Archive for the ‘Sloth Bear’ Category

Can Sri Lanka drive conservation through its ‘Sexy Beasts’…?

September 27, 2019
  • Though a global biodiversity hotspot with high endemism, Sri Lanka’s wildlife tourism is driven by a select group of “charismatic” species, including the Asian elephant, leopard, sloth bear, blue whale and sperm whale, none of which are endemic to the island.
  • Sri Lanka still relies on conservation paradigms set decades ago, aimed at protecting these high-profile animals, but experts call for the adoption of new conservation strategies to protect the island’s biodiversity, moving beyond the charismatic species.
  • A group of tropical biologists have called for the establishment of ecological corridors linking fragmented biodiversity-rich habitats in Sri Lanka’s wet zone to ensure the protection of unique endemic species not included among the charismatic species.
  • Often lost in the shadow cast by the charismatic species are a wealth of amphibians and reptiles, found nowhere else on Earth, with new species continuing to be discovered on an almost regular basis. Published on Mongabay on 23 September 2019

Sri Lanka has the highest density of Asian elephants. Around 300 can be seen at the annual “gathering,” when they congregate at a manmade reservoir in Minneriya National Park. Banner image courtesy of Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

COLOMBO — Wildlife conservation managers have long known that to protect a species, it helps if the animal is what’s known as charismatic: rare, endangered, beautiful, impressive, dangerous, or a combination of these traits.

This focus on charismatic species continues to drive conservation efforts and how they’re funded (think of Africa’s “Big Five”: elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo).

For a country like Sri Lanka, though, the spotlight being shone on flagship species such as elephants and leopards is leaving the myriad more obscure species, found nowhere else on the planet, out in the dark.

That was the conclusion of a recent meeting of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation’s Asia-Pacific chapter (ATBC-AP) in Sri Lanka: that there’s a high reliance on “marketing” the island’s “sexy beasts” to drive wildlife tourism, with little attention paid to the not-so-charismatic endemic species.

A leopard in Wilpattu National Park, courtesy of Rajiv Welikala.

“Charismatic animals often attract disproportionate amounts of research and conservation funding, commercial interest and public attention compared with other species,” said Ruchira Somaweera a Sri Lankan herpetologist and National Geographic Explorer. “As a result, they often play a significant role as surrogates for boarder biodiversity conservation aims We are all animals ourselves and follow these ‘sexiness’ traits. As it is an inherent, we should use it as an opportunity for conservation, using them as flagship species.”

Charismatics drive wildlife tourism

A glance at Sri Lanka’s wildlife tourism industry gives an idea of the island’s charismatic species. The country is often promoted as being the best for big game safaris outside Africa, and the Ministry of Tourism has come up with its own version of the big five: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus maximus), leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus).

According to Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, a pioneer in branding and promoting Sri Lanka’s wildlife to the world, the island ranks first in the world in term of ease of viewing the first four of those species — an annual gathering of around 300 elephants in Minneriya National Park has been rated one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth — and is among the top 10 global destinations for sperm whale watching.

A sloth bear at Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka. The species is one of the largest bears in the tropics, and among the most elusive of the charismatic species. Image courtesy of Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne.

When it named Sri Lanka its top destination for 2019, travel guide publisher Lonely Planet emphasized the island’s rich fauna and flora. Statistics from the Department of Wildlife Conservation for 2018 show that Yala National Park in the country’s deep south ranked first in leopard-watching possibilities, recording nearly 630,000 visitors, more than half of them from overseas. This was followed by Horton Plains National Park, also home to leopards and visited by more than 410,000 people (nearly 120,000 foreign), and Udawalawe National Park, considered the best spot for observing elephants through the year.

Those species have in turn generated significant revenue for the parks. Yala topped the list last year with $5.7 million in receipts, followed by Horton Plains ($4.1 million) and Udawalawe ($2.4 million). Nearly half of all foreign tourists to Sri Lanka engage in wildlife tourism and visit at least one national park, according to Srilal Miththapala, a tourism industry specialist and promoter of nature-based tourism.

Sri Lanka offers some of the best opportunities in the world to watch a superpod of sperm whales, consisting of about 50 individuals. Image courtesy of Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne.

Opportunity vs. burden

But this level of popularity gives rise to various problems both for the wildlife and the managers of these national parks, who have to grapple with too many visitors. The whale watching industry, created without proper regulations, also prompted concerns in the early stages when boats were allowed to get close to the whales to give paying visitors a “better view.”

But the appeal of charismatic species should be seen as an opportunity rather than a burden, said Sampath Seneviratne from the University of Colombo. “We do live in a world where bigger environmental crises such as deforestation and climate change are threatening life on Earth. People have their own concerns and the need to preserve our ecosystems does not attract the expected political bite,” he said, adding that charismatic species and the love for them helps mainstream the need for species conservation.

