Despite its vital role in traditional Korean folklore, many people are unclear as to what ‘moonbear’ is. Often thought of as the ‘panda of Korea’, the moonbear is scientifically known as the ‘Asiatic Black Bear’.
Genus and Species: Ursus thibetanus
A mid-sized black bear with an extensive range but troubled future, as a result of urban development, diminishing habitat, poaching and bear farming to meet the demands of traditional Asian medicine.
Physical Description: The Asiatic black bear looks much like the American black bear, but has wider, more pronounced ears and a distinctive white or cream “V” on its chest, hence earning it the nickname ‘moonbear’. Moonbears are strong tree climbers.
Size: Asiatic black bears grow four to six feet long. Males weigh from 220 to 480 pounds, while females range from 110 to 275 pounds.
Geographic Distribution: Fossil remains of the Asiatic black bear have been found as far west as Germany and France, but in historic times the species has been limited to Asia. This species occupies a narrow band from southeastern Iran (Gutleb and Ziaie 1999) eastward through Afghanistan and Pakistan, across the foothills of the Himalayas, to Myanmar. It occupies all countries in mainland Southeast Asia except Malaysia. It has a patchy distribution in southern China, and is absent in much of east-central China. Another population cluster exists in northeastern China, the southern Russian Far East, and into North Korea. A small remnant population exists in South Korea. They also live on the southern islands of Japan (Honshu and Shikoku) and on Taiwan and Hainan. The species now occurs very patchily through much of its former range, especially in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, mainland southeast Asia and China. Its distribution in parts of China and Myanmar remains very poorly known.
Afghanistan; Bangladesh; Bhutan; Cambodia; China; India; Iran, Islamic Republic of; Japan; Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of; Korea, Republic of; Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Myanmar; Nepal; Pakistan; Russian Federation; Taiwan, Province of China; Thailand; Vietnam
The distribution of the Asiatic black bear roughly coincides with forest distribution in southern and eastern Asia (FAO 2006), except that in central and southern India this species is replaced by the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), in southern Thailand and into Malaysia it is replaced by the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) and north and west of the Russian Far East it is replaced by the brown bear (Ursus arctos). However, the Asiatic black bear overlaps the ranges of each of these species, especially the sun bear in a large portion of Southeast Asia.
Status: The Asiatic black bear is listed as vulnerable on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Animals.
Habitat: Asiatic black bears generally live in temperate mountain forests, and also frequent brushy areas. They occur as high as 9,900 feet, but are also found in lowlands. Presently in Korea, there are between 11 and 18 bears residing in Jirisan National Park as part of the preservation efforts initated by the Korean government. There are an estimated 1600 bears living on over 100 bear bile farms in South Korea.
Natural Diet: Depending upon the season and availability, Asiatic black bears take advantage of a variety of foods, primarily from plants. In fall, they fatten themselves on acorns, chestnuts, walnuts, and other fat-rich resources. They climb trees to get these foods, as well as picking them from the forest floor. In spring, new plant growth provides a bounty for the bears, which seek out bamboo, raspberry, hydrangea, and other plants. They also raid rodents’ caches of acorns or collect those left on the forest floor from the previous fall. Other plants offer food in summer, including raspberries, cherries, and grasses. Insect food, especially ants, augments the summer diet. Asiatic black bears will eat carrion, and sometimes attack livestock. When residing on bear farms, the commonplace diet is unregulated and may consist of chicken or pig’s feed. It is noteworthy that true to the steretype, bears truly do love honey as a unique treat!
Reproduction: Asiatic black bears do not usually breed until three or four years old. In the north, breeding season begins in early summer; young are usually born in the mothers’ winter dens. However, this schedule varies. In Pakistan, for instance, mating may take place in fall. Young stay with their mothers for two to three years, and females with first-year young do not usually breed the next season.
Life Span: Asiatic black bears have lived more than 30 years in zoos. However, their longevity in the wild is unknown. The average life expectancy is 25 years.
Behavior: Many Asiatic black bears migrate seasonally, spending warmer months at higher elevations, then descending during colder months. During the fall, bears living in disturbed areas that lack sufficient acorns and other foods may raid nearby farms, killing trees and eating corn. During the coldest months, they usually retreat to a den in a hollow tree or cave. Depending upon elevation and latitude, bears may sleep up to five months (in Japan). In the southern parts of their range, Asiatic black bears may not den during the winter.
Temperment: Highly intelligent and expressive, moonbears are 5 times more aggressive than their North American cousins, thus provoking authorities to view them as potential threats to local tourism in developed regions.
A Few Asiatic Black Bear Neighbors:
Brown bear (Ursus arctos): Asiatic black bears and brown bears share habitat in many areas. The smaller black bear has an advantage over its larger competitor thanks to its climbing skills, which help it reach nuts and fruit high in the trees.
Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes): A jay-sized crow relative that lives in Eurasian coniferous forests, feeding on pine seeds, hazel nuts, insects, worms, and on occasion the eggs and young of other birds.
Yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula): This squirrel-sized weasel relative climbs trees and feasts on young birds, eggs, rodents, frogs, and also honey and fruit.
The Asiatic black bear is the American black bear’s closest cousin. Both are thought to have evolved from a common European ancestor.
Asiatic black bears share giant panda habitat in China’s Wolong Reserve, where they feed, among other things, on bamboo—their more specialized relatives’ favorite food.
During their fall feeding frenzy, Asiatic black bears snap tree branches as they climb trees looking for food. The popping sounds can be heard across the valleys where bears occur. The bent-back branches provide crude platforms for the tree-feeding bears.
References: ZooGoer 28(2) 1999. National Zoo.org Fact Sheets; IUCN