Despite the fact that bears have played an integral role in Indian culture – think of Jambavan, the king of bears, who appears in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha – they simply aren’t getting the same kind of positive conservation attention as many other vulnerable species. Instead, rising conflicts between humans and bears – such as the torching of a bear in Kashmir last week or the mutilated human victims lying in hospital beds – have led to a negative image problem for the animal in many parts of the country.
“In our conservation efforts, certain species have received more focus than others. The bear is an animal that has not received the focus it deserves,” admitted Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, speaking on the opening day of the 21st International Conference on Bear Research and Management, being hosted in India for the first time.
Bears, unlike tigers and snow leopards, are still common enough to be found in 26 of India’s 28 states, and so come into much closer and more frequent contact with humans than their endangered counterparts. The number of bear-human interactions-many of them violent-has increased in recent years as humans relying on forests for food and fuel continue to encroach on bears’ habitats, the demand for bear parts used in traditional medicine has led to more poaching, and bears have learned to rely on humans’ livestock, harvests, and garbage for food.
“In India, bears have suffered from a ‘persecution syndrome’ that seems almost historical as the fear and loathing of them is passed on from generations through stories and attitudes,” says the National Bear Conservation and Welfare Action Plan released at the conference.
The international summit is taking place just days after a gruesome incident in the Kashmir Valley, where a group of residents chased a bear up a tree and allegedly tried to set it on fire after suffering a string of attacks on the village. The bear escaped, but the villagers’ actions, filmed and posted on YouTube, drew criticism from animal welfare advocates. The state government has announced an official inquiry into the incident.
Jammu and Kashmir is a region where bear-human conflicts are rife, with one in every ten hospital beds occupied by a victim of bear attacks, claimed Vivek Menon, executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India. In the plastic surgery unit of the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences hospital, says Raashid Yehya Naqash, a former wildlife warden in the area, 60 per cent of beds are occupied by those suffering from bear mutilations.
Some 500 people in Jammu Kashmir have been mauled or killed by bears in the past few years, Ms. Natarajan said. “Such incidents lead to a very negative public perception of bears,” she added, saying that the ministry would set up a fund to rehabilitate the Kashmiri bear attack victims.
The Action Plan calls for more wildlife management staff in areas with high incidences of bear-human conflict, and more interaction between conservation scientists and the community. Educational programs teaching villagers to allow bears to leave an area without chasing them, garbage clean up programs, and crowd management in areas where bears feed, could help reduce the number of injuries and death.
“It’s very, very tough to convince people that [the bear] has a conservation value and that it’s a highly precious animal,” says Mr. Yehya Naqash. This is peak bear attack season, with harvests from September, October, and November tending to draw more bears into villages. “They don’t want to see the animals in their backyard, in their orchards, or near their cowsheds.”