Life is no picnic for these endangered black bears

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Life is no picnic for these endangered black bears

The weather on Mount Jiri is a frigid minus-10 degrees centigrade (14 degrees Fahrenheit), but an eclectic group of 24 people ventures out almost every day. They are researchers, on the lookout for the endangered Manchurian black bear, also known as the half-moon bear.

In November, the National Parks Authority ordered that a special watch be placed on the rare bears.

Last year, the Ministry of Environment released four captive bears near Munsuri Valley on Mount Jiri at about 800 meters (2,700 feet) above sea level. One female bear was found dead in July; a second was brought back to the breeding facility because he couldn't adapt to life in the wild.

The other two bears, Janggun and Bandol, who were born in January and February last year, are now hibernating. Once every week or so, the bears come out of their cave to drink water, then return for a few more days of peaceful, snug shut-eye.

The bears may be napping happily, but the Parks Authority is worried about them. That's why it has assigned a team of researchers to make sure the bears are kept safe -- from the cold, predators and poachers.

In addition, the team is in the process of restoring the species by mating wild bears in the mountains with captive black bears.

Choi Tae-young, a 32-year-old member of the group, is so busy with his charges that he cannot visit his new wife at his home in Gwangju. If he comes home once in a month, Mr. Choi said his wife greets him with, "Here is our half-moon bear husband."

"This is the first restoration project ever carried out on bears in Korea," says Mr. Choi. "Taking care of the bears is just as amusing as spending time with my wife."

Sometimes Manchurian black bears wander around the valley during breaks in their winter sleep.

The team members say that the most challenging task in bear maintenance is checking their condition from a distance, because bears don't like people coming near them.

Early this month, while the team was trying to film Bandol, Lee Yun-su, one of the researchers, fell off a road, down a steep slope, and was injured. Bandol had awakened unexpectedly and took umbrage at the uninvited guest. He charged, and Mr. Lee ran off as fast as possible.

"I am proud of the team members," says Han Sang-hun, the team chief, "because they are willing to work so hard in taking care of the bears without any complaints."

The team's main task is protecting the bears from danger and trying to help the species multiply until its numbers reach 50 -- a number that specialists say is adequate to ensure long-term survival.

"We are happy to restore a species that is considered a symbol of our ethnic heritage in the ancient folk tales in Korea," Mr. Han says.

"It's not an easy task to spend several days in the mountains," says Park So-young, 32. "But it's a terrific opportunity because we get to conduct such a wide array of research on these bears in their natural environment."

When the weather dropped to minus-20 centigrade (minus 4 Fahrenheit) a few weeks ago, Ms. Park said she slept outside anyway, just to make sure the bears would be safe.

by Chun Chang-whan
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