Tracking bear rescue & rehabilitation in India

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2008:

RAJGIR, AGRA–Ten years into a deep
disagreement over how best to rescue and
rehabilitate former dancing bears, and other
bears confiscated from poachers and smugglers,
the score is approximately 460 bears accommodated
by the three bear sanctuaries now operated by
Wildlife SOS, to two Asiatic black bears claimed
to have been successfully returned to the forest
by the Wildlife Trust of India, with five more
Asiatic black bears and five sloth bears in
various stages of preparation for release,
according to a WTI project summary issued on
April 4, 2008.
WTI in March 2005 announced the release
into the Pakke Reserve Forest in Arunchal Pradesh
of two Asiatic black bears named Lucky and Leela.
Their fate is unclear. The release of two more,
Seppa and Seppi, was announced in March 2008.
“Seppa and Seppi were monitored in the wild for
over seven months last year,” WTI said, “and
when monitoring through radio collaring was
stopped as planned, this was considered the
first successful release of bears in the project.”

“Earlier attempts [to release bears] in
2003 and in subsequent years failed, as the bear
cubs could not develop necessary self defense
instincts because of their proximity to human
beings,” recounted the Assam Tribune on February
28, 2008. “In one investigation it was found
that two released bears were killed by a leopard,
according to wildlife officers,” the Assam
Tribune added.
Responded WTI, “One hard-released bear,
Liza, was predated upon by a leopard in 2005.
Despite the fact that this is a natural
occurrence, changes to the technique of release
were made and a soft release technique adopted in
tropical countries was tried. This is what has
resulted in success for the project.”
WTI founded the Centre for Bear
Rehabilitation and Conservation at the Pakke
reserve in 2002, backed by the International
Fund for Animal Welfare.
One of the five sloth bears being
prepared by WTI for eventual release is now at
the Satkosia Wildlife Sanctuary in Orissa. This
bear was confiscated from an illegal trafficker
at Rairakhol, Orissa, in December 2007.
The other four sloth bears are at the
Rajgir Deer Park in Bihar. This project is
funded by the World Society for the Protection of
Animals. The four bears are the survivors of a
litter of five who “were confiscated by the Bihar
forest department in April 2007 from the Munger
district in the eastern Indian Bihar state,”
according to WTI.
The bears’ arrival at WTI was actually a
bit more complicated. Reported the Hindustan
Times on April 15, 2008, “On a tip-off from
Rohit Singh, an investigator with Wildlife SOS,
a team consisting of 50 enforcement officers and
five jeeps raided and arrested two Kalandars,”
members of the far-scattered tribe who
traditionally train dancing bears. The Kalendars
“bought the cubs from poachers in West Bengal who
had killed the mother bear,” the Hindustan Times
continued. “The bear cubs have been lodged at
the Patna zoo and are likely to be shifted to the
Agra Bear Rescue Facility run by Wildlife SOS
after getting clearance from the Bihar forest
Wildlife SOS web postings and e-mails
anticipated receiving the bears, but they went
to WTI instead.
Progress toward their release was
interrupted on August 5, 2007. According to a
WTI web posting of the following day, a band of
alleged Maoist rebels chased away an unarmed
keeper named Vinod, who was “taking five bears
for an acclimatisation walk inside the Rajavaran
forest in Bhimband Wildlife Sanctuary,” which
was to be their eventual release site. As the
keeper fled, the rebels shot one bear.
“These gangs have been creating all sorts
of nuisance here, but police have failed to take
any action against them,” WTI quoted divisional
forest officer Manoj Singh as saying. “They
don’t want our activities here since they have
hideouts inside the forest. The place is no
longer safe.”
Wildlife pre-release projects usually
field one observer per animal, to avoid losing
sight of animals who may rapidly disperse out of
sight of each other, while tracking how each
animal fares in finding food and coping with
The April 2008 WTI statement mentioned
that as a matter of routine, “two keepers took
the bears out for acclimatisation,” but added
that the “armed men, about 40 in number,
accosted one of the keepers…Both keepers later
returned to the spot with forest department
officials to find four bear cubs hiding in the
bushes and one dead.”
“It has been asked why the keepers were
