Monitoring population trends of threatened species requires standardized techniques that can be applied over broad areas and repeated through time. Sun bears Helarctos malayanus are a forest dependent tropical bear found throughout most of Southeast Asia. Previous estimates of global population trends have relied on expert opinion and cannot be systematically replicated. We combined data from 1,463 camera traps within 31 field sites across sun bear range to model the relationship between photo catch rates of sun bears and tree cover. Sun bears were detected in all levels of tree cover above 20%, and the probability of presence was positively associated with the amount of tree cover within a 6-km2 buffer of the camera traps. We used the relationship between catch rates and tree cover across space to infer temporal trends in sun bear abundance in response to tree cover loss at country and global-scales. Our model-based projections based on this “space for time” substitution suggested that sun bear population declines associated with tree cover loss between 2000–2014 in mainland southeast Asia were ~9%, with declines highest in Cambodia and lowest in Myanmar. During the same period, sun bear populations in insular southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei) were projected to have declined at a much higher rate (22%). Cast forward over 30-years, from the year 2000, by assuming a constant rate of change in tree cover, we projected population declines in the insular region that surpassed 50%, meeting the IUCN criteria for endangered if sun bears were listed on the population level. Although this approach requires several assumptions, most notably that trends in abundance across space can be used to infer temporal trends, population projections using remotely sensed tree cover data may serve as a useful alternative (or supplement) to expert opinion. The advantages of this approach is that it is objective, data-driven, repeatable, and it requires that all assumptions be clearly stated.
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© 2017 Scotson et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.