Bears: South Asia
This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
Bears in India
Dec 3, 2022: The Times of India
I study three species of bears — the Asiatic black bear, the sun bear and sloth bear — of the four kinds found in India, the Himalayan brown bear being the fourth. Most of my work focuses on the sloth bear. While teaching at HNG University in Patan, Gujarat, I research the distribution of bears worldwide, map the range of species, study bears’ ecological needs and behavioural aspects and r esearch growing human-bear conflicts. I seek to understand how we can prevent such clashes and strengthen human-bear coexistence.
There are eight species of bears across the world. Most of these are categorised as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN — only the American black bear and brown bear aren’t facing threats to their existence. In India, all four bear species are deemed vulnerable and placed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act which is applicable to species needing rigorous protection. The presence of bears here should concern us. Bears bring a great dea l to the ecosystems we all need. As large omnivores, they play an important role in the food chain. They are also vital seed dispersers. Most bears eat fruit — as they have large home ranges and move about a lot, they scatter seeds widely, helping nature to thrive. They are also controlling agents for ants and termites.
Bear behaviour is quite unique. Unlike other large mammals, they are not social beings — these are solitary animals by nature and tendto live and travel alone, the exception being mother bears. Yet, currently, we find bears inching closer to human settlements. These species face enormous deforestation and the loss of their habitat now. In addition, they confront huge water challenges. With natural water bodies often runni ng dry, linked to the intensifying impacts of global warming, bears seeking water have no choice but to approach human habitations. This is one aspect to the alarming rise in human -bear conflicts in India now. With the loss of habitat, climate change and uncontrolled human expansion cutting into their terrain,bear feeding behaviour is also changing perforce. Lacking the nourishmen t they’d find in jungles, many bears are entering towns searching for food. We often hear of bears wandering into temples and eating the offerings they find there, seeking food in restaurant kitchens or consuming leftovers thrown out by households. The ingestion of human-made food has concerning implications for the health of these wild species — this search also generates circumstances where human or bear can panic on confronting each other. Most bear attacks we have studied are accidental, with humans coming upon them inside bear habitat. Also, mother bears, who are extremely protective of their cubs, sometimes attack in defence of their young. Retaliatory attacks by humans on bears are rising as well.
It is vital we remember bears are part of India’s natural heritage. The sloth bear is endemic to the Indian subcontinent, with 90% of its global population found in India. These animals represent our environm ental wealth and protecting them should be among our foremost responsibilities. Sloths are mostly found in the wild — our laws prohibit them from being kept in captivity, except in governmentrun zoos — but earlier, they were frequently captured and made ‘dancing bears’. This has been outlawed and sloths, which are lowland beings, are found across central India now, extending from Gujarat and Rajasthan to the Deccan as well.
We need concerted conservation strategies to protect bears. The government initiated specific projects to help lions and rhinos — we require such endeavours to safeguard bears and their habitat. Bears need secure corridors as well to move between the patches of forest left after deforestation.
These should be worked out by identifying key areas and securing them. Also, as has been done for leopards and tigers in India, specific guidelines can help forest officials facing human-bear conflict situ ations. It is imperative as well to increase the tolerance of people living in places that touch upon bear habitat. During our field studies, we’ve found this is often lacki ng — but with education and outreach programs about bears, we can deepen our understanding and appreciation of them. This should also be part of an Indian bear project. State measures help — bears wer e widely poached for their organs which were used in traditional medicine.
Officialaction is helping to combat this now. Bears live for about 20 years in the wild. Often growing six feet tall, bears can weigh upto 120 kilograms. These large, shy beings need their space. I’ve met many bears during my fieldwork but once, in northern Gujarat, we came across a mother bear who had her cubs on her ba ck. Both the cubs jumped off while the female bear stood up on her hind legs, towering high, showing an aggressive stance. The message came through — we exited the thicket very quietly, so this little fam ily could also live in peace on an Earth we all share.
2017-18: restoration of "dancing" sloth bear
Centre backs move to bring back animal smuggled across the border in 2017
Nineteen-year-old Rangila doesn’t need to dance anymore. The sloth bear, which was smuggled into Nepal in December 2017 for use as a ‘dancing bear’, is being sent back to India.