In the case of Sri Lanka, however, conservation efforts have focused on the protection of the larger charismatic game animals found only in the island’s dry zone. But the island’s wealth of biodiversity lies in rather small endemic creatures — amphibians and reptiles, of which new species are discovered on an almost regular basis — mostly restricted to the wet zone and the central massif, said Eric Wikramanayake a conservation biologist who leads the wildlife and wetlands program of WWF- Hong Kong.

Wikramanayake compared Sri Lanka’s biodiversity to the workings of an airplane. “This airplane’s engine could be elephants. The flight computer could be the leopards. But what about the ants, bees, butterflies, earthworms and birds? Where do they fit in? We should not overlook the significant behind-the-scene contributions of the smaller species. They really are the nuts and bolts of the airplane. When they fail, we see a plane crash.”

Besides wintering migratory birds, there are many native species that can be seen in their natural settings here, such as this juvenile Serendib scops owl from deep within Sinharaja, Sri Lanka’s only rainforest. Image courtesy of Rajiv Welikala.

Adapting to dynamic ecosystems

While there’s been great emphasis laid on species-specific protection activities, prioritizing wildlife habitats with high ecosystem value is the need of the hour, according to conservation biologist Manori Gunawardena. What the former approach has meant is the designation of a sizable share of protected areas to conserving mega fauna. This has led to the disparate distribution of protected sites, with more of the dry lowland habitats covered than the highly threatened and biodiversity-rich wet-zone ecosystems.

The ATBC-AP meeting called for the establishment of biodiversity corridors in Sri Lanka’s wet zone to link the fragmented rainforest patches in a bid to scale up the conservation of endemic species. The conservationists’ recommendations are included in the outcome document, the Thulhiriya Declaration.

Wikramanayake called for new strategies to conserve Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, looking beyond the charismatic species.

“Our conservation priorities, approaches and strategies belong to the 20th century,” he said. “We still rely on conservation paradigms, thought processes and ideas from the 1940s and ’50s. In the meantime, the world is changing and passing us by. Ecosystems are dynamic, and conservation has to adapt.”

Sri Lanka has the highest density of Asian elephants. Around 300 can be seen at the annual “gathering,” when they congregate at a manmade reservoir in Minneriya National Park. Banner image courtesy of Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

August 29, 2015

A roar of protest has gone up from animal lovers at a plan to transfer four young sloth bears under the guardianship of Department of Wildlife to the National Zoological Gardens, with calls for the bears to be rehabilitated and released to live free in the wild instead of in a cage.

The bears were to have been released into the wild but upon a request by the Director of the Zoological Gardens, the Director General of Department of WIldlife Conservation issued a hurriedly executed directive last month to transfer them to a zoo.
Three of these orphaned bears, rescued from northern wilderness areas, were rehabilitated at the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home (ETH) while the other one is being cared for at the Giritale Wildlife Training Centre. The eldest bear at Udawalawe is a well-grown male, aged about two and half years, rescued from the Kilinochchi jungles. The other two cubs, siblings of one and half years, were rescued from Vakarai.

The Elephant Transit Home was set up with the aim of rehabilitating orphaned elephants and later releasing them to the wild. Several batches of elephants have been successfully released and the staff had been trying to rehabilitate these bears too, with the intent of sending them back to the forests.

The eldest bear had, in fact, been released to the wild recently but the attempt failed as it was found with head injuries few days after release. It is believed the bear, which had lost fear of humans, would have gone too close to a gang of hoodlums that often infiltrates the Udawalawe jungles.

Even though the bear would have meant no harm, those who had panicked by its approach would have attacked and injured it. Luckily for the bear, it was fixed with a radio collar and the ETH team that was constantly monitoring it went to its rescue as they noticed the bear had stopped moving.

The other two bear cubs had grown much in isolation so carers had hoped they would have a higher chance of survival. Sources close to the ETH revealed that plans for releasing these bears to Yala Block-II had already been underway. The bears were being habituated to a new environment by being kept in a large enclosed wilderness area before their release, and they were to be closely monitored as they adapted to the wild.

Zoological Gardens Director Anura Silva said the bears would be given a half-acre enclosure at a zoo at Wagolla in Pinnawala. The Pinnawela zoo needed more animals, and instead of capturing them from the wild the zoo had asked for these orphaned bears, he said.

Mr. Silva said the zoo hoped to breed them in captivity. The Dehiwela zoo has a few sloth bears but the zoo was finding it difficult to breed them, he said.Mr. Silva gave assurances that the bears’ welfare would be looked after.

DWC Director-General H.D. Ratnayake said the bears had been handed over to the zoo as that had been the best option. The director of the zoo had requested sloth bears for the new zoo at Pinnawela, he said. As the law permitted the capture of wild animals for the zoo if the necessity arose, sending these bears to the zoo meant sloth bears would not be captured from the wild.

