common traits – the individual species are quite unique. Take, for example, the Giant Panda Bear, a vegetarian that feeds primarily on bamboo. The Panda, typically a solitary animal, has come to symbolize vulnerable species. Then, there’s the Polar Bear, primarily a marine mammal that spends much of its time on Arctic sea ice. This carnivorous mammal that will eat almost any other animal it crosses in the Arctic Circle, traveling up to 20 miles each day in search of prey. Most bears, however, are omnivores and eat both meat and plants.
Bears may seem clumsy, but they’re great at climbing, running, and even swimming. Many people fear bears because of their size, but research shows that most bears only become aggressive when they are threatened, or their babies are in danger. They’re smart, shy and great a hiding. They need to be elusive to survive. They often live 25 years, which is why wildlife sanctuaries are so important for their long-term care when they’re rescued.
If you’re interested in working with bears, take a look at one of the many volunteer programs listed here. One program brings you to the China Panda Breeding Centre, where you’ll work to increase the Giant Panda population. Another invites you to the Giant Panda Center in China. Or join fellow volunteers to help the smallest bears in the world: the Sun Bears of Malaysia! And if you want to walk on the wild side, check out this program at the Bear, Deer & Wolf Haven in Ontario, Canada.
Read on to learn about the many ways you can work with these amazing animals!