The Syrian brown bear has long been considered extinct in Lebanon. That's why a recent, exceptionally rare sighting has conservationists and the Lebanese public so excited.

Editor’s note: The first few seconds of this video feature a different bear filmed in Armenia by the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC). Footage of the recent Beqaa Valley sighting follows.

In late December, a group of men in the Beqaa Valley in the eastern part of the country, near the Syrian border, reportedly filmed the female bear ambling along in the snow with a young cub in tow.

The footage was sent along to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL), who verified that the animals were, in fact, Syrian brown bears. SPNL director general Assad Serhal told The Independent that the "historic" discovery was a "positive development".

"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 500km away in Turkey. Also, brown bears would usually be hibernating or tucked in their dens during this time of the year," adds an update on the SPNL website.

A Syrian brown bear in Iran's Lar National Park. Image: Ali Sharifi, Wikimedia Commons

Though it can still be found in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia and in countries like Georgia, Armenia and Iran, the Syrian brown bear (Ursus arctos syriacus) has been considered extinct in Israel and Lebanon for decades. Even its namesake country, Syria, classified the bears as extinct in 2009 (and the subspecies had not been seen there for decades before that).

Populations have been declining for some time. In Lebanon, the bear was first identified in 1828, and it steadily lost ground to habitat destruction and overhunting over the next 130 years. 

The SPNL is not certain of the circumstances surrounding the sighting, and it's unclear at this stage whether the Beqaa Valley appearance is a sign of an ursine comeback here – the bears may simply have been passing through. The fact that they were spotted in the winter, when would normally be hibernating, suggests this pair may have been fleeing danger or conflict elsewhere. 

For the SPNL, the rare footage has raised many questions. "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 stray bear, perhaps wandering over from Syria or even Turkey or Iraq? Did the war in Syria make it cross the border?" writes the group.

This isn't the only fairly recent evidence of the presence of wild Syrian brown bears in the region – paw prints likely belonging to the subspecies were found in Syria in 2004. Other tracks have been documented in the years since. 

The unusual sighting has sparked much public interest, and according to The Independent, there have been calls for the Lebanese Ministry of the Environment to protect the immediate area in order to keep the roaming bears safe from hunters.


Top header image: Thomas Bersy, Flickr