Home > Brown bear

Criminals use the Netherlands to operate a network of illegal trade in traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) that contain endangered animals and plants. This is shown in a joint project and investigation by Dutch foundations SPOTS, IUCN NL, Bears in Mind and internationally-known Earth League International (an authority on criminal networks behind illegal wildlife trade). The findings of their investigation is shocking.

IUCN NL, stichting SPOTS, Bears in Mind and Earth League International (ELI) initiated a project to establish whether there is a market in the Netherlands for TCM containing illegally used and traded (wild)
animal parts and, if so, how these (wild) animal parts are smuggled into the Netherlands. On behalf of these organizations ELI was commissioned to investigate this trade. The intelligence-led operations started in September 2021 and ended in December 2022 and aimed to compile and analyze information on the trafficking routes, the main destinations, modus operandi and the key drivers. These findings were shared with the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) in 2023. They started a follow-up investigation, several warehouse searches were done, seizures made and an arrest took place. The investigation is still ongoing.

Inspectors from the NVWA search through a substantial quantity of TCM produce (c) NVWA

According to the latest TRAFFIC report on seizures of CITES-listed wildlife in the EU in 2021, the most
frequently seized commodity type was medicinals (plant-and animal-derived medicinals which
comprises medicines, extracts and cosmetics); accounting for 1,117 seizure records (27% of the total
2021 seizures). Animal-derived medicinals in 2021 accounted for 17% of the medicinals trade. Trade
continued in medicinal products containing i.e. seahorse and sturgeon, with an increase in seizures
of medicinal products involving rhino horn from < 1% in 2020 to 5% in 2021 (84 specimens). With 11% of
the total seizures in CITES-listed wildlife in the EU, the Netherlands takes the third position after Germany
(25%) and France (22%).

IUCN NL, stichting SPOTS, Bears in Mind and ELI also wish to raise awareness among politicians and the
wider public in the Netherlands about the issues and impact this trade of illegal TCM has on specific
species.

More details can be found in the full report here.

Tasked with the huge challenge of conserving nature in a changing world, biologists are turning to new technologies to better understand wildlife and monitor trends. Simultaneously, it is now understood that monitoring programs combining multiple knowledge-based systems improves the management and conservation of wild species and places.

Bear face detection software developed by researcher Melanie Clapham

This new project, funded by Bears in Mind and led by an Indigenous non-profit society called Nanwakolas Council Society (NCS), works within this capacity, advancing bear conservation through automated visual identification, coupled with brown bear research and monitoring using Indigenous Knowledge. The team previously used machine learning to develop software that identifies individual brown bears in images using facial recognition. The team now plans to apply this software to generate vital knowledge for landscape and bear conservation. The team has partnered with Indigenous Guardian programs from six First Nations, combining local knowledge with scientific data on individual bear movements to generate new ecological knowledge and a novel method of wildlife monitoring. The teams approach and open-sourced software will provide a replicable technique that can be applied to other bear species worldwide. Results will directly inform brown bear conservation planning in the Southern Great Bear Rainforest – the largest tract of connected coastal temperate rainforest left on the planet, and therefore of international significance.

All images used here are (c) BearID Project

Individual bears recognized by AI (c) BearID Project

The brown bear (Ursus arctos) population in the Middle East is one of the rarest, most threatened, and least-known large carnivore species. Regarded as a unique subspecies by some researchers (U. a. syriacus or Syrian brown bear), this population is classified as Endangered by the IUCN. In Iraq, the brown bear has been overlooked in terms of research and conservation efforts, despite facing significant threats from illegal hunting, habitat destruction and fragmentation, human-wildlife conflict, and many years of military activities within its last remaining habitats along the border with Turkey, Syria, and Iran.

This project by Leopards Beyond Borders, financially supported by Bears in Mind since 2024, aims to address the conservation needs of the brown bear population in Iraqi Kurdistan through two main components. Firstly, it aims to gather citizen-science data for a robust analysis of the brown bear distribution and population status in a priority area to: a) recommend suitable habitat for the bear in the study area, and b) identify key areas for bear-related conflict mitigation measures. Secondly, it aims to implement a comprehensive awareness campaign targeted at the importance of the brown bear as a keystone species and mobilising public support for their conservation.

Qara-Dagh (c) Hana Raza

The famous Český Krumlov castle in the Czech Republic is a well-known UNESCO World Heritage site. One of its characterizing features can be noticed from the outside, as it is decorated with ostentatious coats of arms of the lords of the Rosenberg family, with the sign of the five-petalled rose against a silver background and bears as shield bearers. According to Rosenberg family legend, the Rosenbergs were related to the noble Italian family of Orsini. “Orsa” means bear in Italian, and it is this animal motif that the last rulers of Rosenberg in particular used to demonstrate their relationship with the house of Orsini. They used the motif in their coat of arms, which depicts two bears as shield bearers. This alleged relationship would endorse the antiquity of the House of Rosenberg and lead it to its roots in ancient Rome. The depiction of these bears gave birth to an ancient-old tradition of keeping bears at the castle.