Mr. Ratnayake pointed out that there were difficulties in rehabilitating the bears in their current condition and they might not have survived in the wild. He revealed that there are doubts that a leopard that had been rehabilitated and released had survived.

The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), among the big five tourist attractions in the Sri Lankan wilderness, is listed as “endangered” and is becoming closer to extinction. It is important to protect the wild population and the attempt to rehabilitate and release the orphaned animals back to the wild is indeed a noble task. Biologists point out however, that this involved much work and such releases should not be carried out in a haphazard manner.

More issues than food needed to be considered. There needed to be very good rehabilitation facilities, said Dr. U.K. Padmalal who was involved in sloth bear research in Wasgamuwa a few years ago. It is also important to release cubs to environs in the region where they were initially found as there could be different genes in other sloth bear populations.

It seems that the fate of these orphaned bear cubs is to remain in captivity but as sloth bears are a threatened species it is important that a state-of-the-art facility be built to rehabilitate and release them back to the wilderness in the future.

Published on 23.08.2015 on SundayTimes

Care for a bear? Villagers pluck terrified animal from tall tree

December 13, 2013

An epic rescue mission this week to save a sloth bear screaming in pain from a poacher’s wire trap stands in glad contrast to news of threatened species – such as the recent case of a black leopard – being killed by poachers. The sloth bear was first spotted by a villager in his chena in the Aliwala area of Sithulpawwa in Yala. The animal, possibly disoriented by pain from the wire snarled around his body is thought to have climbed all the way up a palu tree that is nearly 30 feet tall.

And down came the bear. Pic by Janath de Silva

The bear could not climb down and was screaming, so the villagers informed Wildlife Officers who rushed to the scene.
The problem was that the panicked bear showed no sign of getting down from the tall tree. The area veterinary surgeon Dr. W.A. Dharmakeerthi was called in but it was judged too risky to shoot the bear with a tranquilliser dart as it could have fallen to its death.

Ignoring the risk of being mauled, two villagers volunteered to bring the bear down from the tree if it was tranquillised, so Dr. Dharmakeerthi decided to have a try. It was not an easy task to target a bear up a tall tree but Dr. Dharmakeerthi, a veteran wildlife veterinarian, took aim and fired the tranquilliser drugs.

In a few minutes the bear had stopped moving, and the two men who had volunteered to bring it down quickly climbed the tree to bring down the animal before it could fall. There was a risk that the bear had not been completely sedated but with the noble aim of saving the life of a bear that had fallen victim to human cruelty the two men kept on with their mission.

After making sure the bear was completely unconscious they tied a rope around it and then carefully descended with the now completely unconscious creature. There was a general sigh of relief when the bear was brought to earth. The vet and wildlife officers removed the wire trap entangled around its belly and treated its wounds. The bear was a well-grown animal aged around 10 years and weighed about 50kg.

The sloth bear has been released to a safer patch of forest. Dr. Dharmakeerthi said it was the first time he had taken part in a “bear rescue”. He said many animals, including a number of leopards, had fallen victim to wire traps set up mainly to kill animals such as wild boar.

published on SundayTimes on 01.12.2013 

Speeding vehicles on roads driving wildlife to their early graves

July 19, 2011

A fully grown sloth bear was killed by a speeding vehicle near the 11th kilometre post on the Panama-Pottuvil road late last month raising concerns over the prudence of having public roads across biodiversity rich National Parks, while vehicles speeding along roads in rural areas also drive wildlife to their graves before their time.

The ill-fated bear was found lying on the side of the road with apparent head injuries. The Ampara office of the Wildlife Department had been promptly alerted, but the animal was already dead due to injuries it suffered. The wildlife veterinary surgeon Dr. Pramuditha Devasurendra who had conducted the post-mortem confirmed the animal died due to damage to its skull. There were signs of profound bleeding from its mouth. The bear’s fur coat also had mud stains indicating it could have been hit by a heavy vehicle with large tyres.

Dr. Devasurendra also said there were signs that the vehicle has gone over one of the animal’s legs. The bear was a well grown male around eight to nine years old. The body of the bear was sent to the Giritale wildlife facility to be stuffed.

Samitha Harichandra, the managing trustee of the Wildlife Research and Conservation Trust of Sri Lanka who visited the accident site soon after he was alerted, recalled spotting a bear on the same stretch of road recently while he was driving at night. He said he had seen the bear on two occasions and the ambulance driver of the area hospital too has confirmed sighting this bear indicating the animal must be roaming around the area (a territorial bear) near the 11th kilometre post.

The sloth bear killed on the Panama-Pottuvil road (c) Samitha Harichandra 

This is the season when the palu and weera berry ripens attracting usually secretive sloth bears out of their hideouts in search of the berries. Mr. Harichandra recalls that there are many weera and palu trees in the scrub jungle on this stretch of the Pottuvil road, luring the secretive bear into the open, making it an unfortunate road victim.

