Orphaned "Moon Bear" Cubs "Mothered" by Scientists

A program to rehabilitate orphaned moon bear cubs is giving these threatened mammals a better chance for survival. Video.

After being orphaned, Asiatic black bear, or moon bear, cubs are getting protection  from scientists in Russia. Listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the moon bear is threatened by habitat destruction and by hunters fueling a trade in body parts.

© 2010 National Geographic; Video: Sergey Pizyuk


Unedited Transcript

It’s springtime in the Russian Far East, and two scientists have begun to raise three orphaned Asiatic black bear cubs.

This cub is about 3 months old.

Asiatic black bears, also known as ‘moon bears’ because of the distinctive crescent-shaped stripe across their chests are a vulnerable species…mostly due to habitat loss and hunting for body parts.

Though protected in most parts of its range, hunting is still legal in both Japan and Russia.

During traditional Russian bear hunts, hibernating bears are dragged from their dens and shot. If it’s a mother with cubs, the babies are often left to die.

This experiment, partly funded by the National Geographic Society, is an ongoing project designed to help bolster the falling Asiatic bear population.

By protecting these orphans, the scientists, Sergey Pizyuk and Liya Sagatelova, hope they’ll be able to rejoin life in the wild—helping to ensure another generation survives.

They provide supplemental feeding and protection from predators , just as a mother bear would.

But otherwise, the scientists teach the cubs nothing. Inborn behaviors like foraging, social skills, and defensive behaviors are developed entirely on their own.

The scientists purposely minimize their contact with the cubs—they never play or talk with them. This is done to preserve the bears’ natural wariness of humans.

Ear tags mark these bears as part of the project, reducing the risk they’d be killed by hunters.

By late fall, the cubs are sluggish, fat and ready to hibernate. By the time they awaken in spring, they’ll hopefully be ready to survive on their own.