Eight Bears by Gloria Dickie

Eight Bears by Gloria Dickie

Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future by Gloria Dickie is a compelling exploration into the lives of the eight remaining bear species on Earth. It was the best book I read in 2023. The book is a testament to Dickie’s decade-long research and her extensive travels across the globe, from the Andes’ cloud forests to the Arctic ice floes, and from the jungles of India to the Rocky Mountains. As an environmental journalist and wildlife correspondent, Dickie provides a rich tapestry of bear ecology, history, mythology, and conservation.

The books gets into the unique stories of each bear species, highlighting their cultural significance and the diverse challenges they face in a world grappling with climate change and human encroachment. Dickie’s writing is not only informative but also engaging, offering readers a blend of scientific insight and personal anecdotes that bring the plight of these majestic creatures closer to home.

One of the main themes of “Eight Bears” is the shrinking natural habitats that many bear species inhabit, particularly the spectacled bears of the Andes, whose existence is threatened by a warming climate. The book also addresses the complex relationship between humans and bears, showcasing how our actions have both revered and exploited these animals throughout history.

Takeaways

This book contained so many little bits of nuggets and trivia that I’m pretty sure I drove my family nuts with it all.

Bears In General

I had no idea that the family Ursidae has few species in it than any other family of mammals. There used to be hundreds…but we’re left with shockingly few species.

Bears are also this amazing combination of attributes that has made them deeply connected to humans. They have the intelligence of primates, but are often the apex predator in their ecosystem. The usually live solo lives, but have this intimate immediate family bond with cubs needing years of care and instruction.

They are really an amazing family. We have lived with them and they have lived with us for thousands of years. The book was mainly about how that can continue to happen in the future.

Spectacled Bear

Spectacled Bears just need more habitat. Peru in particular needs to industrialize so more people live in cities rather than pushing further into marginal forest land. Although climate change is reducing the spectacled bear’s habitat, they might be adaptable enough to survive if given enough space.

Sloth Bear

Holy wow, I did not realize that sloth bears were so intense. Sloth bears can absolutely make it if India industrializes, gets rich, and continues their investments in conservation. The challenge is that India just has so much megafauna that needs so much space…that India does not have with 1.4 billion humans. And all too many of those humans are still gathering firewood in the jungle…and running into sloth bears…who then get killed due to their aggressiveness.

Panda Bears

Pandas are one of the success stories of what happens when humans truly decide to save a species. Pandas are back. And like Bald Eagles in America, they have challenges but now that they are a national icon, I don’t see China letting pandas just die out. Also, I didn’t realize just how well pandas are doing. As much as I’ll miss having pandas at Zoo Atlanta, it is time for them to start re-wilding. China is rich enough to start dedicating massive tracts of forests to panda habitat. And there’s really no reason for pandas to live & breed in captivity any more (other than the usual Zoo reasons such as injury, orphan, trauma, etc). As an American, I find China perplexing sometimes at how they handle wildlife, but they’ve succeeded with the panda. Hoorah!

Moon Bear & Sun Bear

The Moon Bear & Sun Bead was one of the most depressing chapters in the book. They are very different species…affected by the same root cause. It was also one of the most complex chapters. Here’s the thing, moon bears are poached & trafficked for their bile & body parts. But it’s not a cut & dry, black and white issue either. The book is worth reading for all the nuance. But my main takeaways were that –

  • wildlife laws & law enforcement works
  • human traditions can change – even within an generation
  • economic incentives in conservation can work…but only as part of a toolset

American Black Bears

This chapter was the most lively and happy. Black bears are doing fine…maybe too fine. Even though they still aren’t at their full historic range, they are really doing fine thanks to a century of active conservation in all of its forms. Now, the challenge is “how do we live with these guys?”

The short answer is that if we could stop being slobs, we would all be fine. Seriously. The chapter reminded me of a doctor answering a patient who is earnestly asking how to be healthy. The doctor keeps responding “eat less processed foods, move during the day, don’t smoke, smile more.” It’s that simple for living with Black bears.

With Black bears, it is seriously as simple as putting away your trash. And stop bringing more trash closer to bears (i.e., building mountain cabins).

Brown Bears

Brown bears (especially the subspecies Grizzly) are, like the panda, one of conservation’s biggest successes. They face the same challenges as Black bears…but bigger, since they are literally bigger.

The challenges with Grizzlies is less about Grizzlies and more about the number of people who want to live & work in Grizzly country. The Mountain West is booming…and really shouldn’t, not when there is so much of America that is already developed. There are real Grizzly conflicts with ranchers, but those are sort of a solvable side case. Grizzlies just need more land and space.

Polar Bears

This chapter was the strangest. In some ways, Polar bears are in the best shape of any bear species. They have healthy populations in every place where they live. And they generally have few human conflicts. And yet…they are the one bear species that will certainly be gone from the wild by the end of the century.

It was weird reading fatalistic quotes from a wildlife biologist who studies them. Because even if we hit all our emissions goals by 2050…the ice will already be gone from the Arctic. It’s like the ultimate human / bear conflict…that’s in slow motion and already decided. The only remaining challenge will be how / if we can sort of maintain one or two little wild populations while keeping the rest in zoos…and then deciding how / if we keep a species alive that will not survive.

What I Liked

The book is fast-paced, well-edited, and fascinating. It’s everything that a popular science book should be.

What I Did Not Like

Nothing – A++ read.

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