An older female called Marie-Terezie is kept in one part of the castle moat, the younger couple in another.

Bears from Český Krumlov
It is not known when the first bears were kept as so-called castle bears in former Bohemia (a former part of the Czech Republic). But it is known that the first bears were kept at Český Krumlov castle from the second half of the 16th century, dating back to the time of Wilhelm von Rosenberg. It is not known where the bears were housed in or near the castle at the time. It could not have been in the current moat, as it was not built until the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, around 1620. The first records of keeping bears in the moat date from 1707, there were four of them. Bears were kept in the moat continuously from the 1730s to the 1790s, although no animal could be found in the first half of the 19th century. It was not until 1857 that Karl zu Schwarzenberg of the Orlík family obtained some bears from Transylvania (Romania) for Johann Adolf II zu Schwarzenberg. Besides the fact that bears were born in Český Krumlov castle, the number of animals was maintained by purchasing them from zoos, as well as by donations from famous aristocrats. From 1887 the moat remained uninhabited for 20 years. In 1907, Prince Sigmund Schonburg-Waldenburg zu Schwarzenberg presented two bears named Ruschi and Ajax to Český Krumlov, brought from the grounds of Kynžvart castle. The first bear lived until 1930, the other until 1935. After that, the moat has always been inhabited by bears, until present times.

Bear Alert notifications
In addition to bears in the moat of Český Krumlov, bears were and are also locked in moats at other castles. Over the years, Bears in Mind has received many reports via Bear Alert, usually by tourists visiting the castles. Around 2010, an attempt was made to draw attention to this phenomenon in the Czech Republic, but no solution was found. At present (2024) there are three brown bears in Český Krumlov, an Asiatic black bear at Konopiště castle, a brown bear at Náchod castle and one brown bear at Točník castle. The so-called medvědárium in Zámecký park in Kladno has two brown bears. In addition, there is a brown bear in the medvědárium in the city park of Beroun.

Asiatic black bear male called Jiri, kept in the moat of Konopiště castle.

Visit and working towards a solution
Since 2021, we have actively picked up again and started investigating the situation with the local Czech partner and our German colleagues from Foundation for Bears (Stiftung für Bären), how to end this phenomenon once and for all. Foundation for Bears started a petition early 2023 that was signed almost 150,000 times (end of 2023). In mid-June of 2023, the coalition traveled to the Czech Republic to view the situation at the various castles.

Team work, works!

We have had conversations with the local partner, with the castle managers, the local NGO called ‘OBRAZ – Animal Defenders’ and most importantly: with the responsible person within the National Heritage Institute (NPU). This institute falls directly under the Ministry of Culture and is responsible for the management of Czech monuments and castles (and therefore also the bears!). We had a successful first meeting with Mr. Pešek, where we presented our organizations, presented and handed-over the petition, shared our views and proposed solutions (e.g. relocation of all bears to proper sanctuaries in Germany and The Netherlands). Local tradition is an important motivation in this, why there are still bears kept (legally) in this way, unlike the rest of Europe.

FLTR: Rüdiger Schmiedel (St.f.B.), Eva Filipczyková (CZ project leader), Oldřich Pešek (Deputy Director General – NPU), Bernd Nonnenmacher (St.f.B.) and Koen Cuyten (Bears in Mind)

There will be no quick solution, but we will work in phases to end this tradition, in collaboration with the responsible institutions and authorities. Important in this regard is, among other things, conducting sound research such as visitor interviews at the various castles, to gain insight into the opinion and motivation of visitors regarding the captive bears. Both local Czech visitors and international tourists. A thorough reseach project by a MSc student from the Czech University of Life Sciences (CZU) will start in the summer of 2024, funded by Bears in Mind.

In addition, alternative educational options are developed in the castles at the places where the bears are now kept, in combination with a special website and FB page for visitors to the castle bears. This will be easily accessible via a QR code. We want to show the public what bears in captivity really need and what the future of these ‘castle bears’ could look like, with examples from the sanctuaries in Germany and of course our own Bear Forest.

But firstly, there will be a meeting between the coalition including Yorkshire Wildlife Park from the UK and the heads of the NPU at Konopiště castle on May the 14th. The goal is to get consensus on the plans above, officially sign a Memorandum of Understanding and make plans for the relocation of bear Jiri at Konopiště castle to the UK.

To be continued!

The aim of this project was to confiscate several captive bears from poor private keeping in the Yerevan area and give them a new home in the large bear enclosure of Yerevan Zoo, which was completed at the end of 2017 with financial help from Bears in Mind.

