Pedestrians in Basra, Iraq, got quite a shock this morning: A huge bear lumbering across the street. The animal had escaped from a shop where it was being held for sale, according to local news reports.
Onlookers captured footage of the Syrian brown bear ambling through crowded streets of the Persian Gulf port city before it was captured and returned to the shop.
A Middle Eastern subspecies of the brown bear Ursus arctos, the Syrian brown bear is considered extinct throughout much of its former range, which once stretched as far south as the Sinai Peninsula. The animals even are mentioned in the Bible. (Read about how Iraq's unique wildlife is disappearing.)
Although brown bears are usually most comfortable in forests and mountain habitats, the animals sometimes follow rivers and other water sources into human-populated areas, says Patti Sowka, an expert in human-bear conflict who runs an independent consulting firm in Missoula, Montana, a state in the western U.S.
"I see them in Missoula, where they will come down from the mountains looking for something to eat. They’ll just follow a drainage ditch right into town," Sowka says. (Read how not to get attacked by a bear.)
Most bears drawn to human areas are after easier sources of food: Scraps and garbage around human settlements is often more packed with calories and simpler to scavenge than what bears can find in the wild.
Bad News for Bears
Still, to find a bear in the middle of a large city like Basra is rare—which is why Sowka immediately suspected the bear had somehow escaped from a zoo or other form of captivity.
"That bear looks awfully comfortable just strolling through the street like that," she says.
Habitat loss in the region, driven by decades of war in the area along with deforestation, has caused populations of Syrian brown bears to plummet.
Hunting and poaching, as well as milking captive bears for ther bile, has also taken a toll. The bears are considered mostly extinct in Syria itself, as well as in Palestine and Israel, although small populations of bears persist in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Turkmenistan.
Syrians have sold Syrian bear skins and cubs as far back as 1955, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and it appears the practice of selling bears has persisted in Iraq as well.
However, in 2004, there was a glimmer of hope: A scientist hiking through Syria’s Anti-Lebanon mountain range spotted bear tracks in the snow at an elevation of about 6,200 feet—the first evidence of a Syrian bear in Syria in 50 years.