Various written accounts and artefacts indicate that the Syrian Bear (Ursus arctos syriacus), a subspecies of the Brown Bear (Ursus arctos), once ranged throughout the Middle East, as far south as the Sinai Peninsula. The bears were often viewed as pests or as threats to human safety, and were killed as a result. These killings, combined with the loss of suitable habitat through deforestation and subsequent desertification, led to a marked reduction in the bears’ range. Today, the Syrian Bear still ranges from Turkey to Iran, including the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, but is generally believed to be extinct in its namesake country of Syria, as well as neighbouring Lebanon. However, a discovery made in 2004 may indicate otherwise.
It is always difficult to know whether a rare animal might still exist in some remote pocket of a country where it was thought to have been eliminated. A notable example is Iraq. The Bear Specialist Group (SG) was unaware of bears in Iraq until 2006, when a US military pilot observed what he believed to be a wild Syrian Bear through an infrared sensor. He did a Google search for bear experts in the Middle East, found the Bear SG, and reported his sighting. Recently, we learned from the NGO Nature Iraq that Syrian Bears definitely still exist in parts of the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq — during interviews conducted in 2010, local people in 10 of 30 sites reported the presence of bears, and local hunters occasionally kill bears and document these events on their cell phone cameras.
In Syria, however, the general consensus seems to be that bears have been absent for approximately 50 years. Even as long ago as the 1880s, bears were reported to be rare in Syria, living only around Mount Hermon and some remaining wooded areas in or near Lebanon. A report published by Dr. Lee Talbot indicated continued sightings of Syrian Bears, as well as bear skins and cubs, for sale in markets in Syria as late as 1955. But this seemed to be the last hard evidence of bears in this country, and they are now listed as Extinct in Syria on the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM .
It therefore came as quite a surprise for the Bear SG to learn that Brown Bears had been chosen as Syria’s Animal of the Year for 2010. Further investigation of the reasons behind this species choice led the Bear SG to Mr. Issam Hajjar, who had seen and photographed tracks of a bear in 2004 in the Bloudan area, near Damascus. Issam works as a researcher and photographer for the French Institute of the Middle East in Damascus, focusing on the historical and geographical heritage of Syria. In January 2004, he was hiking with a friend through the Anti Lebanon mountain range; it was foggy and snow blanketed the plain at 1,900 metres. He commonly encountered tracks of wolves, rabbits and birds in this area, but the tracks he found that day were much larger, and had five toes and distinct large claws. He took photos, and only later realized that the tracks he had documented belonged to a bear. Although this was the first evidence of bears in Syria in about 50 years, the discovery went unheralded until, as a consequence of this finding, this species was chosen as Syria’s Animal of the Year six years later.
What is particularly unusual about the finding is that local people seemed unaware of there being bears in the vicinity, even though the plains where the tracks were found are dotted with apple orchards, an obvious bear attractant. The Bear SG has examined the photos and has no doubt that the tracks are that of a bear. Furthermore, if bears have survived in this area since the 1950s, there must be a reproductively active population, not just a few scattered individuals (which might live for 20-30 years). Alternatively, the tracks may have been from a wandering vagrant from Turkey, or a previously captive individual. Recent investigations in the area revealed stories of a bear that was killed in that area the same year the footprints were discovered.
Presently, only 1% of the land area in Syria is protected, and Syrians are prohibited from entering most nature reserves. Moreover, few wildlife surveys have been conducted. Consequently, Syrians are typically not aware of the wildlife inhabiting their country, which makes it difficult to stimulate conservation-related activities. The Bear SG will pursue this intriguing situation further, believing that documenting the rediscovery of a charismatic animal like the Syrian Bear – the Brown Bear of Antiquity – might just be what is needed to generate more enthusiasm for conservation.