BEAR WATCHING

The increasing popularity of bear-watching holidays must have something to do with the cute-and-cuddly appeal of the furry family Ursidae. However, you only have to watch sparring 600kg polar bears cuffing each other on the Arctic tundra or a full-grown grizzly standing 3m tall on its hind legs to quash any misconceptions that these formidable predators are mere teddy bears.

Bears can be extremely dangerous, particularly when surprised or when they’ve been encouraged to associate humans with food, and they demand the same high levels of respect and space as any wild animal you might encounter on holiday. 

Although the Ursidae family has eight members (including the rare and elusive giant panda, sun bear and spectacled bear), most bear-watching trips focus on three species: brown, black and polar.

Despite the environmental threats facing their Arctic realm, polar bears are still reliably seen near Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay where, each autumn, tundra buggies provide incredible opportunities for close-up views. Svalbard also supports good numbers of the ‘ice bear’.

American black bears can be glimpsed in forests from Vancouver Island to the Appalachian Mountains, but British Columbia is by far the best location for reliable sightings. You can also find white ‘spirit bears’ here. They’re not a separate species – just black bears with a genetic colour variation – but a quest for one of these rare, honey-coloured beauties on Princess Royal Island can almost reach mystical proportions.

The Asiatic black bear is a separate species to its North American cousin. Confined to hilly forests in South Asia it’s not often seen. In fact, you are more likely to glimpse the sloth bear, usually as a shaggy-coated blur lolloping through the forests of Indian national parks like Ranthambhore and Satpura.

It’s the brown bear, however, that is the most widespread and commonly seen of the family. Ranging from North America, through Europe to wilderness areas of Russia, Ursus arctos is the subject of much head-scratching by taxonomists keen to classify the various subspecies of this archetypal bear. 

For the wildlife traveller, there are various honeypot locations, each with their own subspecies of brown bear. The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) roams the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, as well as Alaska and the Northwest United States. A heavyweight version, known as the Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi) is found in the Kodiak Archipelago of Southwestern Alaska. For an encounter with Eurasian brown bears (Ursus arctos arctos) head for the wild forests of Finland and Romania or, if you’re feeling intrepid, track down Ursus arctos beringianus on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

Wherever you end up going, you’re in for a treat. As the world’s largest land predators, bears have an almost regal presence. They are also supremely intelligent and adaptable, displaying a range of behaviour that will have you enthralled – whether you are watching grizzlies fishing for salmon, polar bears swimming along channels in pack ice or black bears ripping at bark on a quest for beetle grubs.

Bear Watching Q&As

Where can I see giant pandas?


It might be the most conspicuous-looking of the Ursidae family, but there is nothing black and white about tracking the giant panda ( Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in its native bamboo forests, high on the slopes of the Qinling Mountains in China’s Shaanxi province. Focus your efforts on three nature reserves: Foping, Laoxiancheng and Changqing. All three are centres for giant panda tracking, although sightings are never guaranteed. Giant pandas are masters of evasion, and you’ll be hiking through dense vegetation. Simply being in the same habitat as this icon of conservation, however, can be rewarding enough – and there is always the chance you’ll spot other rare species, such as golden snub-nosed monkey, takin and clouded leopard. Accommodation is in nearby villages, staying in local guesthouses or hostels.




How do you stay 'bear safe'?


• Make some noise! Bears don’t like surprises, so make them aware of your presence on trails by clapping, shouting or singing. Don’t hike after dark. • Do not run or climb trees. You can’t outrun a bear and it may elicit a charge. Black bears and some grizzlies are also good climbers. In the event of a mock charge, stand your ground, wave your arms and shout until the bear stops, then slowly back away. In the very rare event of an attack, drop to the ground, lie face down, and clasp your hands behind your neck. Lie still and silent so as not to provoke the bear further. • Give bears space. Use telephoto lenses to photograph them. • Do not leave food out. Hang food out of reach of bears or use bear-proof containers. Never store food inside your tent and avoid cooking food that can make your clothing smell (ie bacon).




Where are the best places to stay for seeing bears in the wild?


In Alaska, Brooks Falls Lodge in Katmai National Park is a short walk from the famed stretch of river where as many as 50 bears can be viewed fishing during peak salmon season. The lodge’s hearty Alaskan fare will ensure that you are also well fed, while timber cabins provide comfortable accommodation. Alaska Adventures gets you afloat in Katmai aboard a 24m cruiser, while Denali’s Kantishna Roadhouse puts you right in the heart of Alaska’s premier national park. British Columbia has several lodges in prime bear-viewing locations, including Tweedsmuir Park Lodge in Bella Coola Valley; the floating Great Bear Lodge, Knight Inlet Lodge in Glendale Cove and the Spirit Bear Lodge on Princess Royal Island. With eight double cabins, the 21m ketch Island Roamer plies the coastline of the Great Bear Rainforest. In Churchill, the Tundra Lodge sleeps up to 36 people in a static ‘train’ of wheeled cabins stationed close by the shore of Hudson Bay in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area – a polar bear watcher’s dream. The lodge has two sleepers, a lounge car and a dining car. With room for 26, Martinselkosen Eräkeskus Wildlife Centre in Finland has excellent accommodation, including a sauna, while Elena Guesthouse in Zarnesti, Romania sleeps 16 and offers delicious local cooking. In Svalbard, various expedition vessels explore the archipelago’s dramatic coastline each summer.





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Wildlife Wishlist was founded by zoologist, conservationist and award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray. Sharing his passion for wildlife and recommendations for responsible travel, Will has spent around 30 years tracking down the world's best wildlife holiday experiences.

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