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.
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HOW TO BE A RESPONSIBLE WILDLIFE TRAVELLER
When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process. When planning your bear-watching holiday, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.