1. omnivore (noun)=an animal that is naturally able to eat both plants and meat. Example: Pigs are omnivores.
2. omnivorous (adjective) = naturally able to eat both plants and meat. Example: Pigs are omnivorous animals.
3. Land clearing (noun) is the process of removing trees, stumps, brush, stones and other obstacles from an area as required to increase the size of the crop producing land base of an existing farm or to provide land for a new farm operation.
4. hibernate (verb) = (of some animals) to spend the winter sleeping. Example: The turtle hibernates in a shallow burrow for six months of the year.
Taipei, Taiwan (CNN) — In the foothills leading to Dasyueshan National Park in eastern Taiwan, Mei-Hsiu Hwang points to the pear, tea and betel nut plantations patchworking the slopes.
"All this used to be bear habitat," she says. In particular, the Formosan black bear, a large omnivore native to the high, clouded mountains that run down the spine of Taiwan.
Hwang, associate professor and director of the Institute of Wildlife Conservation at Taiwan's National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, is likely the world's foremost expert on this species.
But when she first started to study the huge mammals as part of her PhD in 1996, she says her friends and acquaintances reacted with shock.
"They'd say, 'Do we have bears in Taiwan? We never had bears. Do we still have bears?'" she recalls. More than two decades later, the black bear is rapidly becoming a symbol for Taiwan.
The mascot of Taipei City is a black bear named "Bravo," who was present at celebrations on May 24, when Taiwan held Asia's first same-sex weddings.
Meanwhile, the island's now-defunct V Air Airline took its name from the distinctive white V shape on the black bear's chest.
But despite an increased profile, these animals are still in deep trouble, says Hwang. Classified as "endangered" by the Taiwan government, the species is being pushed to the brink of extinction by illegal hunting and land clearing.
Worse still, the relative rarity of these bears, combined with their dislike of humans, makes it almost impossible to know how many are left.
Hwang estimates there are between just 200 and 600 black bears over the entire island. "If we cannot protect them, I don't believe we can protect anything else," says Hwang.
"Bears are a flagship species, they're big, like a star, like pandas, elephants and tigers. If a country cannot protect them, will you be able to protect other, smaller wildlife? I don't think so."Forced into the mountains Hwang has to travel hours up into the hills, far from Taiwan's towns and cities, to access the areas still inhabited by bears. There are no official statistics from 100 years ago, before Taiwan's human population rapidly expanded, but Hwang says there are a large number of indigenous Taiwanese traditions relating to the bears that go back centuries.
Professor Mei-Hsiu Hwang and her assistant Wan-Ching Lin check bear camera traps high in the Taiwan mountains in May. Ben Westcott/CNN
Even during Japanese occupation of the island in the early 20th century there were reports of bears being found as low as 100 meters above sea level. Now, Hwang says, they almost entirely live above 1,000 meters.
"At lower elevations, theoretically it would be good habitat, but (they're driven higher) because of all the human disturbances -- mining, recreation, a lot of people activity," she says. The bears are primarily omnivorous, with their diet consisting mainly of fruits, nuts and berries. They scrounge over a massive habitat measuring hundreds of square kilometers. Unlike other large bears, they don't hibernate.
The Formosan black bear is a subspecies of the Asian black bear, which can be found across East and Southeast Asia, including in Japan, Thailand and South Korea.
Taipei mascot Bravo helped celebrate Taiwan's first same-sex marriages on May 24. Ben Westcott/CNN The entire species is marked as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but Hwang says it hasn't attracted as much attention as other more eye-catching animals, such as pandas or Asian elephants.
In fact, the lack of interest to protect the bears that she faced when she started working with them made her furious.
"It is a shame for Taiwanese people," says Hwang. "I feel ashamed, how come they're endangered and they're still treated this way."Hunted for meat and medicine While habitat loss has been hard on the bears, the biggest threat to Taiwan's largest mammal is illegal hunting.