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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

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

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

Evaluation of the Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus) population status has been developed in Colombia by using occupancy and density estimations in highly fragmented and low-quality areas, which makes it necessary to accomplish these studies on the population in high-connectivity areas. Understanding population dynamics is essential for preserving and managing wildlife, because it provides the most direct measures to approach issues, and population trends allow identifying the most important factors for long-term species viability. A Population Viability Analysis (PVA) may help identify the most significant aspects regarding wildlife population growth, and its resulting models may be used for evaluating the effects of management strategies to identify the most effective conservation actions for a certain population or species, as well as further research needs.

This study, supported by Bears in Mind since 2023, aims to determine the Andean bear population viability at the Guacharos-Puracé Biological Conservation Corridor PNR in Southern Huila in Colombia, with the participation of local community monitoring groups.

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.