Just before Christmas 2017, with funding from Bears in Mind, a bear was freed from its cage at Shant restaurant and transferred to the quarantine enclosure at Yerevan Zoo. She had to stay in quarantine for a few weeks to recover and her very bad teeth were taken care of. She now walks among the other bears in the large bear enclosure in the zoo and is doing well!

The second bear that was rescued in spring of 2018 was a 2-3 year old female (see photo below). Nothing is known about her origin, whether wild or born in captivity, but until rescued by FPWC she was kept in a small concrete cage next to the Golden Hill hotel in the northern Armenian city of Gyumri. She has also been transferred to the quarantine enclosure in Yerevan Zoo and fortunately she is doing well and in excellent health!

Bears are sought after for use in traditional medicines, for consumption and live as pets. Indonesia, a well-known hub of illegal wildlife trade (IWT), has a thriving trade in bears yet very little is known of the current status of this trade. This lack of information is an obstacle to conservation actions and hinders efforts to end this illegal trade and ultimately protect bears in the wild.

Understanding the drivers behind the trade, the sources of the bears and other relevant dynamics is key to developing a strategy to counter this crime. Investigating legal deterrents, such as seizures and penalties is also essential in order to better support enforcement efforts and to inform policy decisions. While some work has been done to collect and compile this information, major components of data are missing or outdated, hampering conservation efforts.

With financial support from Bears in Mind, the team from Monitor Conservation Research Society (Monitor) intends to fill these knowledge gaps and use the resulting information to support effective enforcement efforts, strengthen national policies and to catalyse conservation efforts in Indonesia to better protect bears from the illegal wildlife trade.

Illegal wildlife trade is an emerging conservation threat to biodiversity. It is most prominent in developing countries with limited capacity to address illegal trade and regulate legal sustainable trade regulation. Bears are mainly traded for their gall bladder, which is used to treat different medical ailments linked to medicinal traditions. For example, to treat several diseases by the Shoka tribe in India. Or in Traditional Chinese Medicines where an extensive illegal trade into China fuels the use to treat gallstones, liver problems, fever, heart diseases, and eye irritation. But also in traditional Ayurveda and Tibetan medicinal traditions for instance. Following the rampant use of bear bile, and its clinically proven treatment of liver diseases due to the presence of ursodeoxycholic acid (ursodiol), commercial bear bile farming started in the 1980s. The vulnerable Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), known as Moon bears, Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), and Brown bears are preferably farmed for bile. This is more prevalent in China where the use of bear bile from captive bears is legal (although, illegal to extract bear bile from wild bears).

Nepal falls between India and China, the two big consumers of traditional medicinals (e.g., Traditional Chinese Medicines in China; Ayurveda in India). Nepal also has consumers of traditional medicines including Amchi also called Tibetan medicinal practitioners, Nepali folk medicines, and Ayurveda; and have documented the historical use of bear parts as a cure for different ailments. There are reports that Nepal acts as a transit, sometimes a source, for bear trade. A recent study indicated Nepal as a transit for bear bile trade from India to China, while there is evidence of Nepal being both a transit and source country.

In this light, Bears in Mind supports this project bij Greenhood Nepal since 2023 to investigate the extent of the trade in Nepal and what measures need to be in place to ensure conservation of bears, as well as expose potential gaps.

Photos (c) Greenhood Nepal

Gobi bears (Ursus arctos gobiensis) are endemic to southwestern Mongolia, where only 31 individuals remain. They have a highly male-biased sex ratio and are restricted to a ~23,600 km2 area in proximity to water resources. They have extremely low genetic diversity.

To conserve this extremely fragile population, further ecological studies, such as identifying dietary items, temporal shifts in diet, and niche partitioning with other species are needed to understand the limiting factors of the population. In harsh environments with scarce resources, such as the Gobi Desert, the coexistence of carnivores relies on the availability of a limited number of food items.

Researchers from Mongolia and the USA will try to answer important research questions:

  1. Are these species directly competing for food resources, or do they coexist with the help of niche partitioning?
  2. How do diet items change seasonally for Gobi bears and others?
  3. Are there any differences on sexes and individual’s diet for Gobi bears and other carnivore species.

This study, supported by Bears in Mind since 2023, will help answer these questions and will provide important basic ecology data and also be directly relevant to the management and conservation of Gobi bears.

Human-Carnivore Conflict (HCC) is commonplace in Georgia, but it is especially severe in and around protected areas, in which case local people’s negative attitudes towards carnivores spills over into their antagonism to nature conservation per se, undermining the effectiveness of the affected protected area. Livestock farmers often complain about the fact that Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park (BKNP) administration does not allow guns into the park, while they fail to offer alternative ways to protect their livestock from carnivores (bears and wolfs), or to compensate for the losses. According NACRES experience compensation schemes, as well as improved livestock protection/husbandry have the great potential to mitigate HCC and increase PA effectiveness.

Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park highlighted in red.

The goal of this project supported by Bears in Mind is to mitigate human-carnivore conflict in BKNP through active engagement with local players and the introduction of innovative community-based insurance/compensation schemes. This will be reached by:

  • studying the HCC in BKNP to assess losses, underlying reasons etc. Furthermore, select effective livestock protection measures and support their implementation.
  • test a locally adapted insurance/compensation scheme with the support of relevant experts.
  • establishing a livestock loss insurance/compensation, run by or with a strong involvement of local actors/communities.

NACRES team carried out two comprehensive studies to find out more about the HCC scale and root causes in Borjomi-Kharagauli protected areas.

In the first study they found that among the farmers, livestock was the most important and profitable husbandry type of activity and any depredation cause significant financial loss among the locals. 94% of the respondents mentioned that they suffered from wild animals and named wolf as the most problematic animals (95% of interviewee) and named bear as second nuisance animal (66%). The most of the respondents think that wild animal attacks are more acute in alpine pastures (n=43), but substantial numbers said that problem is equal in alpine meadows and village surroundings (n=25). The majority of the local population thinks that carnivore damage increased in recent years. They blame protected areas and protection regime that allows to increase carnivore numbers. 78% of respondents received damage from predators in 2021 and 67% reported the damage as significant. Most of the respondents believe that the existing means of protection are ineffective and they are interested in introducing alternative, effective protection mechanisms.

According to second study they found that the financial loss is not as high as previously mentioned by the residents although it stays significant. On the summer pastures total damage was 25,580 GEL (equivalent of about € 8,960). Livestock protection measures are weak on the summer pastures. Farmers often do not herd cattle, and dogs only protect livestock near summer camps and often use solar powered lights to deter predators.

NACRES installed 4 electric fences around beehives and disseminated 8 Foxlights devices. Due to complicated regulation to clear electronic devices at customs, they experienced huge a delay in receiving the equipment. When the electric fence equipment arrived, all the farmers already moved back to their villages and almost nobody stayed on summer camps. NACRES will further test the equipment in spring 2023.

On this page, the latest rescue mission will be published.

Bear MILA
On October 1st 2022, the Bears in Mind team traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina to rescue 7-year-old bear MILA from her unfortunate predicament. For this rescue mission and professional transport we hired EKIPA, who have already transported bears for us from Ukraine, Bulgaria and Spain.

MILA spent the first 6 years of her life in a small dark cage in someone’s home, hidden from the outside world. We only tracked her down in 2021 and together with the responsible authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we ensured that the bear was eventually transferred to a temporary holding at Sarajevo Zoo. She has been here since March 2022 and during that time we sent extra funds to the zoo, to cover food and medical care and prepare her for the long journey to The Bear Forest in The Netherlands.

On Monday 3rd of October, the Bears in Mind and EKIPA teams started preparations early in the morning. The transport crate was placed and secured in front of the cage MILA was in, after which we tried to lure her into the crate with her favorite treats. But MILA wasn’t easy to catch, it turned out. After an hour of trying, it was decided to sedate her. After all, we had a tight deadline to meet: the vet’s service at the Bosnian border would end at 5:00 PM and we had to obtain signed documents from him before that time in order to cross the border with bear, into the EU. Strict controls were expected at the external border of the EU, so everything had to be 100% okay.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go as planned. After leaving Sarajevo Zoo, the team and bear had to go to the local customs office with the bear to prepare various other papers. This took many hours longer than expected. The subsequent ‘race to the border’ was to no avail, the veterinarian on duty had gone home and no one could help us anymore. Only at 8 AM next morning, on World Animal Day, did the border office open again and after a delay of more than 13 hours we were able to continue our journey again.

On the other side of the border, a major new challenge soon unfolded. Due to an error by Sarajevo Zoo in a document, the Croatian customs agent could not see the papers in the system and the Croatian border inspector / vet could not sign the EU travel documents. It took another 7 hours before we could get back on the road! Fortunately, MILA was calm all this time. The long road ahead of us, through Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany and The Netherlands, continued without any problems. Early in the morning, on Wednesday the 5th of October, we arrived at Ouwehands Zoo and the Bear Forest. MILA was unloaded smoothly by the team of bear keepers and curiously inspected her new (temporary) environment in the quarantine of the Bear Forest. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!! MILA will be examined and quarantined for the next month, before her release into her new forever home.

UPDATE July 2023:
MILA is doing great so far. She is really enjoying the space she gained in the forest, and is very curious about all the other residents living there and the new natural surroundings.