The Gujarat government plans to focus on “sloth bear corridor” covering the stretch between Banaskantha district in the north, where the density of the animal is the highest, and Narmada in Centre-South of the state, aiming at its conservation and potential for tourism.
A video to create awareness on the behaviour and habitat of the beast has been created by the Gujarat forest department, signing off with a message by Amitabh Bachchan. This, along with a booklet creating awareness on the animal were tabled at the meeting of the Gujarat State Wildlife Board meeting held on Tuesday chaired by Chief Minister Vijay Rupani.
The state is known as the last abode of the Asiatic lion, has a sanctuary for wild ass and is known for its migratory birds. The government has planned to start an outreach centre for the bear at Ratanmahal Sloth Bear Sanctuary in Dahod district soon, the other sanctuary being in Jessore of Banaskantha district.
The plan has come to the table even as experts warn of possibilities of bear-human conflict with little awareness among common people about conduct in the vicinity of the beast, largely known to be unpredictable.
In March 2017, three persons, including a forester and a tribal who went to graze his goats, were killed in the Balaram Ambaji Wildlife Sanctuary by a female bear, and days later the bear, an adult lactating mother of three cubs, was shot dead with AK 47 rifles, by police and forest authorities.
Rupani had set up an inquiry by a panel of three IFS officers on the killing of the protected specie. One of the members of the Committee, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest Ram Kumar said that the committee’s report was meant to be submitted to the government and was done accordingly. When asked about the finding of the committee, Ram Kumar said, “I am not aware of it. It is almost four years now.”
As per the 2016 estimation of the Gujarat Forest Department, there are 342 sloth bears in the state covering seven districts of Banaskantha, Sabarkantha, Mehsana, Chhota Udepur, Panchmahals, Vadodara, Dahod and Narmada. This region, of which five districts are largely tribal, form the bear corridor. Forest and Environment Minister Ganpat Vasava said that the main focus of Gujarat government is Sasan-Gir and Asiatic lions. But, he added, the government has started exploring tourism possibilities in North Gujarat region with focus on sloth bear.
“We have a sizable population of sloth bear in the districts of North Gujarat. And we have started a study on developing new tourist points there through the forest department… The state government is serious about developing tourism in the region based on sloth bear,” Vasava said.
Conservator of Forest (Vadodara Circle) Aradhana Sahu, who is among those credited in the video, said that there are many nature education programmes going on in the sloth bear corridor. “And the main aim of the efforts is conservation of sloth bear and then developing the tourism sites which are present inside the sanctuaries. Sloth bear is not a very tourist friendly animal, so the tourism cannot be around sloth bear but the sloth bear habitat (around it) is so beautiful with so rich biodiversity that we can see and appreciate that,” she said.
“Sloth bear can be sighted in the entire region of Banaskantha, Sabarkantha, Ratanmahal, Godhra, Jambughoda and Narmada and there are many sanctuaries in the region. The habitat and population of sloth bear are very good and they co-exist (with human population) for many years. The tolerance towards sloth bear is there among local population. So far, there is no (bear-man) conflict. …it is also important that the next generation of locals also knows about it and that tourists are educated (about sloth bear) so that they can spread the word. When we are trying to explore tourism (in the region) then it (education on sloth bear) is needed,” she added.
Nishith Dharaiya, an associate professor of Zoology at Hemchandracharya North Gujarat University, Patan, who is a bear expert and was part of the GSWB meeting, is chairperson of an eight-member team of experts on bear at International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Speaking with The Indian Express, Dharaiya said, “In December, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani had expressed his views on giving emphasis on other wild life of Gujarat than lion – like sloth bear – also with a perspective of developing tourism… But, as an expert on bear, I said that tourism with focus on sloth bear cannot be launched without conservation efforts and spreading information among common people and those living in the vicinity of sloth bear habitat because it is an unpredictable animal. So, these informative booklets and video are part of an exercise to increase tolerance level of local human population who live close to the population of the animal before exploring it for tourism. It is also to make various details about sloth bear known to general public.”
“…it is very important to start intense conservation exercise and disseminate information about it among common public living in the vicinity… It is important to spread information among them and to increase their tolerance level before we go for tourism,” Dharaiya said.
The 24-page booklet – published by Vadodara Wildlife Division of Gujarat forest department in partnership with a wildlife research group – contains details on sloth bear from its habitat to its habits, do’s and don’ts in sloth bear habitat, identifying presence of the animal, its life cycle and others.
Sloth bear is a protected animal under Schedule-I of Wildlife Protection Act. It is also one of the eight species of bear found across the world. Out of the total eight species of the bear, four – Asiatic Black Bear, Sloth Bear, Brown Bear and Sun Bear – are found in India.
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