Bear facts

Poaching, illegal trade in bears for their body parts, and human-bear conflicts pose a great threat to the sloth bear species, which is endemic to the Indian subcontinent.

Published : Sep 17, 2014 12:30 IST

The sloth bear. India is home to four bear species.

The sloth bear. India is home to four bear species.

A bear at your desk! Well, Kartick Satyanarayan is used to that when he sits in front of his computer. Like cuddly toys coming to life, a couple of furry creatures move about his workstation, rub their snouts against his face, and, making noisy grunts, peer over his shoulder when he uses his laptop. The young sloth bears were rescued from poachers by Wildlife SOS, which Kartick co-founded with Geeta Seshamani in 1995.

Had it not been for the organisation’s “save the bear campaign”, the young sloth bears would have fallen into the hands of Kalandars, a nomadic community engaged in bear dancing for a living. Some records say that Kalandars were patronised by the Mughals and the Maratha rulers. When these rulers ceased to exist, the coins that cheering crowds on the street and at fairgrounds threw into the bowls Kalandars passed after each performance sustained their families. Although a large number of the dancing bears have been rescued, many are said to exist in remote villages along the India-Nepal border.

Wildlife SOS has four bear rescue centres, in Agra (Uttar Pradesh), Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh), Bangalore (Karnataka) and Purulia (West Bengal). The first dancing bear that was rescued reached the Agra Bear Rescue Facility—tourist itineraries to the city of the Taj Mahal now list this too—in December 2002. Today, it houses 250 bears on about 64 hectares of land allotted to the project by the Uttar Pradesh government. The latest to reach the centre are four cubs rescued from a group of poachers from Jharkhand in March last year. The other centres house 377 bears totally.

A study done by Wildlife SOS exposes the cruel practices adopted by Kalandars to train the animals to dance in the street. The teeth of the cubs are knocked out with metallic rods and their claws are removed. The males are castrated crudely without anaesthesia. After a month, a slender rope is forced through the bear’s muzzle using a red-hot needle. This is used to control the animal. Then it is a life of captivity and deprivation. Many of the bears develop cataract in due course. Some of them become fully or partially blind. Even so there is no let-up on dance performances during festival seasons. And the trauma continues.

What came to be called bear dance is actually the unsteady gait of a bear intoxicated with the flowers of mahua, a tropical tree. But to amuse crowds, captive bears are prodded and beaten with sticks to do their act. The sloth bear stands on its hind legs and is forced to sway its body to the beating of drums.

A Supreme Court ruling in May 2001 banned the use of animals in circuses or performances. This, coupled with the rising awareness of cruelty against animals, forced the authorities to implement strictly the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which makes captivity of bears and other wild animals illegal. Some Kalandars voluntarily surrendered their bears. But it is said that many of them fled with the bears to the Nepal border and took shelter there. The majority of the dancing bears Wildlife SOS volunteers helped rescue were from Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

Home away from home The bear rescue centres offer a natural setting: forest cover, sandy paths, grasslands, ponds and cave-like structures. The cost of the upkeep of a bear comes to Rs.250 a day, including a diet of vegetables, fruits, cereals and honey, which the sloth bear is extremely fond of. Regulations of the Zoo Authority of India are strictly followed in the upkeep of sloth bears. Veterinary doctors keep tabs on their health.

“We help the sloth bears recover from their trauma and give them unrestrained freedom. In the enclosures they have their ideal habitat. They are subjected to careful observation and a monitored socialisation process so as to make them a compatible group,” says Kartick.

But Wildlife SOS’ rescue efforts entailed a humanitarian problem: the plight of Kalandars who had lost their means of livelihood. Thus, the organisation took up the task of rehabilitating the Kalandar community. Many of its members were trained for alternative jobs. Special care was taken to make the women of the community employable and to send their children to school. More than 3,000 Kalandar families are said to have benefited from this programme.

The number of dancing bears has now come down, but illegal trading in bears is something that the authorities are still grappling with. Sloth bears are poached in many parts of India, especially in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar, for their paws and gall bladder which are much in demand in countries such as China, Korea and Japan. What drives the illegal trade is their bile, used in traditional medicines in these countries. The Forest Department of Madhya Pradesh has constituted a special team to look into global networks with which poachers in India are said to have connections.

Human-bear conflicts Human-bear conflicts are on the rise in several States, following the shrinking of bear habitats. Bears raid crops, and villagers in turn lynch or poison them. To sensitise villagers on poaching and the illegal trade in bear parts and to propagate the message of wildlife conversation, organisations such as the Wildlife Trust of India in New Delhi and the Zoo Outreach Organisation in Coimbatore employed the medium of street plays. Initially, villagers’ response to the campaign was poor. To them, bears that raided their crops or attacked them when they went to collect firewood, minor forest produce or honey were a social menace. Many people were injured in bear attacks. However, the organisers prevailed on them to understand the need to conserve and protect wildlife.

