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.
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.
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.
Over recent decades, there's been a growing, lucrative trade in bear parts -- bear meat for the black market and bones, gallbladders and paws for traditional Chinese medicine.
In the past there were strict taboos among indigenous Taiwanese about hunting bears. If you killed one, Hwang says, some tribes even isolated you out of fear you would bring bad luck back to the village.
The dense, mountainous forests in eastern Taiwan make up a large part of the bears' native habitat.
But now, a black bear corpse can be worth as much as $5,000 to a hunter. Studies around Yushan National Park prior to the 1980s found 22% of the area's bears were killed for their meat and body parts. By the 1990s, this had soared to 59%.
Hwang says the solution lies in education. If the market for bear parts and meat can be ended by raising consumer awareness, the animals can be saved.
"If there is no market demand, I believe this will lead to less bear killing. This surely will help," she says.
A sign in Taiwan's Dasyueshan National Park warns hikers and tourists to watch out for bears.
Another problem is that, due to bears' large feeding grounds, they regularly stray outside of the protected forests and into the wilds where they are vulnerable.
Displaying the GPS data of one adult male on her laptop, Hwang shows us his path over the course of months.
"That's the protected forest," she says, pointing to a small square covering just a fraction of his path.
Still, Hwang says there doesn't need to be more protected areas across the island, just better enforcement against illegal hunting.
"If all the suitable habitat allowed bears to survive, the current capacity for the whole island is able to have 5,000 to 10,000 individuals," she says. Instead, there are just hundreds.
'More precious than pandas'
The only place anyone is likely to see a black bear these days is behind wire and glass at the Taipei Zoo.
On a sunny Saturday, tourists from the island and mainland China cluster around the window of the Formosan black bear enclosure.
"He's coming. He's so cute," one tourist says in Mandarin as the huge shaggy bear ambles through its cage.
Tsai Chien-Chuan, 40-year-old father of two, brought his daughters to the enclosure. He says people need to be educated about how important the bears are to Taiwan.
"They are more precious than pandas," says Tsai. "They are very important with a smaller population. If we don't protect them, they may go extinct."
A Formosan black bear strolls through his enclosure at the Taipei Zoo.
Hwang is hopeful for the future of the bears and says she's been encouraged by the growing island-wide awareness of the animal's plight.
She now has about 25 volunteers working with her group, setting up camera traps high in the mountains to help track the bears' movements.
Up in the mountains near Dasyueshan, there is first-hand evidence of hope for the bears.
Using a GPS tracker, linked to a collar, Hwang and her team track down a female bear who has been only showing small signs of movement for months.
This is likely because she has just given birth to cubs and has slowed her movements to a minimum to look after the young bears in safety.
"I do believe we can make a difference," says Hwang. "To be honest I do see a lot of change."