A bear cub rescued after being found with its dead mother near Tofino has died from accidental asphyxiation, staff at an animal recovery centre say.

The cub, named Malcolm, likely got his head tangled in a rope used to suspend buoys that bears in recovery play with, according to staff at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre.

On the morning of his death Saturday, Nov. 24, Malcolm was seen "playing contentedly on the large tree stumps that had been provided in his case," the centre wrote in a Facebook post.

Staff returned to check on him in the mid-afternoon, but noticed the cub was not moving on the ground beside one of the stumps.

"Unfortunately he had managed to get his head and neck tightly ensnared in a small rope handle attached to a plastic buoy that was suspended by a chain from one of the tree stumps," the centre said. "There were no signs of a struggle and we suspect he got his head through the loop and then very quickly asphyxiated.

NIWRC says staff are "quite upset and shocked" at the death, and are deeming it a very unfortunate accident.

"There's this tremendous heartache around here because he was the only one that we concentrated on, and because we spent all that time and you get emotionally involved," said NIWRC founder Robin Campbell. "So we're kind of broken here right now."

Campbell said it's especially heartbreaking because Malcolm was on the home stretch to being able to going into hibernation out in the wild.

"He had this spring ahead of him and he was going to be released in the summer," he said.

The cub was discovered in the summer by a group of whale watchers who found it nestled up to its dead mother in the area of Ross Pass.

Severely emaciated and frightened, the bear was brought to the recovery centre in Errington for rehabilitation.

He bounced back from his rough condition and was moved to a larger enclosure on Oct. 18, which included the buoy.

The centre says it has never seen any injuries or mishaps related to the buoys prior to this. Campbell said staff have removed all ropes from the enclosures in the wake of the death.