not armed while taking the bears out,” WTI
continuned. “In India not even forest rangers go
around armed in the forest, except where the
government allows them to. In cases such as
rehabilitating wildlife, arms are generally not
The bear shooting had longterm
consequences. Just 24 hours after WTI announced
that Seppa and Seppi were wild bears again,
Indian Express investigative writer J.P. Yadav on
March 19, 2008 reported finding “Four orphaned
bear cubs locked up in a dark and dingy room
inside the Rajgir Deer Park…two other cubs
locked in a similar room…” and “Three adult
bears locked in small rooms,” all at “an
abandoned forest range office.” An accompanying
photo attributed to Paras Nath showed three bears
in a room, with one bear up at the window.
A reporter named Akhilesh Ranjan Jha who
participated in the investigation posted more
photos to his web site.
Yadav quoted handler Vijay Kumar as
saying that, “Initially, we used to take the
bears out for a walk inside the park, but
stopped after the cubs developed teeth. It is
dangerous. They could attack us.”
Yadav did not mention the August 2007
bear killing, and apparently neither did Vijay
Kumar. But WTI vice chair Ashok Kumar and WSPA
wildlife program chief Dave Eastham mentioned it,
in a joint response to the Indian Express.
“Due to security considerations in
Rajgir, the ‘walk the bear’ program was
suspended and the bear cubs were transferred to
the custody of the government of Bihar in early
September 2007,” Kumar and Eastham wrote.
“After the suspension of the ‘walk the bear’
program, the Bihar Forest Department temporarily
kept the bears in a smaller enclosure, awaiting
the construction of larger planned enclosures.”
Elaborated the April 4 WTI statement,
“The government discontinued the rehabilitation
project in the wild and sent the bears back in
August 2007 to where they were earlier, at
Rajgir, where the forest department is in the
process of setting up a Sloth Bear Rehabilitation
Research Centre.”
Initially the bears were walked as
before, WTI said, in hopes of finding another
release site. However, “By this time the bears
were over a year old and their permanent canines
were grown,” and the bears “were reluctant to
return to their night shelter…The frequency and
the time spent in the outings was reduced to
three days a week, as the bears were [now] supposed to remain in life time care.
“When the photograph published in the
Indian Express was taken,” WTI continued, “the
cubs were awaiting a shift to a newly constructed
temporary enclosure. When the story came out a
few days later the cubs were already in the new
The 78-year-old Indian Express is
distributed throughout India, with a U.S.
edition and extensive web readership. ANIMAL
PEOPLE received the Yadav article from multiple
familiar sources both in India and the U.S.
ANIMAL PEOPLE began asking questions on
March 20, but WTI founder Vivek Menon first
responded on March 29, four days after one
Harvey “Hangul” Mainkar, calling himself
“Wildlife Watchdog,” forwarded the Indian
Express article and other coverage of the WTI
bear release projects to animal advocates and
news media worldwide, asking recipients to
protest against the proposed Orissa bear release.
Menon objected that “The original story
was written by someone who visited the center at
a time when the vet was away for a day, talked
to keepers who are illiterate, and took
photographs, all without either our knowledge or
that of the forest department.
“We have not been privy to videos or
photos or what people claim they have,” Menon
added, but asserted that “It is easy to
deliberately doctor stuff if malicious intent is
there. That malicious intent is there is clear,”
Menon claimed, “by the very wide leakage of this
hate mail…No journalist in small town Bihar has
such a targeted address book! We have over the
past few days taken steps, both legal and
enforcement related, to ensure we come to the
bottom of the mess.”
Delhi attorney Ritwick Dutta, retained
by WTI, on April 2 asked Mainkar to withdraw his
e-mails or face “civil as well as criminal
proceedings” for defamation, “punishable with
imprisonment for a term of up to two years.” The
demand letter did not specify what content of the
e-mails might be considered defamatory. ANIMAL
PEOPLE asked Menon and Dutta to identify any of
Mainkar’s statements which they believe to be
demonstrably factually false, outside the leeway
normally allowed by Indian courts for
opinionated comment about public issues. At
press time Menon and Dutta had not responded.