The sloth bear in Sri Lanka is a separate subspecies scientifically categorized as Melursus ursinus inornatus. Their numbers are declining, with them being already categorized as vulnerable to extinction in the IUCN Redlist scale.

Mr. Harichandra says the annual Okanda pilgrim season increases vehicular traffic along this road which becomes a death trap to wild animals of the area. The presence of such a rare animal like the sloth bear is an indication of the quality of the scrub jungle which must be home to many animals.
Harichandra complained that drivers should be more vigilant when speeding on rural roads to avoid killing animals.

He said that as the road network gets better in these areas, drivers tend to speed on long stretches of roads that do not have much traffic. But animals need to move around their natural habitats and require to cross these roads. They virtually have no time to escape from a speeding vehicle, he said.

Slow moving small creatures like tortoises, snakes, and porcupines face the greatest risk when crossing the roads. But even fast movers like civets can fall easy prey at night when they freeze in the middle of the road blinded by the glare of headlights. Some animals like the porcupine have the habit of staying motionless when they feel a threat, making them sitting ducks. Even birds and monkeys can’t escape at times from speeding vehicles.

But it is not only the smaller animals that are being hit by careless drivers. On many occasions elephants have also been hit on public roads. In one such incident at Galgamuwa/Ambanpola, a sleepy bus driver hit an elephant at night on the road near the Thekkakele forest. The front of the bus was badly damaged and the conductor was killed in the accident. A few months later, another elephant was hit by a van and the enraged elephant turned on the humans killing a passenger in the van.

Though these elephants recovered with injuries, there were incidents where jumbos get killed in road accidents. At Medawachchiya, a baby elephant of about four months had been killed instantly when it was hit by a tipper. The accident occurred around 1 a.m. and the body of the calf was badly smashed, indicating the vehicle was traveling at speed. Another calf was the victim of a roadside accident at Habarana last year.

It is however hard to provide a solution to such unfortunate accidents as drivers tend to speed in their vehicles on open stretches.

One way to minimize such accidents is by setting up speed limits and placing warning boards in areas where wildlife is abundant. But while wildlife conscious drivers will take note, it is a question whether reckless drivers will abide by the rules.

At present most of the drivers even do not honour the speed limits set up in populated areas which are also frequently monitored by the Traffic Police. It is virtually impossible to set up traffic checkpoints at night so there is little hope that rules would be observed on remote road stretches. Wildlife lovers call all drivers to be vigilant when driving through remote roads.

Roads across National Parks

With animals being killed by speeding vehicles, wildlife activists question the prudence of opening up of new public roads across Protected Areas. A road across the Wilpattu Sanctuary has been opened last year amidst the objections of the wildlife community and there seems to be attempts to open up other roads. Though speed limits are set and traffic allowed during the daytime in wildlife rich habitats, such roads will still be death traps.

There are other dangers for wildlife as a road will increase human presence which will also increase illegal activities. Poachers will get a ready-made market to sell bush meat. More importantly, a public road will also cause a genetic isolation of animal groups between two sides by restricting animal movements. In a free environment, wild animals would mix with each other but a road will halve their movements isolating them genetically or depriving them of their traditional feeding grounds. This will also degrade the quality of their gene pool.

A tortoise run over by a speeding vehicle (c) Samitha H.

The danger of public roads across national parks was in the international spotlight last month as an attempt to construct a commercial road across some parts of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania has been abandoned.

Each year about two million herbivores including wildebeests and zebras make their way from the Serengeti National Park to the Maasai Mara reserve in Kenya.

Environmental activists raised concerns that the new road will restrict the animals’ movements and halve the animals in the park. Tagged as one of the planet’s greatest natural spectacles attracting thousands of major tourists, the road could have also affected the local economy, in which tourism plays a major role.

The Tanzanian government consequently abandoned the idea of constructing a stretch of 53 kilometres of road to avoid areas of high conservation value.

Likewise, Sri Lankan conservationists also raise the question whether we still need to have roads to make for quicker traveling. If quicker traveling is the need, speed limits cannot be set, ultimately resulting in many road accidents.

Speeding in wildlife parks

Yala National Park has already been infested by the over-visitation bug where around 200 vehicles go in on busy days. The visitors’ prime aim is to have a glimpse of Yala’s star attractions – leopard, bear or elephant. On receiving a message of a sighting, the vehicles rush to the spot to get a better view.

The safari jeep drivers’ often forget they are in a wildlife national park. There is every chance these speeding vehicles too can hit an animal. So if you happen to be in a safari jeep, never allow it to be driven at an uncontrollable speed even though it might cost you a better sighting of a wild animal.

Published on SundayTimes on 17.07.2011