Endangered Formosan black bears caught in Taiwanese ‘snaring crisis’ (commentary)


In 2020 a report titled “Wildlife-snaring crisis in Asian Forests” was published by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), estimating that over 12 million snares engulf Indochinese forests (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) alone, mostly in ‘protected’ areas. By contrast, it is difficult to know how many snares blanket Taiwan’s mountainous forests, but it is safe to assume that based on recent cases involving officially protected Formosan black bears (Ursus thibetanus formosanus), that the number is very high.

According to local media, two young black bears were snared in the past few weeks alone in Hualien County in eastern Taiwan, and other cases were reported in Hualien, including the successful rehabilitation and release of one bear. In Taichung County in central Taiwan, another snaring case occurred in which the bear died. In yet another case earlier this year in Pingtung County at the very south of the island, hunters were filmed driving around on their scooter with a dead bear on the seat, waving its limp paw around as if it was a cute teddy bear.

Nine suspects have been indicted for poaching an additional four black bears over a three year period in Pingtung. Two years ago, a group of timber poachers snared, shot, skinned, and ate a black bear in Guanwu National Forest Recreation Area in Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range and posted their activity on social media; they were later arrested.

Formosan black bear footprint found at low elevation in Taitung, with cigarette lighter for scale. Image courtesy of Gregory McCann.
Formosan black bear footprint found at low elevation in Taitung, with cigarette lighter for scale. Image courtesy of Gregory McCann.

More cases were reported in Pingtung, an area inhabited by many tribal people; it is also the home of National Pingtung University, home to Taiwanese bear expert Professor Hwang Mei-hsiu and leading Taiwan conservationist Kurtis Pei, who works tirelessly to preserve Taiwan’s wildlife.

There can be little doubt that a great many more cases go unreported, that never make the news, and in which dead bears are sold on the black market. Hunters may argue that wild pigs or barking deer were their quarry, but they understand perfectly well that ground snares, which can be made using material as cheap as rope or bicycle brake wire, catch indiscriminately, and that it’s always possible for a black bear—or any other animal, protected or not—to step into it.

The snaring situation in Indochina is extremely dire, as highlighted by the WWF report, but at least there is a clear understanding of what is happening, and what needs to be done. Is this the case in Taiwan? Do national park and forestry officials have a grasp on just how serious the snaring situation is in this country, of how many snares are out there, who is setting them, and how to combat it? I don’t recall ever hearing anything specific about the number and extent of snares in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s remote interior is home to Formosan black bears. Image courtesy of Gregory McCann.
Taiwan’s remote interior is home to Formosan black bears. Image courtesy of Gregory McCann.

A friend of mine stepped into a snare in an unprotected forest area of Ilan County and needed the assistance of his friends to free himself, if that is any indication of how widespread snaring is in Taiwan. I have even heard anecdotal reports of snares being set in popular Yangmingshan National Park in Taipei City, so even small game such as masked palm civets would be apparently be targeted; more worrisome would be if they were poaching officially protected Formosan pangolins (Manis pentadactyla pentadactyla), a species whose numbers have rebounded in recent years. But again, snares don’t discriminate.

Furthermore, so-called ‘hunters’ also go into the forests at night using spotlights, looking for ‘eye shine’ and fire at anything that glows. Sometimes they get a bear. This has been related twice in southeastern Taitung County by sources who wish not to named, and these are only the stories I know of. This type of hunting, if it can be called that, is, like snaring, completely unprincipled and unselective and cannot be allowed to go unpunished, otherwise the black bear will go the way of the Formosan clouded leopard — (likely) extinct — and otters on the Taiwan mainland.

It is possible that as few as 200 black bears roam Taiwan’s mountains. If this is the case, and if unsustainable snaring and spotlight hunting continue unabated, the enigmatic Formosan black bear will soon be nothing but a memory in the wild.

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This article by Gregory McCann was first published by Mongabay.com on 2 October 2023. Lead Image: Formosan black bears. Image courtesy of Yushan National Park.


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