Where do bears fit into the Man the Hunted scenario? The clear-cut relationship between fossil cats and fossil hominids does not exist for the bear family, but present-day situations lead us to a supposition that ancient bears were unlikely to pass up a hominid meal when it presented itself. Large and clever predators, bears deserve a discussion.
The bear family evolved about 30 to 40 million years ago.46 The bears are more closely related to dogs than to cats, so why are we talking about them along with lions and tigers? We decided to discuss cats and bears together because they usually live solitary adult lives hunting by ambush or opportunism. Wild dogs and hyenas, alternatively, normally hunt in packs and run down (in other words, exhaust) their prey.
The most majestic sight imaginable is a polar bear in the wild. While in Nunavut (the Inuit territory of the Canadian Arctic), one of us (DH) witnessed the world's largest terrestrial carnivore in the act of predation. The sun was breathtakingly bright, the water an icy blue sheet, and as the small outboard motorboat rounded a rocky outcropping in Wager Bay—so tiny it didn't qualify as an island—there stood a large male polar bear dragging a recently killed bearded seal out of the water. The bear's muzzle was stained red with blood as he started eating. He stared at us humans nonchalantly—an insignificant intrusion on his dining pleasure. Deciding a drink would be in order, he lumbered down the rocks to the water's edge. Male polar bears reach a length of nearly 10 feet and weigh about 1,400 pounds (without winter fat) to 1 ton (with stored fat).47
Their power is awesome. I was shown a small plane, the roof of which looked as if it had been opened with a dull can opener. A female polar bear and her cubs had "investigated" the interior of the plane to see if food was available. Sadly, word reached camp the same day as our encounter with the large male that an Inuit grandmother had been killed by a polar bear as she tried to protect her grandchild from an attack.
Deaths from polar bears have always been a part of Inuit life. Even today, with polar bear populations declining due to global warming and other human-related environmental offenses, there are often several incidents every year. These tend to occur most often under certain circumstances—females with cubs to feed or inexperienced and hungry subadults—and in certain locations, such as sites of human habitation, hunting camps, or weather stations. Polar bears, unlike the other living species in the bear family, seem to mentally catalog all mammals—Homo sapiens included—as prey items. They are much more willing to consider humans as food, and an attack from an animal the size of a polar bear almost always ends in death.48
Bears are carnivores by ancestry and anatomy. Modern bears, except for the polar species, have nevertheless evolved over time into omnivores in a functional sense, quite happy to eat vegetation and berries, but never passing up the occasional warm-blooded opportunity that wanders into their path.49 Bears, as we know them—huge animals— appeared about 6 million years ago. The first large bears were contemporaneous with hominids in time but whether they lived in the same places as hominids is quite fuzzy. There were gigantic bear-like predecessors in Africa around 7 million years ago and these lasted until 2—3 million years ago, but it is possible that no ursids (true bears) were residents of Africa except in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. There is a clearer record of the bear—human relationship after hominid migration from Africa to Asia. Three lines of bear ancestors are traceable: two of these occurred in Asia and one only in Europe.
An extinct European fossil ursid, commonly called the cave bear, spanned the time period of 10,000 to 50,000 years ago. The extinction of cave bears is cloaked in mystery. Investigation of several caves in the heart of Europe unearthed skeletal remains of these bears numbering in the tens of thousands, as if the remains were piled up by human hands. Did the early Europeans hunt the bears? Did they kill them for ritual purposes? Or—and this is a legitimate theory because there is a heavily disproportionate number of old individuals—did the subterranean caches represent natural graveyards for elderly bears? Or, was hibernation during the Ice Age a sometimes-fatal ¿«activity? The cave bear disappeared at the close of the Ice Age concurrently with many of the large European mammal species, which may point to climatic reasons for their extinction rather than human intervention.50
The current speciation of bears is fairly simple: the northern bears (polar, Asian black, American black, and brown or grizzly) are large enough to be human predators. The southern bear species (sloth, sun, and spectacled) are smaller, less common, and are not known to prey on humans. The polar bear, as described earlier in this section, is definitely a predator with our species on the menu. As top gun in their white and icy world, they are probably behaving as bears did throughout time past. This species has not been exposed to humans, guns, and organized hunting for long enough to have evolved a gene pool that is extremely wary of people.
