A black bear that entered a middle school in north-eastern China was shot to death by police early Monday morning, prompting questions as to the necessity of the killing.

The bear wandered into No. 3 Middle School in Raohe county, Heilongjiang province from a nearby cornfield at 5:00am, hours before classes were due to begin.

Although police reportedly tried to tranquillise the animal at first, they missed their target since it was “hiding in a corner,” thereby making it “difficult to aim,” according to mainland reports. Police then fired on the bear with live ammunition as it moved to “charge” officers in a school corridor.

Black bear captured at CCTV at the school. Photo: Heilongjiang Morning Post.

With boarders evacuated from the school dormitories with scaling ladders and the surrounding area safely evacuated, however, netizens have questioned the wisdom of shooting the animal dead.

“It shouldn’t be that difficult for police to wait to tranquillise [the bear],” a top comment on Sina news mused, adding that the confrontation was a “controllable situation [with] people far away.”

Asian black bear in Darjeeling Zoo. Photo: Wikicommons.

Black bears are listed as protected animals in China’s National Protection Wildlife Law, which stipulates that anyone hunting or catching bears without permits will be subject to severe punishment.

However, the over-cutting of forests and rapidly expanding urban centres have reduced the bear’s natural habitat to less than one-fifth of what it was 70 years ago, putting isolated bear populations under intense environmental and genetic stress.

Frequent hunting for their paws and gall bladders—a valuable ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine—has also made the bears increasingly likely to react with defensive aggression when confronted by humans.

Sudden rushes such as the one described by police are typically a warning that a bear is nervous about one’s presence, which it perceives as too close, according to the US National Park Service. A defensive bear will stop attacking once it feels the threat has been removed. Predatory bear attacks are extremely rare, and typically occur only in very remote locations.

Bear sightings are known to increase in the autumn months as the animals prepare for their winter hibernation, which requires them to consume up to 20,000 calories a day.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others