Press release | 11 Nov, 2007

Seventy-five percent of bear species threatened with extinction

Six out of the world’s eight species of bears are threatened with extinction, according to recent assessments by the IUCN Bear and Polar Bear Specialist Groups. Asia and South America are revealed as the areas most in need of urgent conservation action

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Photo: David Garshelis

The world’s smallest species of bear, the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), has been classed as Vulnerable, while the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) remains in the Endangered category on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The sun bear’s new status has been accepted for inclusion in the 2007 IUCN Red List. The sun bear lives in mainland Southeast Asia, Sumatra and Borneo and was previously listed as Data Deficient, meaning that not enough was known about the species to give it a status on the IUCN Red List.

Rob Steinmetz, co-chair of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group’s sun bear expert team, said: “Although we still have lot to learn about the biology and ecology of this species, we are quite certain that it is in trouble. We estimate that sun bears have declined by at least 30% over the past 30 years (three bear generations), and continue to decline at this rate. 

“Deforestation has reduced both the area and quality of their habitat. Where habitat is now protected, commercial poaching remains a significant threat. We are working with governments, protected area managers, conservation groups and local people to prevent extinctions of the many small, isolated sun bear populations that remain in many parts of Southeast Asia.”

The only bear presently considered Endangered is the giant panda. That status remains unchanged despite enormous efforts in China directed towards its conservation, including the establishment of nearly 60 panda reserves, a ban on logging, and widespread reforestation programmes.

Dave Garshelis, co-chair of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group, said: “Quite a bit is now known about the ecology of giant pandas and substantial work and expense has been aimed at trying to estimate total numbers of these animals. However, these estimates are imprecise and prone to significant error. 

“Even though some people have claimed that panda populations are on the rise, we still consider them Endangered because too much uncertainty exists to justify changing their status to Vulnerable. It would be unwise to assume that in less than 10 years under the new habitat improvement policies in China that panda populations could have dramatically increased.”

Although hunting bears is illegal throughout Southern Asia, bears suffer heavy losses from poachers, who risk the small chance of being caught against lucrative gains from selling parts.  Bile from the bear’s gall bladder is used in traditional Chinese medicine and their paws are consumed as a delicacy. Additionally, bears are often killed when they prey on livestock or raid agricultural crops. Bears simply roaming near a village may be killed because they are perceived as a threat to human safety.

Dave Garshelis said: “Although we do not have any reliable population estimates for the sun bear, or any of the other Asian bears for that matter, we fear that bears in Southeast Asia are declining at a particularly rapid rate due to extensive loss of forest habitat combined with rampant poaching.” 

The Bear Specialist Group concluded a meeting in Monterrey, Mexico, on November 10 and has updated the status of the seven species of terrestrial bears.

Vulnerable species include Asiatic black bears and sloth bears, both inhabitants of Asia, and Andean bears (formerly called spectacled bears) from the Andes Mountains of South America. 

Sloth bears live on the Indian subcontinent, where habitat loss has been severe. They have found sanctuary mainly in reserves set up to protect tigers. The IUCN Bear Specialist Group indicated that this species might have disappeared entirely from Bangladesh during the past decade.

Brown bears, the most widespread ursid, are not listed as threatened globally because large numbers still inhabit Russia, Canada, Alaska and some parts of Europe. Nevertheless, very small, isolated, and highly vulnerable populations exist in southern Europe and central and southern Asia. Several brown bear populations are protected under national or provincial laws.  Grizzly bears – brown bears living in interior North America – are considered Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act outside of Alaska.

In 2006, the polar bear was listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Technically a marine mammal, the polar bear is distinct from the other seven terrestrial bears and has a different specialist group.

Among the eight species of bears, only the American black bear is secure throughout its range, which encompasses Canada, the United States and Mexico. At 900,000 strong, there are more than twice as many American black bears than all the other species of bears combined. They are legally hunted in most parts of their range.

Bruce McLellan, co-chair of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group, said: “An enormous amount of effort and funding for conservation and management continue to be directed at bears in North America where their status is relatively favorable. It is unfortunate that so little is directed at bears in Asia and South America where the need is extreme. We are trying to change this situation but success is slow.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – Conservation status of the world’s bears

  1. Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) – Endangered (EN)
    [Factsheet - PDF]
  2. Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus) – Vulnerable (VU)
    [Factsheet - PDF]
  3. Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus) – Vulnerable (VU)
    [Factsheet - PDF]
  4. Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus) – Vulnerable (VU)
    [Factsheet - PDF]
  5. Andean Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) – Vulnerable (VU)
    [Factsheet - PDF]
  6. Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) – Vulnerable (VU)
    [Factsheet - PDF]
  7. Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) – Least Concern (LC)
    [Factsheet - PDF]
  8. American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) – Least Concern (LC)
    [Factsheet - PDF]


Notes to editors

For more information or to set up an interview, please contact:

Sarah Halls, IUCN Media Relations Officer, Tel: +41 22 999 0127; Mob: +41 79 24 72 926; Fax: +41 22 999 0020; Email:; Web:

Photos available on request from

Additional information

  • The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies species according to their extinction risk. It is a searchable online database containing the global status and supporting information on more than 41,000 species. Its primary goal is to identify and document the species most in need of conservation attention and provide an index of the state of biodiversity.

  • The IUCN Red List threat categories are the following, in descending order of threat:
    • Extinct or Extinct in the Wild;
    • Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable: species threatened with global extinction;
    • Near Threatened: species close to the threatened thresholds or that would be threatened without ongoing specific conservation measures;
    • Least Concern: species evaluated with a low risk of extinction;
    • Data Deficient: no evaluation because of insufficient data.
  • Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct): This is not a new Red List category, but is a flag developed to identify those Critically Endangered species that are in all probability already Extinct but for which confirmation is required (for example, through more extensive surveys being carried out and failing to find any individuals).
  • The total number of species on the planet is unknown; estimates vary between 10 - 100 million, with 15 million species being the most widely accepted figure. 1.7 - 1.8 million species are known today.

 About The World Conservation (IUCN)

Created in 1948, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) brings together 84 States, 108 government agencies, 800 plus NGOs, and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 147 countries in a unique worldwide partnership. The Union’s mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.

The Union is the world's largest environmental knowledge network and has helped over 75 countries to prepare and implement national conservation and biodiversity strategies. The Union is a multicultural, multilingual organization with 1,000 staff located in 62 countries. Its headquarters are in Gland, Switzerland.

About the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) and Species Programme

The Species Survival Commission (SSC) is the largest of IUCN’s six volunteer commissions with a global membership of 7,000 experts. SSC advises IUCN and its members on the wide range of technical and scientific aspects of species conservation and is dedicated to securing a future for biodiversity. SSC has significant input into the international agreements dealing with biodiversity conservation. Web

The IUCN Species Programme supports the activities of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and individual Specialist Groups, as well as implementing global species conservation initiatives. It is an integral part of the IUCN Secretariat and is managed from IUCN’s international headquarters in Gland, Switzerland. The Species Programme includes a number of technical units covering Species Trade and Use, the Red List Unit, Freshwater Biodiversity Assessments Unit, (all located in Cambridge, UK), and the Global Biodiversity Assessment Unit (located in Washington DC, USA).