Saving sloth bears

quantitative analysis

Saving sloth bears

*January 5: Forest guard mauled to death by a sloth bear in Chhattisgarh.
*March 25: Sloth bear shot dead by Forest department in Kotagiri.
*April 18: A man injured grievously by a sloth bear in the Nilgiris.
*May 8: Poachers in possession of a sloth bear arrested near Jharkhand. The bear was found to have bleeding nails, broken teeth and a pierced infected muzzle with a rope forced through the raw infected wound.
*May 8: Sloth bear run over inArsikere taluk.

These are just a few incidents involving sloth bears that have occurred this year alone. Over 80 per cent of the world population of sloth bears live in India. And yet over the years, habitat fragmentation and degradation has threatened the population of this widespread species. Having access to science-backed facts and records can help assess the impact of increasing anthropogenic changes on wildlife and its habitat.

Its times like these that press for more scientific data and understanding of the species and its distribution pattern. A new study from scientists at the Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS-India), titled “Multiscale distribution models for conserving widespread species: The case of sloth bear Melursus ursinus in India,” aims to do just that. The study published in the journal Diversity and Distribution has been authored by WCS-India scientists, Mahi Puri, Arjun Srivathsa,
Dr Krithi K Karanth, Dr Samba Kumar and Dr K Ullas Karanth.

Where do they occur?
The research was carried out in two different stages – at the nationwide level across India and secondly, within the Western Ghats. The results indicate that sloth bears occupy an estimated 67 per cent of bear habitat nationwide and 61 per cent in the Western Ghats. Lead author Mahi Puri explains, “We carried out field surveys covering an area of over 38,500 sq km in the Western Ghats. We collected data on indirect signs of sloth bears such as their scat (faeces) and tracks (footprints). We also collected data on ground-based and remotely-sensed factors that we felt could influence the presence of sloth bears.” While direct sightings were taken into account, the authors used a statistical framework to account for missed detections.
The study signifies that sloth bears prefer deciduous, scrub forests interspersed with barren lands. Mahi elucidates, “While protected areas influence sloth bear occurrences, the presence of forests most positively influence their distribution. And yet, they were found to occur in many unprotected, multi-use and reserve forests as well.”

Like it is the nature of almost all wild animals - sloth bears too make an extra effort to avoid us humans. Though they also occupy areas with high human population densities, sloth bears prefer areas free from human disturbance. “Human tolerance towards sloth bear contributed highly towards their presence in some states like Rajasthan. In the Western Ghats, we found that apart from areas with forest cover and relatively drier areas, sloth bears preferred areas with less human activity. They were also found to occur more in areas that have rugged terrains (for example, rocky escarpments), which offer ideal denning and resting sites,” explains Mahi.

Increasing threats
A simple fact that sloth bears are also found in non-forested areas is something that we need to recognise and pay heed to. Poaching, over-exploitation of forests, and fragmentation of unprotected habitats has threatened sloth bear population across the country. “While we accounted for only areas that had signs of livestock grazing, this may also include other areas that are used by people for extracting non-timber forest resources. We found that sloth bears preferred using areas with rugged terrains, which are usually unfit for agriculture and pasture. At the countrywide level, sloth bears show high overlap with forested area and high human densities. This implies that bears use a whole range of habitat types, most of which constitute multi-use forests,” the author adds.

A study published in the Journal of Bombay Natural History in the year 2006 on sloth bear distribution, confirms that secure habitat of high quality for sloth bears to be only about 10 per cent of the forest area in India. While we do know that these shy animals prefer terrains that are most often avoided by humans, we have to realise that such landscapes are subjected to large-scale land mining. Similarly, knowing that they occur in multi-use forests dominated by humans further necessitates the recognition of such habitats as important areas for sloth bear conservation.

In such a case, prioritisation of conservation landscapes is pivotal. “Drastic changes in land-use, like converting degraded scrub forests, multi-use unprotected forests to agricultural/industrial land, can pose severe problems to the long-term persistence of sloth bears in India. These areas do not necessarily require the tag of a “protected area”. Rather, drastic land-use changes must be minimized so that these areas can continue to be cohabited by people and wildlife,” insists Mahi.

Excess quarrying and mining has further shrunk sloth bear habitats – fragmenting and isolating its population. As over-harvesting of forest produce and landgrab for mining escalate, sloth bears have less access to food, which include termite and ant nests, not to forget, it’s desired, honeycomb. Due to this, sloth bears, which are highly adaptable, venture closer to human-dominated areas in search of food. This situation has further led to rise in human-wildlife conflicts, resulting in loss to both sides.
Mahi adds, “Conservation of sloth bears should therefore, expand beyond just the current protected area system. It should include larger human-dominated landscapes shared by sloth bears and humans, in order to conserve the species. This approach might hold potential conservation benefits to many other species like leopards, hyaenas and wolves, which also occur in similar habitats.”

After several incidents of man-elephant interactions in the past six months in Tumakuru district, which has led to the death of two wild sloth bears – the government has finally decided to take action. If all goes well, Karnataka will get its second bear sanctuary (the first being Daroji) in Tumakuru. 

The Thimmalapura State Reserve Forest will be notified as a sanctuary, and will host over 45 bears that are estimated to reside in the region. The sanctuary can however hold up to 250 bears. It is a hope that in the future, the state government will leverage science-based conservation efforts and initiatives to protect this charismatic species in protected as well as non-protected areas in Karnataka.

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