Pinky Baiga slowly removes the white scarf that covers her dark hair. His eyes are cautious and his anguish is palpable: there are deep cuts on the scalp, irregular pink lines that extend from the forehead to the crown. Two months ago Pinky was maimed by a lazy bear.
The teenager had been collecting firewood with her parents in a forest near Bandhavgarh National Park in central India. When he rounded a corner, with the wood balanced on his head, he found himself face to face with a lazy bear. The frightened animal attacked and nearly scalped her before running away. He received stitches to close his wounds and spent 10 days in the district hospital recovering.
When Pinky tells her story, dusk settles. Outside the mud and brick house she shares with her parents and ten siblings, the townspeople raise their dirt-covered cows down the narrow path. At 17, he should get married soon, according to local custom. But now he can barely get out of his bed.
“I hate the bear,” she says.
Stories like Pinky’s are common. In the past two decades, lazy bears have mutilated thousands of people, killing hundreds. Although the Indian government does not count the attacks at the federal level, it is fair to say from state data that the lazy bear is one of the deadliest animals in India and is responsible for more human deaths per capita than any other type of bear.
Bears, found in 26 of India’s 36 states and territories, are being squeezed everywhere by a growing human population. In 1990, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed lazy bears as “vulnerable”. Today, the bear status remains unchanged, although they have since been extirpated in Bangladesh, and probably in Bhutan. India serves as the species’ ultimate fortress, with small populations in Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Only about 10 percent of India’s remaining forests are considered safe and suitable for sloth bears. Conflict can occur when people enter these forests for fuel and fodder, or when bears are forced to travel through human settlements in search of food and water.
Meanwhile, conservation agendas in India prioritize the needs of the charismatic tiger over those of other species. Without aggressive action by the federal and state governments, the problem is likely to worsen. Deadly incidents are already reaching critical levels. Mobs are killing the bears in revenge. And scientists are looking for solutions that take the bear into account.
Behind the name
Few westerners have even heard of a lazy bear, perhaps one of the biggest misnames in the animal kingdom. Bears are not slow, they can run faster than humans, and they are not related to sloths. They also weigh a couple of hundred pounds, on average.
Early European explorers are believed to have seen animals hanging from trees and reasoned that they must be related to sloths in South America. In 1791, the European zoologist George Shaw gave the wrong name “lazy bear” (which was later reversed). A more accurate designation could have been “anteater bear” as the creature feeds on termites and ants, sucking up insects through its long bulbous snout and extended lower lip.
Fewer than 20,000 sloth bears are estimated to remain in the wild in Asia, yet the species generally kills more than a dozen people each year. In comparison, brown bears, which outnumber their cousins about ten times, kill an average of 6.3 people annually in a huge range spanning more than 40 countries.
Across India, forest officials report a steady increase in bear-human conflict. In the southwestern state of Karnataka, home to the burgeoning tech city of Bengaluru, officials recorded 300 attacks between 2014 and 2018. During a single day in 2017, lazy bears killed 11 people, one of them fatally.
Scientists offer several theories to explain the behavior of bears. Perhaps they are used to dealing with tigers and leopards and therefore unleash the same ferocity in humans. Perhaps they choose to fight to flee because, although their long claws are ideal for digging, they do not allow adult lazy bears to escape danger by climbing trees. Perhaps their violent cost to humans is greater because they do not deceive humans as much, but rather initiate a physical attack almost immediately.
Another factor is the large number of people living alongside lazy bears. India’s population has almost doubled since 1980; The country is expected to become the world’s most populous nation within the decade and reach a population of 1.5 billion by 2050. Urbanization is gobbling up what remains of the precious wild nature, and sloth bears have not benefited much. of conservation projects that protect other dynamics. species.
Many of India’s newest protected areas have been created or expanded to address the habitat and food needs of tigers. Unlike lazy bears, big cats have seen their numbers increase modestly. The two species can conflict; tigers can kill young bears.
“We need to manage forests with that in mind,” says Harendra Singh Bargali, deputy director of the Corbett Foundation, a nonpartisan conservation group, and co-chair of the IUCN Lazy Bear Expert Team. “No one knows what is going on with [them]but there are 50 tiger reserves in India. “
In 2012, the Indian government launched a national welfare and conservation action plan for sloth bears, but has not implemented it, say biologists studying the species. In the 2016 IUCN assessment, scientists predicted bear populations will decrease by more than 30 percent in the next 30 years due to habitat loss and human exploitation of the bear’s food sources.
While part of the conflict is difficult to avoid due to the expansion of human populations, many attacks and deaths of lazy bears can be prevented by taking precautions, experts say: Make noise while in the forest to avoid scaring animals, traveling in groups and, if attacked, playing dead and covering their heads.
“Everything was broken”
In Madhya Pradesh, one of India’s least developed states with 80 million people, rural residents depend on forest products to survive. People living near protected areas, such as the state’s nine national parks and six tiger reserves, often travel through buffer zones adjacent to the settlements to search for mushrooms, firewood, cigarette tendu leaves, and sweet flowers. of mahua that ferment to obtain liquor. This places gatherers in the path of the sloth bear, which often inhabits the fragmented edges of wilderness areas to avoid tigers.
