- The Asiatic black bear and the Malayan sun bear are critically endangered in Bangladesh
- No systematic study exists on our bears
- They still exist in fair numbers in eastern forests
- Bears have the potential to be an umbrella species
Our Bengal tigers have always been, and perhaps reasonably, at the centre of our great conservation commotion. But what about our bears?
We know that roughly 110 tigers live in the Sundarban area. The Chattogram Hill Tracts have a fair chance to host Pahari Bagh (Tiger of the Hill) - that too is a matter of nationwide anticipation.
But, where does our knowledge-base stand for bears? How many of them reside in Bangladesh and where? Or do we even have any at all? A flurry of random thoughts is normal, for we are talking about some animals so elusive and traditionally ignored by all.
Two bear species, surviving in negligence
Our country is home to not one but two globally threatened bear species - the Asiatic black bear and the Malayan sun bear - among the seven species around the world. The former is relatively bigger and more common. The Asiatic black bear's habitat requirement is versatile as a response to holding a large global range.
From Iran and Central Asia's arid habitat to Himalaya's montane forest, from Korea and Japan's temperate forest to Indochina and Northeast India's rainforest - the Asiatic black bear regards all of them as home.
On the other hand, the Malayan sun bear can be termed as a habitat specialist among the two. It is the smallest of all ursids, the bear family; also, the most arboreal.
This species avoids logged forests and human proximity. Its range is restricted, mostly confined in Indochina, Northeast Indian, and Southern China. The sun bear prefers lower altitudes, wet deciduous, and evergreen forests.
Both of the bears are globally vulnerable, threatened by logging and poaching. In Bangladesh, they are critically endangered, meaning they are on their last legs in the country.
Old, ambiguous information
To look for any work on Bangladesh's bears, we need to go back a decade. The work "Status of bears in Bangladesh: going, going, gone?" published in 2013 in Ursus, the only scientific journal in the world specialising on bears.
It was authored by Professor Dr Anwarul Islam and a generation of young biologists of that time who had run a rigorous sign and interview-based survey in 2010 in northern, northeastern, and southeastern regions. Being a first-time attempt in a country, it was a great effort. The work even predicted the dismal future of the sloth bear—the third bear of the country, now extinct.
However, conclusive remarks on the black and sun bears' distribution and future require a timely revision. The work regarded that "the populations (of the Asiatic black bear) are scattered and likely to be very low in numbers." The Malayan sun bear was observed as a "vagrant".
The recent field data obtained with contemporary equipment (such as motion-triggered camera-trap) and the trend of ongoing human-bear conflict scenarios in the country say something very different.
Both bear species had been camera-trapped in all five camera-trapping sessions conducted in the last five years. A couple of them were carried out by Creative Conservation Alliance, a conservation NGO based in Bangladesh.
Another one was an output of a Panthera-funded work made possible by Dr Suprio Chakma, assistant professor at Rangamati Science and Technology University, and Hasan Rahman, a PhD candidate at the University of Delaware.
The rest of the sessions were conducted by International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh as a part of a transboundary wildlife corridor project ongoing in southeastern Bangladesh. These startling discoveries were mostly shared through different dissemination workshops and reports.
The human-bear conflict scenario surprisingly corroborates these field-based findings. Based on the human-carnivore conflict database I have been building, there are at least 16 confirmed incidents that have surfaced in the media over the last six years. With multiple lethal injuries, these occurrences had resulted in three deaths each on the side of bear and man.
These evidence-based data strongly vouch for the existence of a population across our eastern hilly forests. The camera-trap images prove that the sun bear is not a mere vagrant but a precious denizen of our forests.
A shocking disparity in conservation efforts
Bagh-Bhalook (tiger and bear) is a non-reversible word pair in Bangla. Thus, since bygone times, just like tigers, bears have existed in Bangladesh. Not adhering to the fact, our efforts are heavily tilted toward Bagh. If we are yet to do anything for our Bhalook, is a skewed conservation strategy any good in the long run?
We have two consecutive nationwide action plans to save tigers. Yes. This is necessary and commendable. But a forest full of tigers with no bear or leopard or small cats is not anything anyone ever wants.
We also need to remember that we have forests in our eastern region that are no less important than the Sundarbans. These eastern trans-border forests chopped into two by the state Tripura, India, and bordered by Mizoram, southern Assam, and Meghalaya, altogether, belong to the great Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot.
In plain words, hotspots are those rare places on the earth where biodiversity has flourished to a breathtaking level.
The overall research effort in eastern Bangladesh is extremely sketchy. Where the Sundarbans was a study site and tiger was a study subject for around 50 studies, studies on our biodiversity hotspot and other carnivore mammals roughly crosses 10.
Undoubtedly, Bangladesh is the only one among all bear-range countries which have nearly no data on its bears. And, a similar claim can be made on our leopards, otters, golden cats, marbled cats, and whatnot.
An undeniable relationship
Human-bear relation is primeval. Bears are held as a helpful symbol of courage, strength, and protection. We see bears in cave paintings, ancient beliefs. Bears thrive in numerous fictions.
Walt Disney gives us "Winnie the Pooh". Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book introduces us to Baloo. Bears are the Norse gods, kings of Svalbard - as we are told in the classic trilogy by Sir Philip Pullman. We have The Muppet Show's Fizzie and Hanna-Barbera's Yogi.
Recently, I have grown increasingly attached to Volibear, a champion from the popular game "League of Legends". The list of where and how bears are revered is endless. So, shall we do nothing for a synergy-in-peril?