A sloth bear and its cub in their natural habitat at Daroji Bear Sanctuary. Picture by Pampiah Malemath
|Stone quarrying close to the bear sanctuary. Picture by Samad Kottur
|Two bears knocked down by a vehicle on NH13 near Kunapalli
on the Bijapur-Solapur highway. Picture by Samad Kottur
Hampi/Bangalore, Oct. 18: “And seven times, never kill Man!” says Baloo, the wise sloth bear in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, as he teaches Mowgli the Law of the Jungle.
Over a century on, the sentiment isn’t quite being reciprocated in north Karnataka’s bear country.
Illegal stone quarries on the fringes of the Daroji Bear Sanctuary in Bellary district are ravaging the rocky terrain and depleting the deciduous forest cover, environmentalists complain. This is forcing the sloth bears to look for food outside their shrinking habitat, often ending up under the wheels of speeding vehicles.
Two bears were run over a couple of weeks ago while crossing National Highway 13 near Kunapalli, 380km from Bangalore. They were probably headed for the watermelon farms across the six-lane highway.
“This has become common as the bears are affected by the quarrying and often cross the highway in search of food at night,” environmental activist Samad Kottur told The Telegraph.
It’s the bears’ nocturnal habit of roaming around that has turned especially dangerous for them, he said. The giant hairballs often visit local temples late at night to lick oil from the lamps, setting off potential man-animal conflicts.
As another of Baloo’s maxims went: “And remember the night is for hunting, and forget not the day is for sleep.”
Conservationists also allege that many bears have “disappeared” mysteriously from the sanctuary, apparently falling prey to poachers. There’s a huge market for bear body parts in China, where these are considered aphrodisiacs.
Some wandering bears have possibly been trapped and sold to local qalandars who force them to perform on roadsides — “perhaps the cruellest fate for a bear”, in Kottur’s words.
Daroji, set near Hampi, capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Vijayanagara, is close to the Kishkindha of the Ramayana, said to have been located on the banks of the Tungabadra. Ram met Jambavan, the wise bear, when he crossed Hampi on his way to Lanka to rescue Sita.
The 56sqkm sanctuary is now home to many bears rescued from the qalandars who have blended well with their wild brethren. Daroji also boasts leopards, wild boars, pangolins, birds and reptiles.
But one look at Google Earth reveals how the sanctuary’s fringes have turned white and balding as the quarries have been blasting its rocks and ferrying them away.
“The earlier problem was illegal mining in the Bellary-Sandur belt (about 20-30km away). But that has ended after the Lokayukta report indicted top politicians including the then chief minister (B.S. Yeddyurappa). The current problem is quarrying,” Kottur said.
A couple of blasts could be heard in the background as he spoke. Kottur and other wildlife lovers have been trying to stop the quarrying, which they say goes on with the connivance of local officials.
The government denies any manmade problem, citing how the bears’ population has risen.
“Our calculations show there are around 130 sloth bears around here (from just a handful when the sanctuary was carved out in 1994),” said sanctuary director S.S. Jalihal.
He said there was “hardly any encroachment” by quarries and blamed the stray man-animal conflicts on the bears’ night forays into villages.
“The villagers raise a big noise to drive them away,” the director said. “Faced with such threats, the bears can get violent although no one has been seriously injured in the past two or three years.”
But bears searching for sugarcane, corn and groundnut are known to have killed cattle — 13 of them in 2012-13 alone, costing the forest department over Rs 1 lakh in compensation, Jalihal said.
He accepted that the bears have been better off since illegal mining ended in 2011. “It was a bad time as the blasts scared or agitated them.”
Wildlife experts, though, cited how the state-owned Jungle Lodges and Resorts was set right inside the sanctuary. “The biggest violation is this,” said Santosh Martin, honorary wildlife warden for Bellary district.
A zoo coming up right next to the sanctuary has also kicked up a storm, with wildlife experts warning of cross-infection between the captive animals and the bears.
“This is the most stupid idea as bringing a zoo so close to a natural animal habitat would be detrimental to both,” Martin said. But the protests have so far failed to deter the state government.
The zoo was first mooted by then tourism minister Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail for his alleged role in illegal mining.