Are bears dangerous? There can only be one real answer to that: Yes! It’s no secret that these great carnivoran mammals pose a threat to humans – haven’t you seen The Revenant? Ever heard of a bear hug? They’re big, beefy, strong, have claws and teeth, and – above all – won’t hesitate to attack us if they sense their territory or young are threatened.
But, as ever with the animal kingdom, things are just a little bit more nuanced than that. First off, not all bears are dangerous to humans. Some are also less dangerous than others. Plus, bears aren’t always dangerous – they hibernate for long, long portions of the year, after all, and often roam parts of the planet where there’s simply no human around.
This guide will run through all the ins and outs of bears so that you can get a feel for the real risks posed by these big, fluffy Ursidae. It’s got info on bear attacks, complete with those all-important stats to put things into perspective. It’s got details of what to expect when bears get aggressive. And it namedrops just a few of the deadliest bear species out there. Bear spray at the ready? Good…let’s begin.
Are bears dangerous to humans?
Let’s start by simply stating a fact: Yes, bears are dangerous to humans. We can say that because there have been recorded attacks by bears on humans. Some of those have caused serious physical harm; others have proved deadly. Those seem like pretty good parameters for us to conclude that these beasts aren’t the safest encounters in the animal world.
But that’s not to say that bears are dangerous to humans per se. Zoologists will be the first to tell you that not all meetings with bears in the wild are sure to be dangerous. What’s more, not all bears in all situations are dangerous, particularly if you do some DD and learn about the various types of bears you’re likely to encounter, what to do to avoid them, and what to do if things turn sour.
Bear attacks: The stats
The stats surrounding bear attacks are a little skewed. There’s no global institution that helps to count incidents as there is with, say, shark attacks (ISAF, run out of the Florida Museum do that). That means we’re relying on different sets of data from different governments all around the planet, some of whom count attacks by different species of bears and in different locations.
The best numbers we have to go on were published in a large-scale study by Nature. They collated all the info on attacks by brown bears between the period 2000-2015 and concluded: There are around 40 (39.6 to be exact) bear attacks on humans each year.
There are some important caveats to that. Firstly, the numbers here refer only to brown bears. Also known as grizzlies, these are certainly one of the most aggressive species of bear out there, but they aren’t the only ones known to have aggressive encounters with humans. Secondly, trends show that annual bear attack incidents were on the rise as of 2016, which means the total number is likely to be higher in the 2020s.
What is a bear attack?
A bear attack is exactly what it says on the tin: A bear attacking. But how does that go down? What does a bear attack look like? And what sort of adaptations do these bulky creatures have to help them do damage? Let’s dig down into the deets, taking the brown bear – the most deadly of all the bears – as an example…
Really, it’s a question of sheer size. Bears are big. Like, really, really big. Your average male brown bear can weigh in at up to 600kg and measure a huge 2.8 meters from snout to tail. And they aren’t even the largest in the bear world – polar bears have a premium on them! Having that charging at you at 35 miles per hour isn’t something you’re likely to escape unscathed.
That said, there are often warnings. Bear attacks typically follow these stages:
- Huffing and growling – This is the warning that an attack is imminent. The bear isn’t happy and it feels threatened by your presence.
- A bluff charge – Lots of bears will fire a warning shot in the form of a bluff charge first. Don’t let the name fool you, these are hugely disconcerting, as the bear will only pull out of its run at the very last moment.
- A charge – The real charge is one of the bear’s most potent weapons. They’ll gain momentum by shifting that bulk real fast and moving straight at their target. At this stage, it can be worst to turn and run, signifying to the animal that you’re submissive.
- Bites and scrapes to the face – A bear will usually focus on attacking the face. They’ve adapted to that because their aim is to prevent their opponent from biting them back. As such, many bear victims have suffered crushing bites to the jaw and deep wounds caused by claw scrapes across the eyes and nose.
What are the most dangerous species of bear?
