Rehabilitating Himalayan Bear Cubs - A First Hand Account!
I have worked with wildlife six years now and there is nothing more enchanting than watching little Himalayan black bear cubs play or dig for termites or stand under a “hand pump” and take a bath or stand on there hind legs and hiss at you! Not even elephants (my first love) can beat that!
I got the opportunity to go to Pakke Tiger Reserve first in 2003 and then again in 2006 when I actually did some field work for the bear project, that experience was life altering. Pakke is…is god’s own country, it’s paradise on earth. It’s beautiful, it’s mysterious and it’s an evergreen rain forest. It is also one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and home to a …..population of Himalayan black bears. WTI has been trying to rehabilitate bear cubs displaced from the wild due to the live pet trade and orphaning since 2002. In 2006, the project began using a new technique, a soft release method called “walk the bear” programme, wherein the cubs are hand-raised in the forest where they will be released and our literally walked by their keeper each day in the forest as they acclimatize to the wild.
I had the privilege of being part of this exercise several times in the last year. It is a performance to get to the project, the roads are bad, you have to change buses, make it into the village before 4 p.m and blah dad a da. But that’s not the end of it. You have to fight it out with the security at the check post between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam in spite of having valid permits and by the time you are in it’s night fall, nothing’s open and you sleep cold, hungry and in a bed full of cockroaches! The next day is when the real adventure begins….because it’s rained all night you need to make it across the river on elephant back, which of course isn’t very nice (for the elephant) and then 12 kms up hill through rough and slippery terrain to get to the release site. You of course have run inns with wild elephants, mithun, wild boar and lots of tiger scat (I haven’t been lucky enough to see a tiger in Pakke Tiger Reserve yet!)
So a team of eight of us begins the treacherous journey to ‘Khari Pong’ which is where the actual bear rehab site is. It takes half a day to get elephants and supplies organized and we finally set off after lunch, with one very rickety old truck in tow. As the real reason I am going there is to erect this cage for the bears, since there original one broke in two when a tree fell on it. The cubs, the two of them swam across the river with the keeper to safety and then were housed in a little hut at the base of the Khari Pong guest house on top of a small hill. It is the most beautiful little guest house, no electricity and no running water of course, no phones, the back of the woods, far , far away form civilization , the isolation is surreal. We arrived at 5 p.m. and every one was in bed, we rudely woke the cook who got “dinner” ready for us…which was some very very fat grains of rice and very soupy “dal” it was almost boiled water but it was hot!
I am going to spare here the details of the show we put up to get the night sleeping quarters for the bears erected and how we captured them after they escaped and chased me and came after me with “fangs bared” (which is a good thing….they are afraid of strangers and will only approach the keeper!). It is an hours walk to the release site from the Khari Pong guest house, of course the river has to be crossed on elephant back first, most times during the year, but the times it is walkable it’s beautiful, little rivulets with pretty rock and patches of winding elephant grass, it’s an open valley like area and then it ends suddenly and the thick canopy of the rain forest appears out of no where, tall trees, thick canopy with like really, really broad leaves, so much vegetation on the ground that you can’t see the earth, and not to mention the wide variety and density of insects an entomologists paradise! Lat but not the least in the amazing treats that Pakke has to offer….leeches, the ecology of leeches would be an ideal thesis topic for a PhD. in Pakke, there are actually three different species of leeches in Pakke! They are everywhere and they fall from the sky and land in every possible place on your body imaginable! The poor captive elephants, their legs get full of them and they don’t even spare the cubs!
So coming back to cubs and their long “walk to freedom” as coined by WTI’s Wild Rescue programme director and the pioneer behind adapting this technique to the Indian bear rehab scenario… The bear cubs are like little kids going to kindergarten every morning. The keeper initially as any mother would, would walk the cubs in the rehab site, get them to acclimatize to the wild habitat which is to be there future home! The cubs will climb everywhere on every tree and into every hollow and inspect every blade of grass, every leaf and every little insect! They will eat wild fruits and make contorted faces if they eat a really sour one just like little kids! They would attack logs of wood and suck out ands/termites from it, sometimes they would climb trees and just flop on the branch half hanging on half holding on and snooze a little bit every now and then. They were so agile like little acrobats! The keeper in the mean time would just do his thing try and identify the food plants the cubs eat etc. and every now and then be out of sight. So suddenly one of the cubs would realize that he is missing, stand up on it’s hind legs an start panic vocalizing and calm down when the keeper came back into sight! It was amazing to watch this and hard not to think of them as little human babies….because they aren’t! Then at night fall the keeper would turn around and start walking back to the night enclosure and they would follow him back trotting along stopping every now and then to inspect the odd fruit or insect! Once at the enclosure they would get all excited and vocalize again, because they were back to home base! They would excitedly charge into the enclosure, which was full of logs and things for them to climb on and swing! Also they new it was dinner time…once they had snorted their dinner off the bowls, they would then play with the little wooden kennels and try and squeeze into one kennel….(it was almost as if they were saying to each other….noooo…your kennels better than mine…!!! I want to be in it….!!) Then suddenly there would be pin drop silence and the two had fallen asleep finally! These are moments that will stay with me forever and the two cubs, “Sepaa” and “Seppi” are well on their way to freedom! They have graduated finally and are currently establishing their home ranges in Pakke!