Thailand has a wide range of native wildlife, some of which are very uncommon elsewhere. But there are some animals that wildlife enthusiasts may not have spotted, like bears. This begs the question, are there bears in Thailand?
There are two types of bears native to Thailand: The Asian Black Bear and the Sun Bear. These bears are uncommon and difficult to spot because their status is vulnerable, approaching endangered. But they are common enough for you to spot if you try hard and know where to look.
Which Bears Can Be Found In Thailand?
It’s easy to spot almost any type of bear in Thailand if you go to a local zoo, like the Khao Kheow Open Zoo. But which bears, if any, are native to Thailand?
Two species of bear are native to Thailand. The first is the Asian Black Bear or Ursus Thibetanus, and the second is the Malayan Sun Bear or Helarctos Malayanus. The two bears are similar in appearance and share the same habitats but have a few significant differences.
The Asian Black Bear
Ursus Thibetanus, or, as it’s also known, the Asian Black Bear or Moon Bear, is native to Thailand, the Himalayas, India, Korea, China, and parts of Russia. It has a distinctly “bear-like” appearance; you will have little doubt that it is a bear when you see it.
On average, the bear weighs between 80 and 120 kg (170 to 264 pounds) and is about 120 to 190 cm (47 to 74 inches) long. It has a V-shaped white marking on its chest, typical round ears, and shaggy fur.
The Asian Black Bear has adapted to living in trees, which is where you will most easily spot it.
Unfortunately, the species has been driven to a status of “Threatened,” according to the IUCN Red List. The first significant cause is deforestation. Thailand lost about 122kha of natural forest between 2010 and 2021.
Deforestation is not the only challenge that the Asian Black Bear faces. Poachers love hunting the bear because several of its body parts are believed to have healing powers, making them popular to use in natural medicine, creating a flourishing black-market trade.
Several organizations in Thailand and other countries have begun caring for the Asian Black Bears to nurture the species back to stability, and their efforts are proving effective.
The Malaysian Sun Bear
Helarctos Malayanus, also known as the Malaysian Sun Bear or Honey Bear, is the other type of bear native to Thailand. You can find it in any of the Southeast Asian tropical forests.
It is slightly smaller than the Asian Black Bear. It weighs approximately half as much and is an average of 30 cm (12 inches) shorter. The Sun Bear has a U-shaped marking that does not extend quite as far up its shoulders as the v-shape marking of the Black Bear.
The Sun Bear also has smoother fur and much smaller ears, giving it more of a wolf-like appearance. It is so unique as a bear that it is the only species listed in the genus Helarctos, and some visitors to Thailand have spotted it without realizing it is a bear.
The Sun Bear is also a tree-dwelling bear and shares an almost identical habitat with the Asian Black Bear, making them equally comfortable in Thailand’s forests.
Like the Asian Black Bear, the Sun Bear is also a threatened species for many of the same reasons. Deforestation is a primary factor, accompanied by the trend to hunt and kill “dangerous” wildlife, as many consider these bears to be.
An additional factor in the species’ endangerment is that the bears often go to farms and rural homes, where they cause panic and the people of the region kill them, leading to an estimated 35% decline in their numbers since 1990.
Like the Asian Black Bear, many organizations in Thailand are working tirelessly to ensure the survival of this species.
Are Bears In Thailand Dangerous?
We have to understand that bears are not tame animals. They are not pets. As much as they have been given a friendly appearance by the popularity of teddy bears and as cute and cuddly as they might seem, they are powerful predatory animals.
Having said that, bears tend not to be dangerous in their natural state. Photographers and wildlife experts have had plenty of encounters with Thailand’s bears where they weren’t threatened at all.
Bears become dangerous when they feel threatened. Once you’ve proven that you’re not a threat, most bears will not bother you at all. But remember that we can’t always know what a bear might consider threatening behavior, especially when there are cubs nearby.
For example, in 2017, an Asian Black Bear mauled and attacked a tourist at Wat Luang Phor Lamai temple in Thailand. The bear was raised by monks and quite used to having people around, but this particular tourist teased the bear a bit, which the bear did not like.
Generally, it’s best to observe Thailand’s bears from a distance and always treat them with the care and respect that an animal capable of killing you with one slap deserves.
How To Tell Thailand’s Bears Apart
When reading a comparison, it might seem that the two bears are nearly indistinguishable. That is not the case, though.
The most striking difference between the Asian Black Bear and the Sun Bear is in their faces. The Asian Black Bear has a typical bear face. It is pretty round and puffy, with the round ears of a teddy bear. In other words, the Black Bear looks like a bear.
On the other hand, the Malaysian Sun Bear has a face that looks more like that of a dog or wolf. Its muzzle appears to be more prolonged and more pronounced. Its ears are also smaller and slightly stubby.
The second clear difference is that the Malaysian Sun Bear has smooth fur, whereas the Black Bear has a shaggy coat that makes it look cuddly. The fur is also why the Sun Bear’s muzzle looks longer because that of the Black Bear is obscured by its dense fur.
A less noticeable difference is in the coloration of their muzzles. Most Asian Black Bears have darker muzzles, while the Sun Bear has a blond, beige, or white muzzle. This is not always a reliable indicator, though, since some Black Bears have lighter muzzle coloration, too.
Where Can You See Thailand’s Bears?
Apart from the zoo and some temples that house some local bears, you can spot both bears in their natural habitats without much effort. The best time to go looking for them is during the later afternoon / early evening hours, which is when they tend to be most active.
You can spot both bears in national parks, evergreen forests, or savannas with plenty of trees.
The Asian Black Bear is most common in the Khao Yai National Park, while the Sun Bear can be more easily spotted in Kaeng Krachan.
When you go bear spotting, remember that the bears love to rest high up in the trees and stay out of sight as much as possible. You can often tell where you may find bears by looking for claw marks on the tree trunks.