Almost everyone in and around Gudekote village of Ballari district has a sloth bear story to narrate. While a majority of them come across as exaggerated tales, the deaths, the scars and permanent disability of people stand testimony to the ‘terror’ sloth bears have wrecked in the arid lands of Kudligi and Sandur taluks.
However, ever since the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change declared approximately 47 sq km of rocky boulders, caves and shrub jungle as Gudekote Sloth Bear Sanctuary in 2013, there has not only been a reduction in human-animal conflict but also a rejuvenation of greenery in the sanctuary as well as the eco-sensitive zone around Gudekote.
“Some 10 to 15 years ago, Gudekote and its surrounding areas were notoriously famous for sloth bear attacks,” says Dr S K Arun, Ballari district honorary wildlife warden. Official records say that in the last eight years, 58 people have been seriously injured or maimed while others have lost lives in sloth bear attacks in and around Gudekote sanctuary.
“That was past. Today, I will not say that there are zero incidents of human-animal conflict. But the incidents have come down drastically. This, after the forests were declared as protected and conservation activities were initiated,” he says.
Such has been the success story of Gudekote, the birthplace of Onake Obavva, that today, the forest has not only become home to over 50 sloth bears, but also a safe haven for leopards, wild boars, peafowls, snakes and other animals.
It was cases of repeated sloth bear attacks that forced environmentalist and researcher Samad Kottur to find a permanent solution to this bloody conflict, where both humans and animals were the victims.
“The first thing we did was to collect data regarding sloth bear attacks,” says Samad. Information such as location, situation, reason and other details were collected from nearly 90 villages around the sanctuary and local police stations. Based on this data, he analysed that the majority of sloth bear attacks were happening outside the forest area (inside fields, next to water bodies and other places) and at a time when the animals were venturing out of the forest in search of food.
“Sloth bears are omnivorous and are fond of termites, ants and fruits. But the issue with Gudekote was that annually 20 trucks of custard apples were shifted out of the forest by the locals and contractors. People were also robbing the forest of its honey and other forest produce. With hardly any food available inside the forest, the animals were forced to venture out,” he explains.
Backed by these facts and figures, a report prepared by Samad was forwarded to the Forest Department which in turn sent it to the state government in 2012. Within no time, the Karnataka State Wildlife Board accepted the report and the area was declared a sanctuary.
Then Chief Conservator of Forests K N Murthy and Assistant Conservator of Forests M N Kiran worked towards the second sloth bear sanctuary in Ballari district by securing its boundary, banning collection of forest produce (including timber), stopping stone cutting, excessive grazing, forest fires, increasing anti-poaching camps (six, right now) and foot patrolling by the forest guard.
“Within three to four years, the forest started rejuvenating,” says Samad, a sloth bear expert recognised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He has studied the feeding ecology of sloth bears and found that there are 28 varieties of fruit-bearing trees spread across the sanctuary.
Both Samad and Arun acknowledge that only half the battle has been won. While the human-animal conflict in Gudekote is now limited to bears raiding the neighbouring farms, the conflict in the Kadekalalla cluster of villages, which is located beyond the Gudekote Bear Sanctuary, continues.
They say the cluster has important bear habitats that have to be added to the Gudekote sanctuary for better management of human-animal conflict. The regeneration of forest, plantation of local fruiting trees, soil and moisture conservation activities, securing the boundaries by solar fencing in the sensitive trails and such measures are needed for mitigating the conflict in disturbed villages.
“The presence of villages has completely fragmented the sloth bear habitat in this region,” says Arun who feels that efforts should be made to shift these villagers to other places so that a safe corridor for the animals could be provided. Deputy Conservator of Forests Ballari Ramesh Kumar says a proposal sent to the government to include neighbouring forest patches awaits approval.
Another challenge that is hampering the conservation efforts is the lack of prey base for leopards. While the sloth bears are getting sufficient food now, leopards have ‘limited choices’. “Leopards are great adapters to their surrounding and can survive on anything, right from rats, peafowls, hare, young wild pigs, langurs, monkeys or sometimes stray dogs and livestock,” says Samad. He adds that preventing leopards from hunting cattle, especially sheep and goats reared by farmers, is a challenge for the Forest Department, as this brings the spotted big cats in direct conflict with humans.
The arid region also receives scanty rainfall. Conserving the limited water sources and ensuring round-the-year water availability is one challenge the Forest Department wishes to address by installing solar-powered borewells. Several check dams have been constructed inside the sanctuary to ensure recharging of water table and also water availability for animals.
Like the famous Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, the Forest Department wishes to make this a safari zone under the supervision of forest guards and guides. For this, the department has also identified places for ‘sweet-lick’ which attracts the sloth bears.
However, this idea has pitted conservationists and department officials against each other. Samad argues that the sanctuary is for the benefit of animals and not for human amusement. Allowing regular ‘sweet-licks’ inside the sanctuary makes the bears addicted and changes their behaviour, he says. Though bears love to eat sweet, they need protein and moreover, the jaggery is contaminated with chemicals which may upset their health. As the sloth bear is a schedule-I animal, decisions must be made carefully.
However, Ramesh argues that sweet-licks are being arranged so as to enable people to watch these animals in their natural habitat and create awareness about their conservation. “Without showing people what sloth bears are, how can one create awareness?” he asks. He adds that the revenue generated by starting the ‘game zone’, will be utilised for conservation work. “Safari zone is not a permanent arrangement. This would be stopped once the sanctuary becomes self-sufficient,” says Ramesh.