Along the Jamunia River, on the outskirts of Kanha Tiger Reserve, I meet Zeenal Vajrinkar. A young and energetic biologist from Maharashtra was guiding me through the surrounding villages where many attacks had occurred.
For three days, we walked bumpy dirt roads filled with cows and goats, passing rice fields, groups of langur monkeys, and sun-stained salt pans, stopping to speak to men and women who still had bear scars.
Mahasingh Meravi, a frail man in his 40s, had ventured into the woods a mile from his home in Beltola to collect mushrooms. When he surprised a sleeping bear mother, she caught him by the upper thigh with her blunt teeth and bit deeply. Mahasingh escaped and climbed a tree; After the bear left, he hobbled home. For two months, he could barely walk.
Evansingh Meravi, 50, in the small town of Bandaniya, had traveled to the forest during the monsoons with friends to pick mushrooms. The group broke up, and when Evansingh descended a steep hill, he saw two lazy bears walking up the hill. He tried to climb a tree, but fell and the bears attacked, almost killing. The tapping left his arm hanging precariously over his shoulder, he tells me. “It was all broken.”
Nearby, in a 6,000-square-mile corridor between the Kanha and Pench tiger reserves, Corbett Foundation researchers interviewed more than 150 attack victims to better understand the conflict between lazy bears and humans. They found that more than 80 percent of lazy bear attacks in this area occurred in forests. Most occurred during the collection of non-timber forest products; the rest took place on the edge of forests or in adjacent fields.
After a lazy bear attack, people feel they have few resources. Victims of attacks are entitled to financial compensation from the state, but find it difficult to obtain the money when they lack a bank account or the literacy skills to report. A man named Evansingh Meravi still had metal bars sticking out of his shattered elbow months after he was attacked. He could not afford the six-hour return trip to the hospital in Jabalpur to have them removed, he said.
To retaliate for bear attacks, some people kill them. Villagers have stoned, electrocuted, and poisoned sloth bears approaching the settlements. In Odisha state, 87 sloth bear deaths were recorded between 2014 and 2018. Ten of them were attributed to retaliation by humans; 42 other deaths were attributed to “unknown” causes. Most deaths are never documented at all.
Checking for solutions
India has designated some areas specifically for the protection of lazy bears. Gujarat, a western state bordering Pakistan and the Arabian Sea, is home to two of the three Indian shelters dedicated exclusively to bear survival. Here, there are no tigers vying for conservation dollars.
Jessore Sloth Bear Sanctuary, one of the shelters, is testing a variety of solutions that could be implemented elsewhere in India. Through the 70-mile arid reserve, the forest department has created artificial water wells, built bear dens, and translocated termites to feed the animals.
Every day, contingents of women in colorful saris plant and water cassia and ziziphus in nurseries, growing crucial food for bears. By giving animals an ideal habitat that is beyond the reach of people, conservationists hope that bears will not be tempted to roam the outer villages.
One of the most pressing concerns in Jessore has been the lack of water. Gujarat has experienced strong heat waves in recent years. Villagers and farmers say lazy bears increasingly leave the sanctuary in search of water. In June 2019, after the bears attacked four people, the local government replenished the water wells with a tank truck. But researchers hope to find a long-lasting, natural solution to the bear’s water problems.
Nishith Dhairaya, a biologist at Hemchandracharya North Gujarat University and co-chair of the IUCN Sloth Bear expert team, successfully urged the forestry department to create pipe-fed concrete wells through the dry landscape. But he wants to do more; One of his key research projects is mapping the availability of water in the Jessore forests. He and his team of graduate students have surveyed water points throughout the reserve, noting how often the bears appeared to be using the water wells.
“No one knows the water needs of lazy bears,” says doctoral candidate Arzoo Malik. Once they establish that baseline, it might be possible to design the drought-affected landscape to naturally retain water, and thus bears.
Across India, attitudes towards wildlife are changing. Ravi Chellam, a leading Indian wildlife biologist who spent years working with the Indian Institute of Wildlife, says he believes the country is doing relatively well when it comes to coexisting with dangerous wildlife. In North America, a black bear or brown bear responsible for a single human death would be quickly slaughtered. That is not the case in India.
“The fact that wildlife is free in this country is a success… given the size and diversity of the population, development and growth, and conflicts over land. I think as Indians we don’t have enough credit for this, ”he says.
A short distance from Pinky Baiga village, Harendra Singh Bargali and I visited a group of children. Bargali asks how many of them have seen a lazy bear. Three of the boys raise their hands. They point to the forest behind the lime-green houses of the town. One boy says he saw a bear from a distance while grazing his goats, but he knew it was slowly backing up quietly.
“That’s why he survived,” says Bargali. Young people also know other tricks, such as avoiding going to the forest alone.
Bargali asks the children what they think should be done with the animals. The evening light shines on their anxious faces. They shrug their shoulders. In so many words, they say: What can be done besides giving them space?
“The forest,” says one, “is better with wildlife.”
He is a journalist based in British Columbia, Canada. He is currently writing a book about the threats faced by the eight bear species for W.W. Norton This story was supported by a storytelling grant from the National Geographic Society. With additional reports from Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava.