Bears Released Back to Wild in India for First Time

Thursday, 10 March, 2005
Khari Pong, Arunachal Pradesh, India
In a pioneering effort two Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) have been released back to the wild thanks to ‘IFAW in India’ (International Fund for Animal Welfare –
After undergoing rehabilitation for more than two years at the Center for Bear Rehabilitation and Conservation (CBRC) at Pakke in the north eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, it was possible for the first time in India to return orphan bears back to their natural habitat.

Lucky and Leela were three months old when they were rescued by staff of the forest department in Itanagar Wildlife Sanctuary. The two bears were taken to the center under the watchful eyes of a team of experts, including renowned Russian bear rehabilitation expert Dr Valentin Pazhetnov and veterinarians from ‘IFAW in India’, which is a partnership between IFAW and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

There was a careful process of rehabilitation for the bears at CBRC, which was set up by IFAW, WTI and the Arunachal Pradesh State Forest Department. It ensured the bears were sufficiently acclimatized to natural habitat and human contact was minimized to avoid behavioral abnormalities. The process also requires that they are given at least three to four months in a pre-release enclosure to exhibit natural behavior.

Dr Ian Robinson, IFAW Emergency Relief Manager, said: “It is very exciting to have been able to release bears back into the wild in India for the first time. It has been a slow and painstaking process of rehabilitation, but knowing they are now free makes it all worthwhile. We will learn from this so that we can release more bear cubs from the center in the future.”

Dr. Anand Ramanathan, IFAW ER Operations Manager, said: ”Both bears were tranquilized from the pre-release orientation area at CBRC, weighed, radio collared, micro chipped and taken separately in two mobile veterinary units to Khari Pong which is 16 kilometers from the center.”

“The bears were released into a holding enclosure at the release site. The entire operation, which began at nine in the morning, took three hours.”  Both bears were released after two days of captivity in the enclosures and are being monitored and tracked every day using telemetry equipment by a field team.
“At first Lucky moved as far as 700 meters away from the site of release, while Leela remained in and around the release area. They are expected to settle down and determine their own home ranges soon,” remarked Dr. Anand.

About CBRC:
The Center is situated on the banks of the river Pakke amidst 800 sq. km of lush green tropical semi-evergreen forests - a perfect dwelling place for the bear cubs. At any given time of the year it can hold a minimum of 16 bears in different stages of rehabilitation.

Arunachal Pradesh has a tribal community, which primarily depends on forest resources for their livelihood, spread across 11 districts. Some of the inhabitants of the state believe in hunting notwithstanding enforcement of wildlife laws. These tribes not only hunt for smaller animals but they also hunt down Asiatic black bears. 

Asiatic black bears are killed by hunters throughout Arunachal Pradesh and often hunters catch bear cubs alive if the mother gets shot or abandons her cubs. Tribe members raised many of these cubs, until the forest department stepped in. All such cubs were ultimately brought into captivity by the forest department and were placed under lifetime care in the Itanagar Zoo, until the establishment of CBRC at Pakke.

Over the years, the black bear population in India has drastically reduced mainly due to poaching and habitat destruction. Their declining numbers point not only to threats faced by bear populations, but also by their habitats and other wildlife. The Pre-release orientation area (PROA) at CBRC where the bears are housed has a rich vegetation of plant varieties. The area is sealed with a power fence to prevent these bears from getting out and also to prevent tigers and leopards getting in. The PROA also serves as an experimental site for the scientists to study their activity pattern, behavior and enclosure utilization in order to assess their suitability for release.

Fruits collected from wild trees, such as Dillenia indica, Syzigium cumini, Garuga pinnate, Emblica officinalis, Ficus pomifera, F. scandens, Eugenia malacanise and Mussa spp. have been fed to the bears during the last two years. This was supplemented with cultivated varieties, such as Zea mays, Cariya papaya, Ananas comosus, Mangifera indica, and Arachis hypogaea to sustain the bears for a longer period of time.

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