By Fouad Itani
The Syrian brown bear (Ursus arctos syriacus) is the smallest subspecies of brown bears from the Ursidae family. It is native to the Middle East and the Caucasus and it is the only species of bears to have occurred in Lebanon. It has a stocky round build with long grey-brown fur. It has an average size of 1.40m and an average weight of 150 kg.
The Syrian brown bear is usually found in high mountainous areas that are covered with mixed forests of broad-leaved trees and resinous trees . This bear is mainly vegetarian and it tends to forage for food in grasslands and forests. It has been known to enter mountain villages as well. It feeds mainly on grass, shoots, berries, grains, nuts, flowers and fruits. Also like most bears it might feed on small mammals, fish and sometimes an unattended goat or sheep. The Syrian brown bear builds up its fat reserves during the summer and autumn in order to hibernate peacefully.
‘Field Guide to the Mammals of the Middle East’ (released on 2015) is an accessible text suitable for graduate students and professionals in the fields of mammal biology, conservation biology, and ecology, as well as nature conservation practitioners and mammal specialists.
Like most large mammals, the Syrian brown bear was often viewed as a threat to human safety, a target for big game hunters and was killed as a result. These killings, combined with the loss of habitat, led to a large decline in its population and a reduction in its range. Nowadays the Syrian brown bear is still found in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, including the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, but considered extinct in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. However in the past few years some recent discoveries were made in Syria that clearly reveal the bear to be rare in the country, living only around Mount Hermon and some wooded areas near Lebanon.
On the night of the 29th of December 2016 at exactly 11:30pm and while watching the Syrian/Lebanese border a group of men from Baalbek took a video using their night-vision cam of what seems to be a wandering stray bear being followed by a dog in Nahle village plateaus in Baalbek district. While reviewing the video on the desktop screen one of the men (Mr. Mohamad Medlej) filmed it using his mobile phone and forwarded the clip to me for identification purposes.
What is unusual about this finding is that no bear has been recorded in Lebanon for over 60 years and the closest big population would probably be more than 500 km away in Turkey. Also Brown bears would usually be hibernating or tucked in their dens during this time of the year.
However this situation isn’t impossible as it has occurred before and during winter as well.
Back in 2004, brown bear tracks in the snow were recorded in the Sannir range of south-western Syria. In February 2011, three more sets of bear tracks were seen in the same general area. Moreover on the 14th of January 2015 a local person in this same hilly region of Syria captured a rare photo of a young bear wandering in the snow. Other records also show that those bears can stray for long distances; for example lone bears have wandered into Germany in 2006 and Switzerland in 2013.
In Lebanon, this Brown bear would be exposed to an open, arid environment, and likely viewed as a threat to people and their property when approaching their villages. In Nahle village this particular bear can find a big supply of food from people’s orchards of apples, apricots, and figs and the many water springs found there .
Many questions come to mind when seeing these rare footages. Could there really be a Syrian brown bear, subsisting on human-grown fruits and possibly wild juniper, roaming the hills on the Syria-Lebanon border? Was this a single stray bear, perhaps wandering over from Syria or even Turkey or Iraq? Did the war in Syria make it cross the border? Is it an escaped bear from a private zoo or from an on- the-move gypsy circus?