In the United States, we associate brown bears with the tidal flats of Alaska and the craggy mountainsides of Montana. Some of us might be aware that this beautiful, burly species also inhabits the wilds of Russia, the Himalayas, the northern reaches of Japan, and Nordic countries such as Sweden and Finland.
But did you know that brown bears also lumber across the Middle East? Yeah, me neither.
Apparently, if you could step into a time machine and travel back to the 19th century and beyond, you would find brown bears as far south and west as Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. Unfortunately, the bear’s range has shrunk over time, due to hunting, human-wildlife conflict, and general habitat loss. Today, in places like Iran, the bruins have been pushed back to small pockets of habitat.
Here’s the most interesting part: Despite these animals measuring roughly 9 feet long and weighing upwards of 500 pounds, we don’t really know how many of the behemoths remain across all their varied habitats. In fact, a recent study found that rangers working in Iran’s Arasbaran Biosphere Reserve, or ABR, overestimated the area’s bear abundance by a factor of three to five when compared with more rigorous scientific analysis, such as scat sampling. (The two dozen rangers estimated that bear density was between 122 and 199 animals in the region, while the scientists who analyzed the DNA of the bear poop figure the number is closer to 40.)
This is a problem, says Ehsan Moqanaki, lead author of the paper and an ecologist with the Iranian Cheetah Society, a conservation NGO, because we can’t effectively save an animal population if we don’t know its size. “There is no state-run monitoring of large carnivores, such as brown bears, in the Iranian protected areas,” Moqanaki says. “Thus, the local wildlife authority relies on the experiential knowledge of rangers as the only available source of information in the decision-making process.”
Basically, if Iran thinks it has more bears than it actually does, then the country probably isn’t going to prioritize bear conservation anytime soon. Add to this dilemma the fact that most of the people Moqanaki interviewed during his time in the ABR are fed up with the animals, and the future of those remaining bears looks rather grim.
Even though the ABR covers more than 300 square miles, with several core areas that are off-limits to people, the region is a patchwork of wilderness and rural areas that are heavily populated. Raising sheep, cattle, and goats is a way of life for local residents. During his 10 weeks searching for scat in the ABR, Moqanaki says, he was attacked several times by herding, pet, and feral dogs. (“I prefer bear charges,” he jokes.) But he crossed paths with only a single brown bear.
Still, he knew that they were out there. Locals report occasional attacks on livestock, farm raids, or even aggression toward humans by area bears throughout the year. These are regular occurrences for any region where bears and people share their turf—particularly in farming areas, where orchards, crop fields, and beehives tempt the hungry animals. After all, bears are wont to show up when there are tasty treats afoot.
As a result, the ABR’s bear population is heavily persecuted. “The majority of locals I interrogated supported culling of the local bear population,” Moqanaki says.
The fate of the region’s bears doesn’t rest only with local community members, however. It’s also the responsibility of the Iranian government. And while Moqanaki recommends that the country adopt more scientifically accurate sampling techniques to inform wildlife management decisions, he acknowledges that the government probably doesn’t have the resources to do so.
“Decades of economic sanctions and the political isolation of Iran have minimized international collaboration and foreign investments in biodiversity research and conservation in the country, making it very difficult to conduct such studies even at small scales,” he says.
Bears aren’t the only animals for which number problems hamper conservation efforts, by the way. One study found that traditional methods for tallying birds of prey, which basically boil down to counting them by sight, are vastly underrepresenting the actual population size. Tiger population estimates also fluctuate considerably based on which sampling methods scientists use. And just last month it was revealed that the Bornean orangutan is even more endangered than scientists had thought.
Another study concluded that lack of good population data contributed to the total extirpation of the Javan rhino in Vietnam. In this case, it was fatefully assumed that there were too few rhinos left to justify spending vast sums of money on relocation efforts or anti-poaching enforcement—both of which might have fostered their recovery. The underestimates also made it difficult to raise more funds to fuel the conservation programs that had already been agreed upon.
As for the brown bears of Iran, arriving at a reliable population estimate will be crucial for prioritizing conservation going forward. For instance, Moqanaki notes that shortly after his study period ended in 2012, the nation’s wildlife authority reported that people living within the ABR had killed 10 bears within a single calendar year. Before the latest regional study downgraded their numbers from 200 to 40, this would have been considered a hit of around 5 percent of the overall population. But Moqanaki’s new numbers paint a different picture entirely. By his reckoning, 10 bears represent a loss of 25 percent of all the bears in the reserve. Unfortunately, without a better idea of how many bears are truly in this area, or the way the animals move in and out of protected regions, Moqanaki says there's no way to know how devastating (or inconsequential) a loss of 10 bears might be to the regional population.
What we do know though, is that when animals continue to be persecuted without reliable population statistics, they can eventually go the way of the Javan rhino. Or the Northern white rhino—of course everybody knows their story. There are as many of them left as there are living Beatles.
Numbers matter. And the clock is ticking.
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