Street plays were staged for the first time in Sambalpur district of Odisha in 2009, a key area of bear cub poaching and illegal trade in India. Later, plays were staged in other areas of bear trade, such as Barapada and Angul in the State. “The street plays had their desired impact,” says Rudra Mahapatra, field officer of the Wildlife Trust of India. “We talked to a section of the villagers, both literate and illiterate. They started agreeing that sloth bears also have the right to live.”

To prevent poaching, local committees were formed with volunteers of the Wildlife Trust of India, the Forest Department and political and voluntary organisations. Cub trade and incidents of human-bear conflict declined as a result of all this. However, during 2013-14 there was a spurt in human-bear conflicts in Odisha and 19 persons were killed. Villagers retaliated by killing 18 bears. In Koraput village alone, it is said that one bear killed eight people and injured 47 persons. Mahapatra says the reasons are being analysed and more campaigns planned.

Dr Nitish A. Dharaiya, co-chair of the IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) sloth bear division, says that human-bear conflicts are very common in many parts of north-east Gujarat. In winter, people who go to pick fruits frequently come into contact with bears.

Bear conservation K. Yoganand, a wildlife biologist who was formerly with the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, has conducted pioneering studies on the ecology and behaviour of sloth bears. He says bears usually run away on seeing men in the forest. “But if they feel they are under threat or are surprised, they may attack with their sharp claws. The attack need not be deliberate.” As part of his study, Yoganand has used radio collars on bears to watch their movements.

India is home to four bear species—the Asiatic black bear, the brown bear, the Malayan bear and the sloth bear. Their total number is estimated to be around 20,000. Bears are mostly nocturnal animals and move around in their habitats for up to 100 square kilometres in search of fruits and insects. S.H. Prater, one of the earliest authorities on Indian wildlife, describes the sloth bear as a large animal with small eyes and a tail too small to be seen under the shaggy coat of fur. Its paws are short and have long and sharply curved claws that are nonretractable. Its footprints are often mistaken for a man’s.

The sloth bear ( Melursis ursinus ) prefers dry deciduous forest areas. It is predominantly a herbivore, but its diet includes ants and termites, which its digs out with its sharp claws from under fallen logs or the crevices in tree trunks.

The sloth bear is also a speedy climber of trees, and this stands it in good stead in knocking down honeycombs or feasting on fruits. It relishes the fruits of Melanoxylon diospyros , a tree whose leaves (tendu patta) are used to make bidis. Mother bears deliver their young in cave-like structures in rocks and watch them round the clock.

N.A. Naseer, the eminent wildlife photographer, narrates his experiences of photographing bears in his book Kadine Chennu Thodumbol (When You Touch the Forest) in Malayalam. A tribal watcher named Mani in Parambikulam, Kerala, has two hollows in place of his right eye and nose as a result of an encounter with a bear. It is frightening enough to deter one from entering the forest, says Naseer.

He also narrates the experiences of another tribal watcher, Swaminathan, who is well-versed in the behaviour of sloth bears. Naseer says he learnt a lot about bears from him. This, he says, helped him photograph sloth bears up close.

Fifteen years ago, Thomas Nelson, a forest official in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, along with the then Divisional Forest Officer, Anil Bharadwaj, conducted a study on the ecology and behaviour of sloth bears. Accompanied by tribal helpers, he tracked them during day and, in the light of burning torches, at night. Human-bear conflicts are practically nil in the Periyar reserve; in rare cases sloth bears just follow honey collectors because of the scent. Nelson also observed that the sloth bear loved to eat ants and insects. One of the things it relished was the larvae of roller beetles in elephant dung, he said.

With the exception of a few studies, information about sloth bears is wanting in India. Popular species like the tiger, the elephant and the snow leopard have always got preference over the bear in wildlife conservation programmes. But of late, the government has taken a few initiatives to conserve the bear. Jessore and Ratal Mahal in Gujarat and Dharoji in Karnataka are the three important sloth bear sanctuaries in India.

In November 2012, the government released a national action plan for bear conservation at the 21st International Conference on Bear Research and Management held in New Delhi, in which representatives from 37 countries participated.

The action plan outlines programmes for the protection of the bear from poaching and illegal trade, the management of human-bear conflicts, the protection and restoration of bear habitats, further research on bears in India, and a review of policy and regulations on bears.

G. Shaheed is chief of legal and environmental news bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi.

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