India is going to host the 21st International Conference on Bear Research and Management in the Capital this week to address concerns regarding bear preservation

Every day at twilight, as the orange orb goes down the horizon, sloth bears venture into the open from cosy caves and resting roosts. Essentially nocturnal and fond of fruits they wander many miles for choicest figs and berries. As omnivorous creatures, they also depend on ground grubs, juicy insects and dig deep into termite mounds. As they have a sweet tooth, they often climb trees to hunt for honey.

Unfortunately, in recent years, man-animal conflicts have put sloth bears in danger as they roam the jungles in search of daily rations. The conflict has been accentuated due to rustic folk invading jungles to collect medicinal plants, firewood and other forest produce and villagers, at times, also indulge in poaching, as it happened recently in Kanha National park where four bears were butchered for their teeth and nails In Jharkhand, a report released in October recorded 300 encounters in the past six years due to conflict between bears and humans. Obviously, bears bear the brunt of human interference.

Additionally, for many years, sloth bears have been caught as cubs and tamed as dancing bears, killed for bile, meat and body parts. In fact, for two hundred years, dancing bears have been used for soliciting moolah from tourists and entertaining rural audiences in India. The bear handlers profited from the agony of the bears as the latter were put on nose piercing leashes and made to perform antics

In the 1990s dancing bears along the Delhi Agra Highway were a common sight. Fortunately, since about 10 years voluntary groups with the help of the government of India and international aid have dramatically changed this situation by eradicating bear dancing. According to Aniruddha Mookerjee (special invitee to IBA 2012 Core Committee), who is a Campaign Coordinator in India for World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), in 1996, India had about 1000-1200 sloth bears being ‘danced’ across the country. A recent compilation by wildlife groups indicates there were about 668 in 2001, 346 in 2005, and 28 in 2010 and less than 5 in 2012.

Despite this accomplishment, India has yet to instil critical values leading to conservation of bears and anti-poaching efforts. Even with very little demand for them today, bears are still being poached for use in folk and fake medicine. Poaching combined with habitat destruction, adds to a serious threat to the low population of sloth bears. Bear populations in India or even worldwide have not been catalogued comprehensively. However estimates for bears in India are: Asiatic black bear – 7000-9000; Himalayan brown bear -- less than 1000; Sloth bear – 9000-13000 according to random samplings. A handful of Sun bears has been recorded in North East India. Presently two exclusive protected areas for bears in the country – Daroji Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka and Jessore Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat exist.

In this crucial scenario, for the first time, India is hosting the 21st International Conference on Bear Research and Management (IBA-2012) in New Delhi from 26th to 30th November to address the concerns regarding bear preservation. To be attended by 350 specialists from 35 countries, campaign coordinator for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Mr Mookerjee says that the conference is significant for India as it will catapult the bear to a national status. Till now the tiger has been hogging the limelight. The learnings (185 papers will be presented) and earnings for India are likely to include a National Bear Conservation and Welfare Action Plan, State Action Plans, a toolkit for bear-human conflict mitigation, and updated protocol for rehabilitation of orphaned bear cubs.

Other attractions of the conference include a street play, screening of documentary films and exhibition stalls showcasing technological gadgets to study bears in the wild.

The conference will also host a charity event where unique wildlife artefacts brought by the delegates from their respective countries will be auctioned to fund the bear agenda.