Land of the tiger? Yeah ok… Land of the tiger too, but is the Royal Bengal Tiger our largest, most imposing predator? Well, not really… That crown sits not on the head of the tiger. Nay, it isn’t even the regal and mighty Asiatic lion but the massive head of a giant that lumbers his way across the mountain slopes of the high Himalayas, way above the tree line that wears this crown. More than seven feet tall and weighing in at close to 300 kgs, the Himalayan brown bear towers over its other more media friendly predatory rivals. But of all the thousands who flock to the tiger reserves with their shiny new SLRs, and XL camouflage jackets, trussed up in their luxury resort jeeps and SUVs, how many have ever trekked up to the mountains to catch a glimpse of this magnificent monster? In my defence, I must insist that I did go up to Gushaini, the gateway to the Great Himalayan National Park where walks this great beast, but circumstances stopped me from pursuing the tracks of this giant then… But I will go back!
And I have seen a few specimens of the brown bear in a zoo in Kufri… The concrete floor and the confined space did little justice to the magnificence of the bear, and yet the intelligent eyes, the hulking form and that stoic faraway expression spoke of a dignity that only the mountains can bestow on those that have learnt to live in its shadow. Little is known about this mysterious animal for few have seen it in the wild and fewer still have had the courage and the commitment to follow the animal’s trail over the rugged landscape that is its home.
As a child growing up, the word bhaloo meant just one bear species – the dancing bear. Kalandars would walk our streets on weekends and behind them would trudge large shaggy black beast, with a ring running through its muzzle. This ring was tied to a rope that the kalandar would tug at, and driven by pain the beast would dance to its mater’s tune.
I was too young to understand that. The distant barking of street dogs moving closer and closer usually told me that the bhaloowallah was here. I would never let them go past my house without cajoling my parents into paying for a show. It was fascinating to see a once wild animal that shared its home with tigers and leopards right here in front of my gate, behaving like a large well trained dog.
As I grew older, I began to recognise the pain my childhood clamouring would have caused the beasts I had grown to love, and so I stopped asking the kalandars to stop by. Gradually, the kalandars and their bears stopped coming. Then I met Kartick Satyanarayan, who runs a crusade called Wildlife SOS, and learnt about how they had gotten the kalandars and dancing bears off the streets of India and rehabilitated both man and beast.
With bear-dancing banned and kalandars employed in alternate professions, the future of the bear was surely secure, or so one thought. But bears are still poached for their bile (which has medicinal properties that can easily be replicated by herbs), paws and meat (which are a traditional delicacy in the Far East). But far more than poachers, bears are increasingly threatened by habitat destruction which is bringing them into conflict with humans. And above all there is apathy.
For an animal that is present across 26 states, far more than the tiger or the elephant, there are just two sanctuaries that are dedicated to bear conservation. For tourists, a bear sighting is a mere sideshow, and I’ve often wondered why… Even the bhaloo of my childhood, the humble sloth bear, is a large powerful animal that can hold its own against a tiger, that is perhaps as intelligent as an elephant and even if not as regal or as elegant as a big cat, is so much more animated and curious. So why doesn’t anyone care about the bear, in officialdom or otherwise?
The legends of Hanuman made the macaques and langurs into living deities. Then why didn’t the legendary exploits of the immortal Jambavan, the king of bears who inspired Hanuman to jump across the ocean, thrashed Ravana and knocked him out cold during battle and then battled Krishna for eighteen days before recognising and bowing to the Lord’s divinity, make his subjects, the bears, even half as popular as the other stalwarts of our forests? Apparently, even wild animals aren’t immune to poor image management.
A few years ago, I picked up a book by Dr MK Ranjitsinh titled Beyond the tiger – portraits of Asian Wildlife. This book was an attempt by the author to go beyond the dazzling aura of the tiger and reveal the glory and beauty of a gamut of other species that call this region home. And in his rather comprehensive attempt, the author covered species as varied as the regal Asiatic lion, the unassuming water buffalo and the ubiquitous chital. And yet, the great bears escaped even his notice. Not a word, from preface to index was wasted on them.
Before we go any further on the subject, now is a good time to embarrass you a little as I introduce our bears to you. We don’t just have a brown bear and a black bear. Incidentally, the black bear that we used to see dancing in our streets is called the sloth bear and is found throughout peninsular India. About six feet tall when standing on their hindlegs, this shaggy coated bear weighs about 120-200kgs. The Himalayan Black bear, found all the way from the Himalayan foothills and right up to the tree-line, looks like a sloth bear that uses a nice expensive conditioner and has had a trim. They are about six to six and a half feet tall and weigh about 150-200 kgs. In the Eastern Himalayas, in the shadows of the thick mountain forests walks a little bear, about five feet tall and weighing just 50-70kgs – the Malayan sun bear, the smallest of all bears. I have never heard of a tourist, travel writer or a wildlife photographer talk about an encounter with this bear in India. And then of course there is the Himalayan brown bear. Four species spread across nearly every state in the country, and yet no funding, no research, no Project Bear and just two sanctuaries. That’s enough injustice for the bears to start protesting for complete autonomy, a country of their own or reservations in conservation projects.
But all that promises to change with the launch of the National Bear Conservation and Welfare Action Plan at the International Conference on Bear Research and Management currently (26-30 November) in progress in the capital. And it’s about time too. Bear numbers across the country are largely a matter of conjecture and unless funds, time and personnel are dedicated to research and conservation at the earliest, we might end up doing too little, too late.
India doesn’t have a record to be proud of as far as ‘plans’ are concerned. Nevertheless, here’s wishing the ‘action plan’ better luck than most of our other planned endeavours and projects.
And in case some cell phone firms and news channels are listening in, how about a ‘hug for the bear’ campaign? It might be more fun than a ‘roar for the tiger’ or a ‘hog for the elephant’ drive...