IUCN Bear Specialist Group & Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Grand Rapids, MN USA
Lack of knowledge on the four tropical bears is killing them
Conservation often entails a trade-off between conducting more research and implementing actions. For the four tropical bears (Andean, Asiatic black, sun, and sloth), we already know (or think we know) the main general threats (which vary by species and region): (a) habitat loss and degradation; (b) poaching; (c) human–bear conflicts; and (d) small isolated populations.
Is it time to start emphasizing action over research? It is tempting to argue that these bears are disappearing as we continue to squander valuable time, effort, and expense researching them. Here I argue the converse. Understanding threats (limiting factors) is often mainly a matter of supposition, based on circumstantial evidence and assumptions. Moreover, even if the threats are known, we rarely understand the driving forces behind those threats (e.g., motives and circumstances); solutions rely on a full understanding of the nature of the problem. Equally important, effective solutions often require adaptive management — an iterative stepwise learning process where actions are modified after evaluating outcomes.
Evaluating outcomes means ascertaining whether the threat has been alleviated and the population has responded appropriately (increased, or the decline subsided). Since we have almost no quantified measures of threats for the tropical bears, very few reliable baseline measures of population size and trend, incomplete knowledge of isolation or even existence of some populations, and inadequate monitoring tools, it seems unfeasible to implement meaningful adaptive species conservation. We still need more research to foster evidence-based decision-making, as well as more researchers to be knowledgeable advocates for the conservation of these species. Just a few key people can catalyze the “critical transition” to effective conservation.