Sloth bear

In the land of bears

Print edition : November 13, 2015

A lone female bear. Photo: Nithila Baskaran

A female bear with two cubs. Photo: Nithila Baskaran

Scrub jungle and rocky outcrop, the habitat of sloth bears. Photo: Nithila Baskaran

A francolin, a common bird in the sloth bear sanctuary. Photo: Nithila Baskaran

The Daroji sloth bear sanctuary near Hampi in Karnataka is an ideal example of what can be done in conservation in a developing country.

WHEN one drives around the countryside in Hampi, a striking feature of the terrain is the rocky outcrop. Heaps of boulders interspersed by scrub jungle form a picturesque landscape. Some rocks are large and some, over eons, have acquired impressive shapes and formations and appear like a gallery of Henry Moore sculptures. These rocky hills and the scrub jungle that surrounds them are home to some fascinating wildlife. In 1945, M. Krishnan, who was working in Sandur principality as a political officer, documented this in an article he wrote about bears, for whom this environment offered an ideal habitat. He thought that it would be a good idea to have in that place a sanctuary for these animals. When he wrote the article, this rocky jungle was teeming with wildlife. It was also home to chinkaras, great Indian bustards, and even an occasional tiger. But all these are locally extinct now, though the leopard and the sloth bear are holding out. Even earlier, in the 19th century, when the British surveyed this area, they referred to it as Bear Hill.

After India gained Independence, M.Y. Ghorpade of the erstwhile Sandur royal family and a Minister in the State Cabinet began working on the idea of a sanctuary for bears. Meanwhile, the canals that emanated from the Tungabadra dam split the habitat and restricted the movement of animals. Agricultural expansion and industries ate up vast stretches of forests. Worst of all, the area came to the attention of miners, and now hills are being ripped apart. Still some wildlife enthusiasts, along with the help of the Forest Department, worked undaunted on the idea left by Krishnan. After a lot of ground work, and some clever civil work, it was declared a sanctuary in 1994, amidst opposition from the local people.

Daroji is a village deep inside the sanctuary and its residents were worried they might be evicted. This anxiety has become a common feature in many protected areas, resulting in an anti-wildlife mode on the part of the local people. A few years ago, when preparations were afoot to declare Sathyamangalam forest in Tamil Nadu a tiger sanctuary, the local villages were against it and their residents held demonstrations. But they were convinced eventually by forest officials. Similarly, some good public relations work on the part of the Forest Department saw the people of Daroji accept the idea and made possible the bear sanctuary, the first of its kind in Asia. The sanctuary was extended in 2009, and now it covers an area of 83 square kilometres.

Striking diversity

Though this is a small sanctuary, it harbours a striking diversity of animals, birds and plants, including the sloth bear, which is unique to the Indian subcontinent and whose range extends throughout India. However, in the last few decades, it has lost much of its habitat to development and roads. It has been hunted for its pelt and nails which are sold as good luck charms. Its bile and gall bladder are sought after ingredients for native medicine in China. There was also a practice of ritual hunting. Every year, during Ugadhi festival, the Bedar community that lives around the forests in Bellary district, was given to hunting bears. Through some concentrated work among the Bedars, this ritual killing has been stopped in recent years. However, the number of sloth bears has dwindled so rapidly and deeply that in 1992 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared this animal endangered.

In addition to these reasons, there was another factor that led to the drop in bear population. A community of people called Kalandhar, traditionally eked out a livelihood using bears for entertainment, and legend has it that they used to perform in the courts of Moghul emperors. They caught bear cubs from their lairs even before the cubs had opened their eyes. In the process of catching them, at times the mother bear was killed. Only about half the number of captured cubs survived. Kalandhars raised these bear cubs. They pulled out the claws of the animal, castrated the males and put a rope through the nostrils. They trained them to perform tricks like dancing, and they moved from place to place. They would put the young bear on a hot tin, and it would hop to avoid the heat while drum music was played. Later, the hapless bear would dance whenever the music was played.

A few years ago, moved by the plight of the bears, two activists decided to rescue the animals. Geetha Seshamani and Karthik Satyanarayanan, through their organisation, Wildlife SOS, began to work systematically. They handled each individual Kalandhar separately, pointed out that it was illegal to keep the bears and offered alternative livelihoods. Some were given autorickshaws and some were provided with tea shops. The rescued bears were taken to a refuge near Agra, which now has 420 bears. It is not possible to free these animals into the forest as they cannot fend for themselves.

Daroji has all the signs of a well-managed sanctuary. It is an example of what can be done in conservation in a developing country. To discourage people from venturing into the forest in search of firewood, LPG stoves have been distributed to families living around the sanctuary. Borewells have been sunk so that they do not have to walk long distances to fetch water. The idea is to minimise disruptive human activity inside the forest.

The walkway to the viewing point, meandering over a small rocky hill, is laid elegantly. Nothing sticks out. No paint or mortar. Only bare, dressed granite stones. From the viewing point, we saw four bears come and feed on the jaggery and bananas left on a rock by Forest Department staff. A pair of langurs and a mongoose also joined the feast.

Our guide was well informed on wildlife and was himself a keen birdwatcher. He could identify a honey buzzard soaring way up by its silhouette. It was he who pointed out to us a pair of barred button quails. Though it was a fleeting glimpse, the bird went on my life list. A painted spur fowl, another celebrity of this forest, also made an appearance on a rock. Francolin and peafowl abound.

Island of habitat

In this precious little island of habitat, animals such as bears and leopards are holding on precariously. Along with them are pangolins and porcupines, which are difficult to see. Even the elusive striped hyena has been recorded here. What is to be borne in mind in this context is that tourism, eco or otherwise, and photo ops are purely incidental and secondary. Wildlife does not exist for the tourists’ pleasure. Wild animals have a right to live and share this planet. We were told the story of a few great Indian bustards that were found in the neighbouring Siruguppa scrub jungle. On learning about the presence of these birds, hordes of photographers landed there. Seeing this activity, the rural folk thought that the area would be declared a sanctuary and that they would face eviction.

So they chased away the few birds that were left. A heavy price was paid for meddling with their habitat. Consider this: in the whole of the subcontinent only around 8,000 sloth bears are left. Unless habitats are protected zealously, not just a unique creature like the sloth bear, but all the other myriad forms of birds, animals and plants that are in this scrub jungle will be wiped out from the earth, making it poorer.

The imaginatively designed thatched cottages located in the scrub jungle merge with the landscape. Sitting in our room, we could see across the glass panel a black-naped hare going about its feeding There was a family of francolins and red-vented bulbuls. In the morning when we were having coffee in the sit-out, we saw myriads of moths, of varied sizes, shapes and colours, sticking to the wall. I have not seen so many kinds of moths in one spot. Some were so tiny that you needed a lens to identify them as a moths. An expert tells me that there are more varieties of colouful moths than butterflies.

The evening at this lookout point was glorious. It rained, followed by howling wind, and quickly cleared. The slanting rays of the evening sun lit up the landscape with golden light. The peacocks came out and called. A few boars showed up. We heard the sawing of a leopard and I began scanning the hillside in front of us with binoculars. I began to examine the skyline of the boulders on top, and I saw it, standing on a rock and then leisurely lying down. The western horizon was getting crimson and we got an alert from the sanctuary gate to return. When we started to climb down, the leopard was still there, surveying the darkening countryside.

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