Bears in a blind spot

Shy residents of forested and hilly regions, bears are enigmatic, poorly studied creatures. To game viewers, they lack the charisma of tigers. Traditional hunters kill bears for cultural or medicinal purposes in some north-eastern States. Cubs are caught for sale as pets. The four bear species found in different parts of the country — the Himalayan brown bear, the black bear, the sloth bear, and the sun bear — are covered by the Wildlife Protection Act, but rangers in most sanctuaries lack reliable estimates of their populations. Given their virtually forgotten state, there is reason to celebrate when Asiatic black bear cubs are rescued and sent back into the wild after nursing and preparation. Five such radio-collared bears were recently released into the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. Two cubs were freed last year. The conservation effort echoes a programme that has worked well for the American black bear in the United States. In both instances, rescued cubs were hand-reared by conservationists, who guided them to respond to their natural instincts in their habitat. Omnivorous Asiatic black bears live in sub-tropical and Himalayan forests in India. The Indian programme is noteworthy as it is a partnership involving the Forest Department of Arunachal Pradesh, the Wildlife Trust of India, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

India, which is home to half the world’s bear species, can hope to protect these creatures only with better knowledge of their ecology, distribution, and behaviour. Deficiencies in data present a serious challenge to conservation planning, and it is felt acutely in the case of bears. This needs to be addressed by putting in place a strong research-based monitoring programme in all sanctuaries and national parks. The tools, such as camera traps, are efficient and widely available. Only a few years ago, a review of black bears and Himalayan brown bears published by a Wildlife Institute of India scientist showed that the former species is less abundant, while not much is known about the latter. That study found that black bears may be in decline owing to habitat degradation, poaching for gall bladder and skins, and conflicts with people. The problems persist and need to be resolved. The involvement of tribal residents in habitat preservation and in wildlife tourism is vitally important. Alternatives to bear body parts in medicine are well documented, and a global effort is needed to curb hunting. Enforcement agencies can do more if they are provided new sampling kits to detect cross-border trade in bear tissues. Resourceful conservation interventions, as at Pakke, promise some kind of future for the bears.

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