The Indian and Nepalese governments, Nepal’s Jane Goodall Institute, and the Indian non-profit, Wildlife SOS, facilitated the repatriation. The seven-month-long process involved obtaining several approvals and documents from both countries (including import permits), the organisations said.
Wildlife SOS also launched a campaign requesting Nepalese authorities to help the bear. Eventually, a Cabinet decision by the government of Nepal approved the bear’s repatriation to India. It has, however, been an arduous journey for Rangila.
It was in December 2017 that Wildlife SOS received information about two dancing bears on the Indo-Nepal border. But the traffickers swiftly moved them into Nepal, where Indian authorities do not have jurisdiction.
Nepal’s enforcement officials detained two people, and the two bears, Rangila and 17-year old Sridevi, were temporarily shifted to the Kathmandu Zoo. Sridevi, unfortunately, did not survive.
A 1,000-km journey
At present, two Wildlife SOS teams are engaged in escorting Rangila in an animal ambulance on its 1,000-km journey from Kathmandu Zoo to the Agra Bear Rescue Centre in Uttar Pradesh, where he will join nearly 200 rescued sloth bears.
This is a unique effort to bring back a wild citizen home, said Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of Wildlife SOS. Once Rangila reaches the Wildlife SOS Bear Rescue Centre, he will receive specialised veterinary care, said co-founder Geeta Seshamani.
“He will have a large forested enclosure with a pool, lots of trees to climb, and other bears to play with,” she added.
“We are happy to help in this repatriation mission,” said Chiranjibi Prasad Pokheral, project manager at Kathmandu Zoo, where both Rangila and Sridevi were housed. Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus), found only in the Indian subcontinent, were exploited as ‘dancing bears’ in India until the practice was banned in 1972. But it is not illegal in Nepal.
2020: Impact of climate change
Shivani Azad, October 17, 2020: The Times of India
Scanty snowfall and lack of food availability due to climate change has cut short the hibernation period of bears drastically — from an average four to five months to barely two now, experts have found.
They also warned that changes in hibernation patterns have had repercussions on the animal’s behaviour, turning it more aggressive and leading to increased bear attacks. “We are now recording bear attacks even in December and January when the animals are known to hibernate,” said J S Suhag, chief wildlife warden of Uttarakhand forest department.
This year, four people were killed in 64 incidents of man-bear conflict in the state. In 2019, four people died in 76 bear attacks while two were killed in 54 incidents in 2018. S Sathyakumar, senior scientist at Wildlife Institute of India who has been studying man-animal conflict in Uttarakhand’s high altitudes under a UNDP project, said climate change has affected hibernation of the Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus).
“They are now hibernating for shorter durations due to scanty snowfall. Earlier, they would hardly be seen from mid-December to mid-March. But this year, we spotted a bear with its cub wandering around in Darma Valley of Pithoragarh in January. This is very unusual,” he said.
‘Reproductive cycle may be hit by short hibernation’
Lalit Kumar Sharma, head of department, wildlife and Geographic Information System division, at the headquarters of Zoological Survey of India in Kolkata, who was part of a five-year study (2008-2012) on bears in Jammu & Kashmir, told TOI that the average hibernation period of Asiatic black bears was now down to 54 days instead of three to five winter months. “We found that one radio-collared bear hibernated for just 32 days,” he said.
Shorter hibernation has also been observed among Himalayan brown bears (Ursus arctos), said Sharma, whose team recorded sightings of the animal in January in Himachal Pradesh.
Experts said the bears were hibernating for short periods due to less snowfall. “Snowfall in the Himalayas is now spread out over more months, but it is scanty. At the same time, climate change has affected food availability. For instance, berries that flowered in May are flowering early, leaving bears with less food sources towards the winter which is why they are venturing near human habitats, searching for food,” Sathyakumar said.
The changes in hibernation patterns and lack of food resources are also turning bears aggressive, said Sathyakumar. “It is also likely to affect their offspring if the mother bear does not have adequate fat stores in the body,” he said.
Sharma also agreed that the reproductive cycle of the species may be affected. “Bears mate during spring and give birth to offspring during hibernation. Short hibernation periods could impact this cycle.” Bears are among several species that have been affected as Himalayan biodiversity changes due to climate change, said Subrat Sharma, head of GB Pant National institute of Himalayan Environment, Ladakh. He said snowfall across the Himalayan region has reduced over the past few years and warmer and dry winters have disrupted hibernation patterns of animals, including bears.