They look endearing but these rare bears have had no escape from hunting and habitat loss. Only now are these little-understood creatures finally being protected
Found: The Caucasian or Syrian brown bear (Ursus arctos syriacus) is a subspecies of brown bear native to the Caucasus. Once common across the Middle East from Egypt to Pakistan, it is now extinct in many of those countries, including its eponymous home of Syria. Genetically speaking, this particular bear should probably not be regarded as a subspecies at all, but having said that, in size (it is the smallest of the brown bears) and colour (with generally lighter strawcoloured fur and, unusually, pale claws), it is quite distinct in appearance. It lives in the highland forests and occasionally in lowland woodlands in the hills and mountains of northern and southern Azerbaijan.
Under threat because: Caucasian brown bear numbers have suffered badly in recent decades as a result of trophy hunting and the trade in bear bile for Asian traditional medicine. Habitat destruction, too, is a major problem for bears, with the cutting down of forests for firewood and lumber. Brown bear population numbers may be stable across their global range, but this particular bear is seriously endangered in the region.
Outlook: Despite a particular Caucasian brown bear being one of the most famous bears in the world (Wojtek, a cub adopted by the Polish army in the Second World War before living out his days as a celebrity in Edinburgh Zoo), little has been done to halt their declining numbers. Special nature sanctuaries in Azerbaijan have provided safe havens, but there needs to be more research to establish population numbers and effectively combat the threats they face.
Illustration by Nadia Taylor
This story appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Baku magazine.