Spirit of the rainforest
Uncover the mystery of the white-furred black bear
Before the world was green, everything was white. Snow and glaciers covered the whole planet, until Raven the creator came down and fashioned the forests. Once his work was done, Raven found the black bears among the trees and told them that every tenth cub they produced would be born white as snow as a reminder of the harsh times in the Ice Age. These white spirit bears would live deep in the forest for safety and would bring peace to the land and those that lived there.
So goes the story of the spirit bears told by the native people of British Columbia. It’s an important part of their culture, reflected by the status of the bears as the official mammals of the province. The only white bear besides the polar bear, this
mysterious and rare subspecies of the black bear is almost entirely limited to the Great Bear Rainforest. To the Kitasoo people who have lived in the province for thousands of years, the spirit bear is called Moksgm’ol, meaning simply ‘the white bear’. It’s also known as the Kermode bear, named after Frank Kermode, the former director of the Royal British Columbia Museum who was among the first to discover and study it.
Spirit bears are not albinos, nor are their hairs transparent like the fur of a polar bear. The effect that produces these pale bears with dark eyes is known as Kermodism. It’s caused by a recessive mutation in the same gene that creates pale skin and red hair in humans; a male and female don’t need to be white to produce a spirit bear, but they do both need to be carrying the mutation in their DNA. This is relatively unlikely, which is why only one in ten bears in the Great Bear Rainforest is born white.
The mutation is carried by more bears on some of the islands along British Columbia’s coast; on the mainland there is around one white bear for every 40 to 100 black bears, but on Gribbell Island spirit bears make up a third of the overall ursine population.
Their striking white fur makes them easier for people to spot among the dark trees, but spirit bears have an advantage over their black relatives when it comes to catching salmon during daylight hours. Looking up from under the water, bears with black fur are obvious against the light sky and only catch every fourth fish, while the white hunters stand out less and are successful in a third of their attempts. Black bears are omnivores, but salmon forms a large part of their diet and is a vital source of fat as they prepare for winter. Bears don’t truly hibernate, but they do spend up to seven months resting in dens and tree cavities to avoid the cold, and fat reserves provide them with enough energy to survive when food is scarce.
Preferring to keep to themselves, spirit bears can often be seen carrying the salmon they catch from the rivers back into the dense trees before they start to eat. Scientists might not accept the stories of the animals’ supernatural powers, but their presence really does keep
the forest flourishing; when they leave salmon remains on the ground, the fish carcasses rot and add nitrogen to the soil. Around these parts there’s a belief that the land and the water are connected, and the bears provide a link between the two by feeding the plants and land animals with nutrients from aquatic creatures.
The story says that Raven wanted the spirit bear to have eternal peace and safety in the rainforest, but currently things don’t seem to be lining up for the happy ending. It’s almost impossible to count the exact number, but experts estimate that there are between
400 and 1,200 Kermode bears in British
Columbia, making the subspecies one of the most rare of all the bears. With lower salmon numbers than in previous years, grizzly bears are venturing further in search of food and are beginning to enter spirit bear territory for the first time, even swimming across stretches of water to reach the islands. These hungry invading grizzlies have both size and strength on their side; they chase the smaller resident bears away from feeding sites or spook them, making it harder for them to survive.
While the encroaching grizzly bears are a concern to those that study, admire and work
“Spirit bears have an advantage over their black relatives when it comes to hunting salmon. The white hunters stand out less against the sky and are successful in a third of their attempts”
to protect the spirit bears, there’s another danger looming: humans. Development of the land for oil pipelines and logging is reducing the area of forest safe for the bears to live in. They’ve been used as the faces of campaigns and protests against the infiltration of the forest, but the province is full of valuable resources. Around 25 black bears are shot each year on hunting permits granted by British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. Laws forbid the harming or shooting of the white bears, but the black morphs shot might be carriers of the recessive gene. Scientists predict that, with all these factors, combined with the ability of the Kermode bears to inter-breed with other black bear subspecies, the white subspecies is likely to vanish one day.
The spirit bears are the symbol and spiritual heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. Tourists travel across the globe to see them, scientists spend hours observing them, and they hold a special place in the hearts of the locals who share their back garden with these predators. Yet while these bears are facing a difficult and uncertain future, they have a community of determined people working to stop them slipping out of existence as silently as they disappear between the trees.
“With lower salmon numbers than in previous years, grizzly bears are venturing further in search of food and are beginning to enter spirit bear territory, even swimming to reach islands”
below Because it’s caused by a recessive mutation, white cubs can be born to both black and white parents
RIGHT White bears have better luck on the riverbanks than black bears thanks to their fairer fur Spirit bears aren’t theonly large animals around – they sharethe rainforest with wolves and cougars
With their striking coats, it’s not hard to see whyKermode bears have captivated so many people