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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

Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) are distributed across the lowlands of Nepal. Despite being categorized as
vulnerable, this species still does not receive sufficient attention for its conservation. Furthermore, sloth
bears can play a significant role in balancing ecosystems by consuming harmful insects.

The aim of this study by the Environment Protection and Study Center (ENPROSC) is to address the lack of information about Sloth bears, focusing on areas with high bear populations but inadequate research. To collect field data, a grid of 2×2 square kilometres will be established within the forest. 30 camera trapping grids will be chosen using an alternate grid layout for 15 days. This technique will be set up for three times more in different grids, resulting in a total coverage of 120 grids for camera trapping in the study area. Additionally, a questionnaire survey will be conducted in Lamahi, Rapti, Rajpur and Gadhawa. Further analysis will be conducted using appropriate model and techniques.

The project’s expected outputs include baseline study report, a human-bear conflict status and a management plan to the conservation of sloth bear. This project endeavours to bridge knowledge gaps, provides new insights besides the protected areas, and contribute to the overall ecological well-being of the study area. Bears in Mind has financially contributed in the 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 (2023) there are three brown bears in Český Krumlov, an Asiatic black bear at Konopiště castle, a brown bear at Náchod castle and two brown bears 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. In addition, developing alternative educational options in the castles at the places where the bears are now kept, in combination with a special website 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.

In recent years, western Nepal has faced an increasing excessive human-wildlife conflict which resulted into retaliatory killing of bears. Baseline information of conflict, status and distribution of bears in general is lacking, for designing bear conservation and conflict mitigation measures.

This study, supported by Bears in Mind since 2023, will assess the extent and magnitude of Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus laniger) – Human Conflict and importantly Habitat Occupancy in Rara National Park, Nepal. The study will be conducted following an Occupancy Survey and Questionnaire Survey to assess the occupancy and habitat influencing variables as well as people’s perception and conflict zone.

The study will equally emphasize the conservation outreach program in coordination with local communities and schools, situated in close proximity to bear habitat, with the aim of reducing Human – Bear Conflict, raising community awareness regarding the importance of bear safety measures, and awareness of the legal status regarding poaching and hunting of bears.

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.

The status of Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) outside of protected areas in Nepal is unclear. This new project supported by Bears in Mind aims to investigate Sloth bear distribution, habitat use and conservation threats for the first time in a critical corridor of Lumbini Province.

Anecdotal records of bear signs, seizure of bear skin and bile, and very recent capturing of a bear cub in retaliation to a conflict event suggest a threatened Sloth bear population. Therefore, this project seeks to break barriers to Sloth bear conservation by initiating bear-specific research and conservation activities using camera traps, sign surveys, and evaluation of habitat and conservation threats.

The project also seeks to bring awareness and ignite bear monitoring and conservation through community outreach activities. Outputs from the project will be valuable for local-level conservation and development planning and for formulating a national bear conservation strategy and action plan for Nepal.

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

Andean Bear, the conflict over territory” is a film documentary about the Andean bear, an endangered and endemic species from tropical Andes. The Andean bear is one of Ecuador’s emblematic species. Its presence has been more notorious in the last decades due to the reduction of its habitat and the consequent approach to the communities. Agriculture and cattle ranching threaten their territory and we want to tell their story to contribute to the conservation of this endangered species.

In this sense, the team wants to show the reality of the Andean bear in the Metropolitan District of Quito and in the province of Pichincha, the ecology and biology, the conflict with the communities, the commitment of public and private institutions for its conservation and show the research work of Santiago Molina of this emblematic species of Ecuador which little is known, with a strong citizen science focus.

The team has five objectives with this film documentary:

– Reveal the reality of the Andean bear in the Province of Pichincha and the DMQ. The team has the need to make the consequences visible of human behavior on the environment, through all the actors and parties involved in the Metropolitan District of Quito and the different nearby ecosystems where the Andean bear lives.
– To show that the conflict over the territory of the Andean bear is not only between humans and bears, but also between humans and natural resources.
– To make a documentary from a scientific approach and not merely contemplative and idealized.
– To propose ways of coexistence between bears and humans, through environmental education. The team believes that sensitizing the population that coexists with the bear would allow the acceptance and coexistence in the same territory.
– Lastly, the team wants to encourage the protection of this emblematic species of Ecuador, through environmental education, scientific dissemination and support for the development of public policies that protect this species and favor conservation.