According to Stephen Herrero, naturalist and bear expert, this is exactly what has happened to black bears and grizzly bears. He estimates a North American population of 600,000 black bears and 60,000 grizzlies, so there are countless times when the bears and humans are in proximity without the occurrence of predation. In U.S. and Canadian police and park warden records there are only 23 human fatalities from black bears and twice as many grizzly bear—caused deaths from 1900 to 1980. But in the 1990s an upsurge occurred: there were 11 human deaths from black bears and 18 from grizzly bears. As with the mountain lion, this seeming increase may have more to do with the increasing tendency for people to encroach on bear habitat than with an increase in the ferocity of bears. Unfortunately, the new millennium started off with the killing and consumption of an Alaskan camper by a grizzly bear who had become accustomed to the garbage that wilderness visitors produce.51
Herrero has written a book entitled Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. He divided all bear attacks into two categories: defensive and predatory. Defensive attacks comprise mother—cub protection, food protection, or just a startled bear that feels it is cornered and must react aggressively. For these kinds of attacks, Herrero gives advice on how to avoid, minimize, or escape the danger. It is possible, if a person curls up and plays dead, that the bear will inflict some bites and then leave the scene. The trick is to know the defensive bear from the predatory bear because the aforementioned "play dead" behavior will possibly only make you "real dead" more quickly if the bear views you as prey. Bear Attacks contains Herrero's analyses of 414 bear—human interactions. He found that of the fatal attacks in the 1900-1980 period, black bears (the smaller of the two species) were most likely to have killed a human for predatory reasons. Counterintuitively, the black bear is more likely to view people as prey than the larger, more feared, grizzly bear. In fact 90% of the black bear attacks with fatal results were in the predation category. More statistics make this an even clearer picture—half of the black-bear human victims were aged 18 or younger and one-quarter were younger than 10 years old. There is no question in an investigator's mind when predation is the motive for a bear kill: the victims are eaten in the same way that a deer would be consumed—torso and innards first, followed by fleshy parts such as the upper legs. While the size of children fits the black bear's mental image of prey, they will also attack a full-grown man with impunity.52
One of the most horrifying predation attacks by a black bear did not result in a fatality. A geologist working for the state of Alaska, Cynthia Dusel-Bacon, was dropped off by Ed, her helicopter pilot, about 60 miles south of Fairbanks one August morning in 1977. Cynthia was out to obtain rock samples in an uninhabited area, but she was wilderness savvy and practiced good bear keep-away behavior, including yelling every so often to let bears know they should clear out of her space. One black bear didn't see the yelling as anything but a come-and-get-me invitation. The geologist could tell a bear was stalking her and no amount of aggressive action on her part seemed a deterrent. When the bear circled around and finally attacked, she was dragged by the arm into thick underbrush. She then tried the play-dead advice; the bear started to eat her right arm and the flesh under it. "I was completely conscious of feeling my flesh torn, teeth against bone, but the sensation was more of numb horror at what was happening to me than of specific reaction to each bite."53
The narrative gets pretty powerful when she relates the sensation of the bear biting her head and tearing at her scalp, hearing the crunching sound of the bear's teeth cracking into her skull. Whew! And yet she survived. She managed to keep her cool through all of this and get a radio out of her backpack with her uneaten arm while the bear was taking a break from its meal. She activated the transmitter and holding it close to her mouth, said as loudly as she could, "Ed, this is Cynthia. Come quick,
I'm being eaten by a bear." Cynthia explained later that "I said 'eaten' because I was convinced that the bear wasn't just mauling me or playing with me. I was its prey, and it had no intention of letting me escape."54
Cynthia's is a long narrative, and we wish we could say that Ed and the rescuers arrived quickly. They didn't. Her good arm was also eaten by the bear before noise from a helicopter scared the bear away from its prize. Cynthia lost both arms, but her head wounds healed and she continued her life in Alaska.
Some say that the Asian black, or moon bear (named for the large white crescent on its chest), is more irritable and less intimidated by humans than the North American black bear. Locals can attest to a nasty disposition in these 400-to-500-pound ursids. The moon bear is the most carnivorous of all the Asian bears, and individuals of the species are known to kill animals as large as adult water buffaloes by breaking their necks. This species has a long and violent history with humans. Each year in Japan 2—6 people are killed and 10—25 injured in bear attacks; most of the encounters are in warm weather when people tend to gather bamboo shoots in the wild. However, the species hardly matches the carnage that humans have inflicted on the moon bears. Thousands are hunted every year in Japan, and the Chinese have made an industry of killing moon bears for their paws and gall bladders. There's not much hope for the continuation of wild populations of this species.
The brown bear of Asia is the same species as the North American grizzly. One of the many races of brown bears dwells in Tibet and several provinces of western China. Known as the horse bear because of a yellow, saddle-shaped cape on its shoulders, it is still fairly common in these areas. Chinese biologists contend that 1,500 people are killed annually by horse bears—most of the attacks are on farmers who are newly cultivating the Tibetan Plateau. Firearms are not allowed in China so contact or conflict with these huge bears almost always ends up with the bears as the winners. No records exist for bear predation on humans in Russia, although a Japanese wildlife photographer of great renown was killed by a Russian brown bear in 1995 55
So, we have now scrutinized the type of hominid predators that slowly and carefully stalk and ambush their prey. What about the other kind of carnivore—the packs of fast dogs and hyenas? They aren't often implicated in hominid predation ... or are they?
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