New Delhi conference weighs plight of India's bears at hands of villagers

Animals being stoned and set alight by farmers after eating crops grown on former forest land

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 4:51am

In the struggle for the bare necessities of life, Indian villagers find themselves pitted against bears, and sometimes, out of fury at their crops being ruined, stone them or try to set them alight, bear conservationists told a week-long New Delhi conference on the animals.

More than 300 experts from around the world are meeting to discuss how bears can be protected. The topics range from the role of the bear in Indian culture to how many Mongolian Gobi bears remain.

In India, the animals have traditionally had a bad time, either being tamed and used as dancing bears, or being attacked in conflicts with humans for shrinking space and food. Compared with the tiger or the elephant, efforts to preserve the Indian bear have been desultory at best.

Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan told the 21st International Conference on Bear Research and Management that the bear had been treated like a poor country cousin.

"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," she said.

In Indian-administered Kashmir, as villagers continue to extend their farming into forest areas that were once the bears' habitat, the conflict between man and the animals has become more savage.

"Bears are entering orchards and eating apples and peaches. They are going into corn fields and eating the corn," said Vivek Menon, adviser to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "As they come into contact with farmers, people are being mauled and savaged.

"Around 10 per cent of beds in Srinagar's main hospital are reported to be occupied at any time by people mauled by bears."

Menon added that, since bears are the largest carnivore in the world, they hunt large-bodied animals, and that requires space. In the struggle for space, "tempers are becoming frayed" on both sides.

Villagers in Kashmir stone bears to scare them away when the animals eat their fruit, but this infuriates the bears, prompting them to attack people and often inflict horrific injuries.

This month, an angry crowd in the Shopian district of Kashmir set alight a terrified bear that had sought refuge in a tree. A video clip showed villagers tying a burning cloth to a pole, holding it aloft and poking it into the animal. The desperate bear tried to climb higher up the tree, until it could go no further. Later, it can be seen engulfed in flames.

The authorities have ordered an inquiry into the incident.

In response to an increase in the number of such incidents, Natarajan announced a new national action plan for bears, and also said villagers in the worstaffected areas would be taught how to deal with bear incursions by allowing them safe passage out of villages and fields.

Villagers will be formed into "Private Response Teams" to handle the bear menace.

India is home to four of the eight bear species worldwide, making it one of only two countries with this diversity, the other being China. The sloth bear, the Asiatic black bear, the Himalayan brown bear and the Malayan sun bear are found in India.

Unlike most other vulnerable species, bears can be found in 26 of India's 28 states, giving them a national presence.

India's tradition of dancing bears has existed for centuries, since the days of the Mughal emperors. But owing to the efforts of wildlife experts and animal-lovers, the last dancing bear was rescued in 2009.