Bears

Bears (scientific name Ursidae) are the largest land animals that eat meat. Mammals of the carniforma order, they live in Eurasia and the Americas. Despite their size and killing power, most bears are omnivores who forage more than they hunt. There are nine species of bear.

Bears evolved over 10 million years ago. Larger, older species like the North American short-faced bear and the European cave bear died out in the Ice Age. Their closest relatives are raccoons and dogs. 

Bear, Chauvet cave painting, ca. 30,000 - 28,000 BCE ...

Bears have shaggy coats, powerful jaws and sharp claws. Unable to run for long periods, they seldom chase their prey. Instead, bears rely on foraging or killing helpless animals like seal pups or salmon. They have no natural predators and do not fear humans. What they lack in eyesight and hearing, bears make up for in scent. They do not distinguish between night and day and sleep at odd hours. In wintertime, most bears hibernate, occasionally venturing from their dens when snowfall lapses. The polar bear is the only species who stay outside all year long.

Bears mate once every two years. Males court females in the mating season but leave when the cubs are born. Bears stay with their mothers until one year old.

The American black bear is the most widespread species. They are adaptable scavengers and tree climbers who remain widespread today. Regional varieties include the cinnamon bear and the so-called Spirit, or Kermode bear (pictured) of British Columbia, of whom one in every ten have white fur.

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Grizzly bears are the American variety of the brown bear. Unlike their smaller cousins, they are too big to climb most trees and owe their size to a salmon-rich diet. Grizzlies can kill bulls with a single blow of their paws. The Kodiak bear, a subspecies found in Alaska, can reach up to 600 kilograms. It is the largest bear. 

Spectacled Bears Seen Near Machu Picchu

The spectacled bear is the only bear in South America. Reclusive by nature, they inhabit the Andes Mountains and owe their name to brown rings by their eyes. 

Eurasian brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) scratching ...

The Eurasian brown bear once inhabited Europe, Asia and Morocco but now lives only in isolated forests and mountains. Humans hunted brown bears and taught them to dance at circuses. Though they are highly tamable and eager to please, bears hide their expressions, meaning angry outbursts take their captors by surprise. Wojtek, a Syrian Brown Bear, served in the Polish Army in WW2 and reached the rank of corporal.

Asiatic black bears or ‘moon bears’, so-called because of the mark on their chest, inhabit the Himalayas and the mountains of East Asia. They are far smaller than the American black bear and make expert tree climbers.

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Sun Bears are the smallest species of bear. They live in the rainforests of Southeast Asia and subsist mainly from honey and insects.

Sloth bears live in India. Though small and slow, they have sharp claws and can be highly aggressive, particularly towards humans. In the English-speaking world, the most famous Sloth Bear is Baloo from the Jungle Book. 

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Giant pandas are a small and highly specialized population native to a remote part of China. Unlike other bears, they are entirely herbivorous and eat only bamboo. Biologists considered them bears until the 1950s when they determined they part of the raccoon family. Recent scholarship has reclassified them as bears.

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Polar bears are the only entirely carnivorous bears. Living on the Arctic Circle, they are the most accomplished swimmers in the bear family and hunt mainly seals and walrus pups. They are the largest carnivorous mammals. Due to lack of historical exposure, polar bears do not fear humans and are the only bears who will actively hunt them. Other bears attack humans only out of fear or desperation. 

Due to their power and unique appearance, bears feature heavily in human folklore. The indigenous peoples of northern Eurasia, from the Ainu of Japan to the Sami of Scandinavia viewed them as sacred, as did many Native American and First Nation peoples. The ancient Greeks believed the constellations Ursa Major and Minor were nymphs transformed into bears. As it exists in both Eurasia and North America, the associations of bears with the ‘cosmic hunt’ is likely over 13,000 years old.

Sources: New Illustrated Animal Kingdom Volume 4, World Wildlife Fund

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Ruc People

The Ruc are a small tribe indigenous to the mountains of Quang Ngai province, Vietnam. Until 1959, they lived in complete isolation from the outside world as they had for thousands of years. The Ruc were hunter-gatherers who lived in caves and grottos and shunned contact with mainstream Vietnamese society. Upon their discovery, the North Vietnamese government forced their integration. Today they no longer live as hunter-gatherers and are recognised as one of Vietnam’s 53 ethnic minorities.

Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a land of dense mountain jungle that houses the world’s largest caves and oldest limestone deposit. The Ruc have lived there since the Stone Age and their name means ‘cave people’ in a local dialect.

To the ethnic Vietnamese that farmed the lowlands, these mountains were a wilderness home to dangerous beasts and mysterious tribes. Though their ancestors likely settled northern Vietnam at the same time, while the lowlanders adopted agriculture and formed kingdoms, the Ruc and their cousins maintained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle free from outside influence.

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In 1959, a group of North Vietnamese soldiers were investigating the aftermath of a bombing in the mountains of Quang Ngai when they spotted a band of ‘forest people’. The strangers were short, naked and incredibly agile. They fled up trees and into caves and grottos. The soldiers followed them and spent all day persuading eleven families to relocate to a nearby village.

Rather than leave them be, the authorities forced integration. According to communist doctrine, history is progressive and the Ruc would be better off by settling down and adapting to modern, agricultural society than remaining in their primitive and oblivious state. By 1971 the Ruc had all abandoned their caves and were living in permanent homes.

The Ruc moved into state-provided houses, and their numbers grew from 109 in 1971 to 500 today. Many longed for their old ways, however, and to this day some still live in caves up to three months a year. In 2013 Ho Tien Nam became the first Ruc to graduate from university. He now works as a teacher.

Anthropologists place the Ruc language in the Chut group, which encompasses five other indigenous tongues and is part of the Austroasiatic family. Their ancestors may have retreated to the mountains when farmers settled northern Vietnam. Their language is small and, because they had no tribal or family names, after 1971 they took Vietnamese ones.

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Traditionally the Ruc foraged for food, mainly the edible powder of the Doac tree, fished and hunted small animals. They slept standing up. Ruc believed in magic and cast spells to protect from pregnancy, stave off wild beasts or in, in some cases, cause harm. These spells and rituals are upheld by elders with secrecy and reverence. In 2005, scientists identified the small animal Ruc hunted as the Laotian Rock Rat, an animal they thought died out 11 million years ago.

Sources: English-Vietnam, Species Conservation, Spiritual Travellers Blog, UNESCO

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Thailand’s Rap Against Dictatorship

Prathet Ku Mee (Which is my country), is a 2018 protest song by 10 Thai rappers called ‘Rap Against Dictatorship’. The music video targets the country’s military regime, corruption and legal double-standards in a pounding and defiant delivery reminiscent of late 80s and 90s American hip-hop. Uploaded in October 2018, it has over 89 million views. In May 2019 the Human Rights Foundation awarded them the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissen.

Thailand has had the most coups of any country. The military seized power in 2014 and has yet to relinquish it, despite promises of a return to democracy.  

The song is viciously critical – a bold move in a country where censorship is strong and offending the wrong people can put you in jail. Some wear masks, others do not. Under aliases, the rappers criticise the military for interfering in politics and ruling through fear and the conformity of Thai society. It mentions:

  • construction tycoon getting away with poaching and eating an endangered black leopard in February 2018
  • the heir of Red Bull getting away with vehicular manslaughter
  • judges building estates in a sacred national park
  • the Prime Minister’s Rolex collection

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha condemned the song for inciting unrest and violence, and being ‘un-Thai’. In November he commissioned a government rap video in response. It is as bad as you might expect.

Despite their objections, the Thai government did not block Rap Against Dictatorship. Doing so would involve shutting down the whole of Youtube and causing public scandal – more trouble than it was worth. Thailand’s economy and politics are closely tied to the West and it lacks the state capacity China enjoys to build its own internet. They did, however, threaten to jail anyone who shared the video for 5 years.

Hip-hop serves an apt vessel for the frustration and resentment of these young men against injustice in their home. 

The video is shot in black and white, the rappers performing on a backdrop of a cheering crowd. The only colour to feature is red white and blue of the Thai flag, emblazoned on the guitar playing near the end. It is revealed the crowd are cheering not the men rapping, but a man beating a limp corpse hanging from a tree with a chair.

This grisly scene is from the 1976 Thammasat Massacre, where conservative paramilitaries slaughtered 200 pro-democracy activists. It shows a counter-demonstrator beating a student’s corpse with a chair as it hangs from a tamarind tree. The photograph was caught by American Neil Ulevich and won the Pulitzer Prize. Amongst activists today, ‘chair’ is slang for establishment brutality.

Rap Against Dictatorship say nothing has changed. The soldiers still control the state, and ‘fuck the law with a machine gun’. What’s worse, the ’76 Thammasat massacre is taught nowhere in Thailand and the government is doing its best to disappear it from collective memory – an Orwellian move reminiscent of Tiananmen Square.

In February 2019 the Thai government held elections, on the precondition the military hold half the National Assembly’s seats in reserve. Prayut Chan-Ocha won with 99% of the vote. Echoing those of 1976, student protests erupted in August 2020.

Sources: Khaosod English, Bangkok Post, New Mandala

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