Sloth bear-human coexistence in Marwahi

The dry deciduous forests of Northern Chhattisgarh reportedly host one of India’s largest sloth bear populations. But unfortunately, sloth bears don’t have a good reputation here. Quite the contrary, they are considered by many to be one of the most dangerous wild animals in the area. As we visit a region known for its sloth bear-human conflict with local conservationist Shreyansh Budhia, we discover the reason for this: the habitats of sloth bears have shrunk while land cultivation has expanded leading to frequent encounters between humans and bears. Conservationists are trying now to identify and protect the last islands with substantial bear populations in Marwahi. But what will it take to get public support for the protection of Chhattisharh’s decreasing sloth bear habitats?

From berry munching ant nibblers to vicious beasts

Sloth bears are the only bears in the world built to eat ants. Their diet mostly consists of ants and other insects, as well as various fruits, specifically wild berries. In this way they also contribute greatly to the ecosystem as vital seed dispersers. While they move around their large home ranges, they scatter seeds everywhere they go. At the same time, they keep ant and termite populations under control.

However, the forests of the North Bilaspur Forest Division are mostly patchy, fragmented areas, separated by agricultural fields and villages. It is a very challenging front for bear conservation, as the Marwahi administrative range, most inhabitants are tribal people who have historically suffered economic losses from sloth bear and elephant encounters. As we visit some villages with Shreyansh Budhia, co-founder of the NGO Nature People Network, and Mr. Kaushik, former forest officer in Marwahi, we get the chance to visit some villagers who had first-hand encounters with sloth bears. Mr. Kaushik explains to us that most attacks were recorded in the early mornings, usually in situations where humans ventured into the forest alone at a time when sloth bears were also active. 

In Marwahi, locals all have stories of sloth bear encounters. On the left side, a family tells us about an attack that took place eight years ago in the forest, blinding the victim. On the right side, villagers, including the widow of a victim recall a fatal incident that took place over 20 years ago.

Villagers tell us several stories from the 90s, when many sloth bear attacks happened, some of them with fatal consequences. As they recall their experiences, it is clear that they consider the sloth bear a nuisance to live along with. Back at his time serving as forest officer, Mr. Kaushik had to navigate this sensitive space of human-sloth bear conflict.

“Many of the conflict situations arose from the fact that the villagers didn’t know how to act appropriately when encountering a bear. Instead of letting the bear pass and moving away slowly, in several instances they approached and attacked the bear with a stick or stones to scare it away. However, such actions scare the bears that react by attacking,” explains Mr. Kaushik.

Fragmented habitats 

The attacks usually increase during summer when the mahua trees flower and bear fruit, as mahua is not only a favourite food of sloth bears, but is also gathered by local communities, who dry  or ferment the fruit and produce a local spirit. 

On the left: dried Mahua flowers. On the right: the cultivated landscapes of Marwahi don’t allow much space to bears anymore.

Bear habitats outside protected areas in Chhattisgarh have been largely cleared for agriculture and mining, which is also very common in the state. All this has fragmented forest patches making it difficult for bears to roam around, which means that they often lose access to valuable water or food sources. Therefore, animals venture into residential areas in search of water or food. 

How many sloth bears are left?

There have been reports of local extinctions of sloth bears in similar areas in Central India. So, visiting Marwahi we wonder about the current bear population and its development. To our surprise, the forest department has no recent information about the number of bears and their distribution in Marwahi. 

We meet with the District Forest Officer of Marwahi, who tells us that in general, acceptance and awareness has grown within the community. People learnt not to chase away bears anymore, to avoid going into the forest in early mornings and evenings, and when venturing into the forest, they usually go in groups now. Since implementing these changes, attacks have massively decreased, although sloth bear presence even inside the villages is still normal. “There has been no conflict situation in the last eight months. Even the years before, there have only been two or three conflict cases, and several villagers have also become less dependent on the forest,” he tells us.

The district forest officer explains that about four years ago, the forest department introduced a scheme to plant fruit-bearing trees in areas that are identified zones of bear movement and prone to attacks. By doing this, they aimed to create additional food sources for bears inside their territory, decreasing their need to venture into human settlements. However, according to the officer, one of the underlying reasons why human-bear conflicts became less frequent is less due to the planted trees and more because of the decrease in sloth bear numbers. As we find out, for the last 20 years there has been no formal survey, nor any attempt to assess the status of the population in the long term.

“I find this unacceptable. Here in Marwahi, there has been a level of coexistence between sloth bears and humans that has posed many challenges, but at the same time it is also unique and exclusive. This area is an important refuge for this iconic species and could have a great potential for ecotourism on a national as well as an international level,” tells us Shreyansh, as he is advocating for a detailed population survey and the possible designation of a bear sanctuary. Apparently, there is even a resident rare, white sloth bear in Marwahi, which has been spotted last year. The Deputy Forest Officer agrees to the possibility of a sanctuary, but says that there has to be a political decision in the state assembly first, only then can he have any influence on the actual designation of a protected area. 

Conservationists need to take matter into their own hands

On this journey, we have been impressed by the focused efforts of the Indian government to help lions, tigers and leopards thrive in the country. Why not continue by including sloth bears and their habitats? Just like those big cats, bears also need secure corridors to move between the patches of forest left after deforestation and human expansion. The very first step in that process should be to identify key areas that are not yet under protection and secure them from further destruction. 

Some locals know where bear dens are located. They can usually be found on the last remaining rocky hillocks that are scattered around the cultivated landscape.

Talking to local communities as well as the forest department, it is also clear that there is no ongoing education and outreach program focused on local communities. But just like with India’s other megafauna, education and community work are crucial to increase the tolerance of people living in places that intersect bear habitats. 

In the case of Marwahi, the very first step in this process is to assess the actual size of the bear population, their movement patterns and habitat availability. After that, in the vicinity of hillocks that are potential den sites of bears, the encroachment on forest land and mining activities should be banned immediately. But Shreyansh wants to think bigger. He has started lobbying for the possible designation of the remaining bear habitats of Marwahi as a bear sanctuary, the first of its kind in Chhattisgarh.

“Ultimately, Chhattisgarh’s natural resource and ecosystem wealth are represented by its people and their tolerance to some of India’s most charismatic wildlife. And the state and its bureaucratic system should do all in their authority to make sure future generations get to appreciate this coexistence.”

Shreyansh Budhia, co-founder of The Nature People Network