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Bear attack: Living in the shadow of a giant predator

Years of drought, a dried-up river and a highway running through a reserve have brought sloth bears and people face to face in Buldhana, Maharashtra, with terrifying results.

long reads Updated: May 15, 2017 00:17 IST
Badri Chatterjee
A warning sign for villagers at a farm near village Dongar Sheuli.
A warning sign for villagers at a farm near village Dongar Sheuli. (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT Photo)

Once upon a time, a group of bears lived in a forest. Every evening, they would take a walk in search of fruits, insects or berries. They saw huts hidden in the trees, but they never went in. They liked to walk along the river, because that way they could dine and sip at the same time.

Then a highway was built and they couldn’t walk in that part of the forest any more. The river started to dry up, and they didn’t know where to go. They could still find food in the forest, but they now had to walk further and further in search of water.

And that’s how, one dark night, one of the bears found itself at the edge of Karawand village.

***

Shatrugan Khandelkar, 35, had just bought a sprinkler and was installing it in his tur dal field. It was getting late and he knew he should head home. The birds had stopped chirping.

Khandelkar heard a twig snap, looked up and saw something move among the tall trees. It was big. His heart began to race. He dropped the sprinkler and took a few steps towards the forest. He still can’t explain why. “I thought it was nothing,” he says. “I wanted to see if there was something there.”

Standing under a tree, a drop of something thick and gooey fall onto his shoulder. When he looked up, a beast 8 ft tall dropped from the tree with a grunt. Its claws dug into this thighs and chest.

Khandelkar tried to rip the animal’s ear off, in desperation; he pushed at it with all his might, got loose and made a run for the village. This was less than six weeks ago.

Watch | Man-animal conflict plagues villages in Maharashtra’s Buldhana district

“I hid my face. That’s what we have been told to do,” he says. The wounds have healed but the gouge marks are vivid.

“We don’t fear leopards because they only eat our livestock. But the bear doesn’t kill to eat; it’s just looking to murder us,” Khandelkar says.

***

Six villages lie on the edges of the Dnyanganga Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra’s Buldhana district. No one had ever died of a bear attack here until 2012. Two more deaths were reported last year. Since January, 4 more people have died, and another 21 have been injured.

Survivors have been left with faces mauled, arms and legs ripped to the bone, eyes gouged out.

Amid escalating attacks, the forest department has reached out to researchers for help. Last month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature was invited to study the problem and suggest a way forward. Their report will be ready in a year.

Meanwhile, warning signs have been nailed to trees. The sloth bear is protected, so it cannot be killed.

There is little to say in the warning signs. Sloth bears are extremely short-sighted and easily alarmed. Drought-struck villagers have switched from the knee-high paddy crop to corn and tur dal, which grow to about the same height as the bears, making attacks more likely as bear and man to come face to face unexpectedly. It’s a Catch-22. (Anshuman Poyrekar / HT Photo)
“The situation in Buldhana is worrisome. Our focus is to ensure that humans are not killed. We have increased the compensation rate but it does not equal loss of life in any way,” says state forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar

There are 5,000 people living in what is, essentially, their expanded dining room. To make matters worse, the diminishing rainfall has prompted the farmers to switch from the knee-high but water-intensive paddy to corn and tur dal, both of which grow to about the same height as the bears, offering the perfect cover to the foraging animal, and making attacks more likely as bear and man to come face to face unexpectedly.

Except, they shouldn’t have to. After all, there are over 1,000 sloth bears in Maharashtra, and 20,000 across the Indian subcontinent. The Dnyanganga sanctuary is estimated to hold about 60 of the short-sighted, easily startled animals. The sanctuary is more than large enough to accommodate this number. But it isn’t healthy enough.

“Only about 10% of India’s wildlife habitats retain their original form. The rest have been degraded or fragmented because of uncontrolled human population growth and unplanned or uncoordinated large-scale development,” says Anish Andheria, president of the non-profit Wildlife Conservation Trust.

“When development does not take into account the negative impact on forests and wildlife, the result is a growing interface between wild animals and people. Under stressful situations, both parties behave abnormally. This can be seen in the increased rate of retaliatory killings by the wildlife across the country – by bears, tigers, leopards, elephants, snakes, jackals and many other animals – and a killing of them by humans.”

In the Dnyanganga sanctuary, the trouble began in 2005 when a new state highway spliced the park in two. By 2010, the Dnyanganga river begins to dry up following three deficient monsoons. The first bear attack death was reported here in 2012; by this time, the river was dry through most of the year.

By 2015, villages were expanding and so was the forest, shrinking what used to serve as the buffer zone between the two. The short-sighted bears couldn’t tell the difference between the forest and the tall crops. The following year saw 16 sloth bear attacks and 2 deaths reported here. Average annual rainfall had by now dropped from 792.5 mm in 2000-06 to 555.2 mm in 2010-16.

***

There’s a plan to build fences, dig trenches, to keep man and bear apart. Last month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature was invited to study the problem and suggest other ways forward (Anshuman Poyrekar / HT Photo)
“There is a need to increase tree cover and build more artificial water bodies within the forest so bears don’t venture out,” says collector Chandrakant Pulkunduwar

The face-off in Buldhana is another dubious first in the expanding landscape of man-animal conflict in India. An average of two people are dying every day in the country, as our roads push predators to the edges of reserves, and work on dams, mines and power lines eats into their habitat.

Man-elephant deaths are being recorded in Maharashtra, as roads and power lines disrupt elephant corridors. In Karnataka, villages in Kodagu district that had never had run-ins with pachyderms have recorded 21 elephant attacks in two years. Leopards are being photographed wandering around housing complexes as the fringes of Mumbai encroach further into the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

What makes sloth bears so deadly is their combination of weak eyesight, skittishness and the sharp, curved foreclaws they use to rip open logs and get at insects.

Females carry their young on their backs and are hyper-aggressive in the months just before and after they give birth (which is usually in November). Most attacks have been recorded in the November-February period — when crops are also at their tallest (harvest season is Jan-Feb), shielding the bears from sight.

In Buldhana, mauled children are dropping out of school because they are too afraid to venture far from the house. Other victims are struggling to rebuild their lives because they’ve been left with facial scars so horrific that their neighbours shun them.

“We do not have toilets in the village, or electricity, but we are forced to stay indoors after sunset. What’s worse, the attacks have now begun occurring in broad daylight,” says Lal Singh Pawar, 45, who lost an eye to a sloth bear last year.

***

“Forest cover has expanded. The human population has grown, so farmland has grown. This has reduced the buffer zone between farmland and forest,” says Sanjeev Gaur, former chief conservator of forest, Buldhana

Pawar’s village has seen 9 of the 25 attacks so far this year. Strangely, two villages – Borala and Devhari - located in the heart of the reserved forest have seen no attacks in over a decade, and no deaths at all.

There is one key difference between Pawar’s Karawand village and these two. Borala and Devhari line the banks of the dried-up river; while Karawand and its neighbouring Sri Krishna and Matargaon villages share a massive 2.5-acre lake and 22 wells.

For now, the IUCN is investigating what research fellow Nisha Singh calls a “very critical situation”.

The forest department has begun constructing fences between villages and forest land and has asked the state forest ministry for permission to dig anti-bear trenches.

“Due to their weak eyesight, the bears would fall into the trenches and we would then re-release them into the sanctuary,” says range forest officer Ganeshrao Zole.

This is one of those fables with a moral at the end, only we haven’t got to the end yet.

Slideshow: What is it like to face a bear and live to tell the tale? Meet the survivors