Death of the sloth bear: Lapse or accident?

Meghna Kathalat

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Representative Image: Mathrubhumi

It was a question of common sense. It was also a question of life and death. Dr Jacob Cheeran recalls the dilemma he faced years ago. It was a jumbo episode that happened in a hamlet of Kerala’s Palakkad district. An elephant that ran amok and created panic waded into a nearby river and refused to get out of the water. Hours passed and the villagers thronged to witness the belligerent tusker restlessly floating in the river. Dr Jacob V Cheeran, one of the senior-most veterinarians, who pioneered the technique of tranquilizing unruly elephants in the country, decided eventually not to use the tranquilizer. It took considerable time and effort to drag the elephant to the bank and then aim the tranquilizing dart at it.

In a nutshell, tranquilizing an animal lingering or trapped in a water body has to be avoided anyway. The animal has to be chased to a safer location or a place convenient to use the tranquilizing dart before sedating it. If not, the entire rescue operation may fail and claim the life of the animal, as in the case of a robust sloth bear that was drowned in a well soon after being shot with a tranquilizing dart recently, in Thiruvananthapuram.

The sloth bear that fell in a well in Vellanad

Meanwhile, in the case of wallowing animals, the delaying of tranquilizing may turn to no avail as the animal stays in water bodies or mud day in, and day out. Dr Jacob V Cheeran disclosed an incident in which he tranquilized two buffaloes, one wild and the other domesticated at Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Fortunately, the buffaloes were rescued promptly and everything went right, Cheeran said with a sigh. However, this was not the case with the giant bear that was pushed to death at Vellanad in Thiruvananthapuram last week.

In a similar event, an elephant drowned after being tranquilized in Pathanamthitta following a blunder from the side of the rescue officials. It seems like certain officials in the forest department of the state have already forgotten this unfortunate episode that happened a few years ago, slammed environmentalist MN Jayachandran.

What urged the officials deployed at Chinnakanal in Idukki to resort to extensive measures for the mission to translocate the wild tusker Arikomban? The operation faces hurdles as the tusker cannot be tranquilized in the vicinity of the reservoir, at a steep slope, or from dangerous terrain, which can cause threat to the life of the elephant. Why did the authorities refrain from following such a caution in the case of the bear trapped in a well here?, asked Jayachandran.

Bear slips from the ring net

A lapse or an accident

According to Jayachandran, the death of the bear in Vellanad was out of sheer negligence on the side of the officials in the forest department. The plan to pump out the water in the well came only after the bear drowned in the water. The rescue mission would not have failed if the water was pumped out before tranquilizing the bear. The officials who arrived at the spot to save the bear which fell in the well on the previous night spared much time and delayed initiating the rescue operation. During all this time, the bear was holding onto the wall of the well with its claws.

The tragic incident happened when Dr Jacob Alexander, senior veterinary surgeon at Thiruvananthapuram Zoo, shot the bear using a tranquilizing dart expecting the animal would fall into the ring net placed underneath it. However, the bear slipped and drowned in the water.

Dr Jacob Alexander

Jayachandran said that the water could have been pumped out earlier or the officials should have extended a ladder into the well to check if the bear can climb itself out of the water. This option might have succeeded as the bears, especially black bears, have excellent arboreal abilities. Once the bear reached the outer ring of the well, the rescuers could have trapped it in a net, he said.

Jayachandran accused the forest department of violating the protocols of the rescue mission and alleged that the officials had also failed to disperse the crowd gathered near the well. “Such serious missions which require utmost caution turn out to be spectacles nowadays,” said Jayachandran.

The death of the bear in Vellanad also points fingers at the quality of training received by the officials deployed under the forest department. As the cases of human-wild animal conflicts are being reported at a pace incomparable to the past, the ground-level groups of the forest department have to possess greater efficiency and crisis management skills. He also marked his dissent against the department for not taking immediate action against the officials responsible for the mission’s failure.

Though Kerala Minister for Forest AK Saseendran had ordered a department-level inquiry into the death of the bear, the probe has been frozen on account of the petition filed by two animal welfare groups- People for Animals (PFA) and Walking Eye Foundation for Animal Advocacy (WEFAA) at the high court, demanding action against the officials involved in the rescue operation that turned futile. The minister said that the department-level inquiry is unnecessary as the animal welfare groups have already approached the court.

“It has to be checked if the increasing wild animal threats have resulted in the negligence towards the lives of animals on the part of the officials. Some of them might be perceiving the current situation in a way that the effort to kill is less than rescuing. The deployment of more vigilant groups guarding the frontiers of forests is the urgent necessity of the state”, said Jayachandran.

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