Bears in the backyard

HUMAN-ANIMAL CONFLICT

Bears in the backyard

Himalayan black bears from Sikkim’s Alpine Sanctuary are regular visitors to dumping yards in the tiny border village of Kyongnosala. Ingestion of glass, plastic and chemicals present in unregulated garbage sites can be potentially fatal to wildlife. Also, cubs that grow up feeding on garbage dumps get used to human presence and lose all fear of them, increasing the potential for conflict, observes Meghna Krishnadas

We waited for them in the fading twilight of an autumn sky in Sikkim. “They will come,” said one army jawan doing his routine chores. “They are here unfailingly by 5 pm,” added another. Fidgety in the creeping cold of the approaching night, we were almost giving up the wait, when we saw them.


They emerged silently from the mist, dark shadows of shaggy mystery; a pair of Himalayan black bears on a hazy evening. Mother and cub ambled up to the Army garbage dump above which we stood waiting, sniffing for what this evening might have in store for their hungry bellies. Our excitement knew no bounds.


We watched the pair forage at the dump, digging though the debris of glass, steel, and plastic. A few minutes after the mother and cub moved away, a large solitary male came along for his share of the ‘fast food’ just a few feet from the men, leaving us wondering about the potential impacts of this proximity on both wildlife and humans. In a world where wild areas are being fast modified for human use, every place has its own Pandora’s box of issues that threaten wildlife. Sikkim was an interesting case study.

Raiding bears
Kyongnosala Alpine Sanctuary is a protected area (PA) in Sikkim named after the village at the foot of the hill. At 3,000 m ASL, the region holds some of the most beautiful oak, rhododendron, and coniferous forests and alpine meadows. Goral, serow, leopard cats, black bears, and the endangered musk deer are found here, in addition to many rare high-altitude birds. But it faces a severe onslaught from increasing human presence. The fragmented forests continue to be ravaged by construction and rampant road-building.

The tiny village has a huge Army presence, as is common in most areas close to the country’s borders. The Indian Army camp generates large amounts of waste and garbage in the course of their daily living, most of which is dumped haphazardly in nearby valleys or the crooks between hill folds. Plastic packets, milk cartons, glass bottles of all shapes and sizes, glass shards and a sizeable amount of leftover food matter is dumped, making it an attractive site for scavenging wildlife.

Himalayan black bears are frequent and regular visitors to these dump sites. Around the same time almost every evening, a couple of bears systematically forage through the garbage, sequentially exploring each of the dumps in the vicinity. For the jawans, this is a routine matter and most of them appear to be completely unconcerned about being dangerously close to an animal that could cause them fatal harm. Many of them moved to within a few feet of the bears, whistling to attract the animal’s attention, to take pictures and videos.

Accident waiting to happen
What was unnerving about the incident was the obvious lack of knowledge amongst the Army personnel about the lives they were endangering. They seemed callously over-confident that the bears would never attack them. But all that is needed to set this arsenal alight is the proverbial careless match.

Lessons learnt from grizzly bears raiding garbage dumps in the United States of America warn us of the suddenness of conflict when it happens. Any unexpected behaviour can startle or scare the bears, leading to an attack on a human, causing grievous injury, even death. Any such incident is likely to result in a serious backlash against the animals. Retaliatory killing of conflict animals is common in many parts of the country and there is no reason to expect a different situation here. When we quizzed a jawan whistling at a black bear about his reaction if the bear attacked someone, he replied saying, “We have guns. We can kill the lot.”

As in the case of the Kyongnosla bears, cubs that grow up feeding on garbage dumps and other sources near human habitations become habituated to humans and lose all fear of them, increasing the potential for conflict. Often, the Forest Department, under pressure to solve the issue, traps and translocates ‘problem animals’. This however is only a geographical relocation of the issue, transferring but not solving the problem.

Moreover, studies by Vidya Athreya on leopards in India have shown that, being territorial, they go back to their territory if translocated. Such studies are also needed on other potentially dangerous wildlife that share human spaces. Moreover, as long as the garbage dumps remain, they will continue to attract other bears and other scavenging animals.

Cleaning up the mess

The accumulation of waste from the Army camps is a serious problem both for the wildlife and the local people. Segregating the garbage to separate the non biodegradable components is an important first step, which can be easily implemented. Incinerators and compacters can be used for efficient disposal of non-recyclable waste.

Metals, glass bottles, and shards can be collected and deposited at recycling plants in towns. On a wider scale, the Army should exercise greater care in the preservation of the wildlife in the areas they make inroads into. Roads and camps are being built in remote areas, many of which are protected for wildlife, polluting and damaging the few remaining natural habitats. Considering their wide presence in many remote wildlife-rich areas, the Army should work with the local Forest Departments towards resolving the deleterious impacts of some of their actions on these sensitive locations.

Ingestion of glass, plastic and chemicals present in unregulated dumps can also be potentially fatal to wildlife. The incident of the wild bears in the Army dump is only one example of the changing environment being faced by wildlife everywhere, especially large bodied wide ranging species like bears, elephants, tigers and many other carnivores.
Studies have shown that some animals like leopards may be able to live in close proximity to humans, but care needs to be exercised about preventing conflict.

Increasingly, we will need to better understand these behaviours though rigorous scientific studies to design effective strategies for the wildlife that seems to be coming to our backyards.

To watch a video of the bears foraging at the garbage dump, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOBmxuv3VF0&feature=youtu.be
 

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