No one runs from the sight of a koala bear (although they aren’t actually bears at all, did you know?) and pandas are positively heartwarming for us humans. The point? Not all bears strike fear into the hearts of travelers because not all bears are dangerous. In fact, the stats show that just three or four species are responsible for the vast majority of deadly incidents. They are…
- Brown bears (Ursus arctos) – Most of the stats in this article pertain to brown bears, and for good reason, too. These are the deadliest of the species and the most aggressive. They cause the highest number of deaths in humans in North America and are the stuff of folk legends and myth. Oddly, they rarely attack on sight but are known to be very temperamental and unpredictable in the wild.
- Black bears (Ursus americanus/Ursus thibetanus) – Both Asian and North American black bears pose a serious threat to humans. They’re slightly smaller than their grizzly compadres and are nowhere near as aggressive. Still, their high population numbers and penchant for living in close proximity to humans means that attacks by these guys are really frequent. They won’t go to lots of trouble though, which is why advice for those who fall victim to black bear attacks (but NOT grizzly attacks) is to fight back with everything you have.
- Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) – The largest bear out there, polar bears have one of the most fearsome death-to-attack ratios. Over a third of all attacks on humans by these massive creatures is thought to prove fatal. They can weigh up to 800kg at full adulthood.
- Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) – Sloth bears present a particular problem in India, where they reside in areas close to major cities and urban settlements. They’re also known for their highly unpredictable nature and are even feared more than the native Bengal tiger on the subcontinent! In a period between 1989 and 1994, sloth bears are thought to have injured or killed nearly 700 people in the state of Madhya Pradesh alone!
What countries have the most bear attacks?
Geography plays a hugely important role when it comes to bear attacks. There are some places where encountering an angry grizzly in the wild is a whole load more likely. They’re usually the countries that have highly accessible national reserves but are still wild and remote enough to support large feral bear populations.
Let’s take a look at the top five destinations that count the most bear attacks of all…
- Romania – A whopping 131 total bear attacks by brown bears were recorded in Romania throughout the 15 year period following the millennium. That’s more than anywhere else on the planet. The country is thought to be home to around 6,000 individual bears, many of which live in the soaring Carpathian Mountains that carve through the heart of the nation. The authorities here have even developed a GPS warning system for mountain communities known as ROAlert.
- Russia –It’s thought that over 50% of the world’s brown bear population lives in Russia, largely in the wild eastern portion of the country and throughout Siberia. That translates into a striking attack total of 111 incidents between 2000-2015.
- United States – Just a handful of states are responsible for lots of the brown bear attacks in the USA (Wyoming, Montana), while Alaska, the old Frontier State, sees nearly 50% of the total attacks. There were in excess of 100 attacks in the stars and stripes between 2000-2015.
- Canada – The legendary home of the grizzly bear wouldn’t be one to leave off this list. Canada counted around 60 bear attacks in this period, most of which were in the mountains of British Columbia, a region with healthy bear populations but also plenty of human footfall – skiing in Whistler, anyone?
- Slovakia – Slovakia saw 54 bear attacks in the 15-year period, making it the second most dangerous place to come across a brown bear in Europe. That might seem strange to folks who aren’t aware that this corner of Central Europe is home to more than 230 square kilometers of the rugged Tatra Mountains.
Are bears dangerous? Our conclusion
Are bears dangerous? Yes, they most certainly are. Bears are responsible for something in the region of 40-60 attacks on humans each year, some of which prove fatal. However, it’s important to remember that bears are simply reacting to our presence in their habitats. Most attacks occur when hikers stray into a bear’s territory or a bear comes looking for food at campgrounds in the wild. It’s not so much that they’re dangerous; it’s more that they see us as a danger.
On top of that, some bears are a lot more dangerous than other bears. The vast majority of attacks can be attributed to just three species: The grizzly or brown bear, the polar bear, and the black bear. Finally, bears are more dangerous in certain countries – Slovakia and Romania, for example, have a high proportion of bear attacks compared to overall bear and human population numbers.