Wildlife SOS

Menon did not accuse Wildlife SOS of
involvement in Mainkar’s campaign. But Wildlife
SOS, which was the target of anonymous e-mail
attacks in mid-2007 that apparently did not reach
mass media, has had open rivalries with WTI,
Recent issues between Wildlife SOS and
IFAW have pertained to disaster relief
operations, in which Wildlife SOS has had a
leading role, but IFAW prominently claimed
credit without acknowledging Wildlife SOS–and in
the case of the December 2004 Indian Ocean
tsunami, without actually being on the scene
until weeks after Wildlife SOS.
The Wildlife SOS conflicts with WTI and
WSPA have focused on bears, with origins dating
to 1998, when Menon formed WTI, and then-Indian
minister for animal welfare Maneka Gandhi began
enforcing legislation that prohibited using
bears, lions, tigers, elephants, and monkeys
in entertainment.
Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani,
who earlier founded the Friendicoes SECA animal
hospital and shelter in Delhi, had started
Wildlife SOS in 1995. They began raising funds
to build a bear sanctuary the following year.
Satyanarayan contends that providing
lifelong care in sanctuaries is the most
appropriate way to look after bears who have
typically been captured as young cubs, have
usually been hand-raised by humans, have often
been defanged and otherwise injured in ways that
would inhibit survival in the wild [although the
bears handled by WTI may not have been], and
have been kept in proximity to humans for most of
their lives.
Even if the bears could learn to feed
themselves in the wild, Satyanarayn believes,
they would be easy targets for poachers, might
be recaptured for use as dancing bears, and
might be more inclined than other bears to seek
food from human homes, stores, or farms.
Meanwhile, viable niches for wildlife of
all sorts tend to be quickly refilled by other
wild animals, as litters disperse, seeking
habitat. Even finding habitat for animals who
need as much feeding territory as bears tends to
be difficult, as WTI learned after the Rajavaran
forest shooting, because of human encroachment
into forest reserves.
WSPA eventually provided about half of
the initial cost of building the first Wildlife
SOS bear sanctuary, near Agra, but was no
longer part of the project by the time the
sanctuary opened in December 2002.
Most of the rest of the Agra sanctuary
construction and start-up funding came from the
Australian charity Free the Bears, One Voice of
France, and International Animal Rescue of
Britain, all still project partners. Wildlife
SOS also now has a U.S. affiliate, based in Salt
Lake City.
WSPA meanwhile joined IFAW in financing
the Wildlife Trust of India bear rescue and
rehabilitation projects. As well as starting the
Centre for Bear Rehabilitation and Conservation
in 2002, WTI opened a bear rescue center at
Bannerghatta National Park, near
Bangalore–where Wildlife SOS has operated the
Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Center since late 2005.
Both Wildlife SOS and WTI accept bears
who have been confiscated by police and wildlife
wardens, along with bears who have been
voluntarily surrendered by dancing bear trainers
in exchange for help in establishing new ways of
making a living. In 1999 Wildlife SOS began
forming contacts and credibility among
traditional bear-handlers. Wildlife SOS began
funding restarts in life in exchange for bears in
2002, as soon as the Agra facility was able to
house the bears. WTI began their parallel
Integrated Sloth Bear Conservation & Welfare
Project in 2005.
In addition to the original Wildlife SOS
sanctuary at Agra, and the Bannerghatta Bear
Rescue Center, Wildlife SOS now operates a bear
sanctuary at Van Vihar, near Bhopal, and has
two other sanctuaries for other species.
After the Wildlife SOS bear sanctuary at
Agra opened, WSPA temporarily suspended the
“Libearty” campaign, which had also contributed
to starting bear sanctuaries in Bulgaria,
Greece, Turkey, and Pakistan. WSPA revived the
campaign at the beginning of 2004, according to
annual filings made to the British Charities
Commission, with a budget balance of zero.
During the next three years, “Libearty” raised
£2,829,000, spent £2,073,000, and at the end of
2006 had an unspent balance of £756,000.
The WSPA filings with the Charities
Commission did not indicate the sums allocated to
the various different “Libearty” projects,
including the Pakistan sanctuary, a new
sanctuary in Romania, the WTI bear project, and
other bear-related projects elsewhere in Asia.

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