US ‘Bear whisperer’ could help save vulnerable pandas in China

China 24

Bear whisperer

China has made great strides to protect the beloved panda. Those efforts are getting a hand from one American biologist.

His collaboration with Chinese scientists has even gotten the attention of Hollywood.

CGTN’s Frances Kuo traveled to the U.S. state of New Hampshire to show us his ground-breaking work.

It’s a house that sits deep in the woods of western New Hampshire. And when you step inside, Ben Kilham’s true passion is on full display in the form of black bear figures, stuffed animals and other items.

“I’ve always had a gift with animals, I’ve always been able to understand them,” said Kilham. That’s especially true for black bears.

It all began 25 years ago when Kilham stumbled upon an abandoned black bear cub. “It was one that was sick, it had a congenital illness,” said Kilham. Now, he’s considered an expert in the field.

“I’ve had more than 10-thousand hours with a black bear beside me in the wild,” said Kilham.

His nicknames include “Papa Bear,” “Bear Man,” “Black Bear’s Uncle” and “Bear Whisperer.”

Behind the house is where Kilham truly feels at home – in a three-hectare enclosure. It’s the dwelling of his current extended family of seven orphaned black bear cubs – all 7 months old.

Kilham points out one of them named Treebo. “Something happened to her mother, I suspect, during a snowstorm,” Kilham explains.

He bottle-feeds the cubs during the first 18 months of life. Then, he accompanies them on walks in the enclosure for 9 or 10 hours at a time where the animals are untethered.

This method was initially considered quite controversial, making him somewhat of a pariah in the scientific world.

“The scientific bear community had already made up their mind that people shouldn’t work closely with bears,” said Kilham.

He essentially serves as a surrogate mother to the cubs, requiring him to maintain close contact.

When Kilham determines they’re ready, the cubs are released. “We’ve raised, rehabilitated or returned to the wild over 2,000 black bear cubs,” said Kilham.

Kilham’s work with black bears actually got the attention of researchers in China; they thought maybe his success with black bears could apply to their efforts with panda bears.

Their collaboration began in 2013 and continues to this day. Their joint work was featured in an IMAX documentary titled “Pandas.” Chinese researchers have visited Kilham’s bear enclosure and used it as a model for one they’ve built in Chengdu.

“It’s a good place for us to cooperate, it shows nice cross-cultural cooperation,” said Kilham.

But the collaboration has been a process, including convincing Chinese researchers to think outside the box. “They didn’t want pandas in the rain, they didn’t want them climbing trees, all the things necessary to have pandas in the wild,” said Kilham.

The Chinese scientists are using some of Kilham’s methods to raise endangered giant pandas and eventually introduce them into the wild.

The thinking is that both species of bears are similar so the approaches should work in the same way.

“They have the same juvenile period, 18 months, they follow their mothers in the same way,” said Kilham. He hopes the attention on their work will help others feel more at home with bears of all kinds, just as much as he does.

And just as Kilham was once misunderstood, he wants bears to receive the same respect.

“We’ve overrun the Earth and what’s left needs all the help we can give it,” said Kilham. “If humans don’t have the same level of interest in considering these things, they won’t be there for kids in the future.”

Peter Knights discusses bear conservation across the globe

Peter Knights is the executive director of WildAid, a conservation group that works to reduce wildlife products. CGTN’s Elaine Reyes spoke to him about how research on black bears can help conservation efforts for giant pandas.