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Walking the Bears
Published by N.V.K. Ashraf, Tamo Dadda, Prasanta Boro, Naim Akhtar, 01 Dec 2008
The Asiatic black bear rehabilitation project initiated jointly by the Wildlife Trust of India and the Department of Environment and Forests, Arunachal Pradesh in partnership with the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 2003 was the first instance of bear rehabilitation being taken up in India. This conservation action report documents in detail the project's objectives, the protocols followed and the lessons learnt from the successful rehabilitation of bear cubs.
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Bears have been rehabilitated in several countries of the world. However, it is surprising that in India rehabilitation of bears has not been practiced before. One of the limitations must surely be the very few areas left in the country where carnivores can be put back. Arunachal is one of those rare exceptions where sufficient forest is left for such conservation ventures and the low human population density too encourages it. Even though these are good signs, yet a lot needs to be done before bears are put back into the wild. The Centre for Bear Research and Conservation is a pioneer in this regard. Building on the principles that I had first seen with the Pazhetnovs and IFAW's orphan Bear rehabilitation centrein Russia, CBRC has achieved some success in five years of operation. It has been the first project in India to have put back 5 bears (and is on the verge of putting back 5  more) and despite its initial lack of success in preventing poaching of the bears once let out, has shown encouraging signs in the recent past. Of most interest is the evolution of the protocol and technique of putting bears back from the initial hard release to a walk-the-bear protocol.

This conservation and welfare experimental and pilot project will have many firsts if the project manages to run for the next few years. It is already the first to put bears back scientifically and monitor its success in India. It will soon be the first carnivore reintroductions once general principles are learnt and therefore might be useful in other parts for other species. Also, as data collection in and around the release sites increase, we may well have an intensive study site for the Asiatic black bear in India, something that has not been there through the Himalayan range of the  species in the country. It is also a pioneer project for Arunachal and has  the prospects of being a conservation showcase for the state.

While these could be the results of this long-term project, the challenges are clear after having run the project even for the initial five years. The reason that this project originated was the large number of bear cubs that various tribes keep with them and then surrender once wildlife authorities approach them or when the bear gets too big to be controlled. The repeated hunting of bears (including the early ones that were released) shows that hunting of bears continues to be a critical conservation issue in the state that needs to be handled. The awareness levels among the Arunachal population on bear conservation is still fledgling and needs encouragement and support. Many techniques being tried in the project needs refinement. The lack of skilled local manpower makes all this doubly difficult and finally there is still a large lacunae in the knowledge of wild bears and the Pakke landscape that will guide restocking. In a strict conservation sense, the CBRC is a rehabilitation and restocking exercise as also an awareness building one that initiates conservation in a tribal culture that needs an exemplary project. In a welfare sense, the lives of several individual bears are being  bettered from a life behindbars. Scientifically, this is a project that will yield new techniques, field tested protocols and first-time data on wild carnivores. And culturally, this is one of the finest conservation efforts of the Nishis in the Kameng area. For these reasons, I consider the Centre to be a pioneer of conservation in Arunachal.

Vivek Menon
Executive Director, WTI
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