Canadian journalist and novelist Payton takes a globe-spanning tour of bears’ habitats to see how they’re faring.
Not particularly well, he finds. If bear grounds are sufficiently remote (the Canadian far north), or if the animals are seen as a lure for eco-tour money (the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba), or if they’re adequately protected (the black bears of the Eastern United States), then populations are spared the greatest threats: habitat destruction, human encroachment and hunting. Life for the sloth bear of India, Payton discovers, is more precarious. Its domain is fast diminishing, as is that of China’s giant panda. Though local traditions declare the mountain habitat of Peru’s spectacled bear to be the preserve of the gods, keeping encroachment at bay, the bear is nonetheless heavily poached. So is the sun bear of Cambodia, whose paws are considered a delicacy. But Cambodia presents Payton with a vexing conservation question: “Just how far are we willing to go?” He sees desperately poor people trying to survive; the only land available is sun-bear turf. “I feel ashamed,” he writes, when his comfortable concern for bears collides with such human misery. Yet he is also aware of the sanctified cultural place held by bears, even in places where aggressive bears routinely kill people. Such reverence is not new. The paintings and bear skulls in France’s Chauvet Caves, subject of an especially resonant chapter on the bear as mythological force, suggest an ancient link between bear and human. The flip side of the question Payton raised earlier is exposed. Bears were once viewed as closely related to humans, as intermediaries with gods, as gods themselves: “Will their final role,” he asks, “consist of serving as a nostalgic reminder of a part of ourselves we no longer understand?”
Bears need protection now, this astute natural history/travelogue asserts, but so do the wretched of the earth. (b&w illustrations)