Will they be wild and free again?

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By 2017-11-12

By Risidra Mendis
Ceylon Today Features

There is nothing more exciting than going on a safari and observing the Sri Lankan Sloth Bear in its natural habitat. If you are lucky you may even get the opportunity of spotting not one Sloth Bear but two or three in the wild. But what happens when a bear cub is orphaned or abandoned by its mother for reasons known only to her. Orphaned or abandoned Sloth Bear cubs are the responsibility of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC). But when the responsibility of the DWLC towards the welfare of the animals is pushed aside, to satisfy the needs of government officials and politicians, it is the environmentalists who have to intervene on behalf of the innocent animals.

In 2016 the DWLC was severely criticized by environmental organizations for approving the release of four orphaned Sloth Bears to the Dehiwala Zoo. Two Sloth Bear cubs and an adult that were found from Uda Walawe and another bear cub found from Giritale while in the process of being rehabilitated to be released to the wild were released to the Dehiwala Zoo by former DWLC Director General H.D.Ratnayake, on a request made by former Director General Dehiwala Zoo Anura de Silva. The adult Sloth Bear is around seven years and the cubs between two to two and half years. The four Sloth Bears - two males and two females, were later transferred to the Safari Park in Ridiyagama, Hambantota.

The Sloth Bear is listed as 'Vulnerable' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and 'Strictly Protected' under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO).

Even though the DWLC at their 65th anniversary celebrations made a pledge to conserve and protect the Sloth Bear (one out of seven threatened and endangered species) and identified them as flagship species for conservation in Sri Lanka, a decision was taken by Ratnayake to release the orphaned Sloth Bears to the Dehiwala Zoo in 2015. The seven species were identified as the 'Top Seven Wild Sri Lanka' and were to be given special attention to ensure their survival in the wild.

Court order given
In 2016 while taking into consideration the protected status of the Sloth Bear the Centre for Eco-cultural Studies (CES) and Fahima Sahabdeen filed a case in the Court of Appeal and challenged the decision taken by Ratnayake to release the Sloth Bears to the Dehiwala Zoo. The CES won a landmark victory when the Court of Appeal made an order on 6 May 2016 for the four Sloth Bears to be returned to the rehabilitation programme at the DWLC in preparation for their release for reintegration into the wild.
This is the first time in the history of the country that a Court order was given for four orphaned Sloth Bears to be returned to the DWLC for rehabilitation and their subsequent release to the wild.

However it was only a few days ago that one Sloth Bear was transferred from the Hambantota Safari Park to the rehabilitation facility at Galge in Yala. The DWLC for the second time was criticized by environmentalists who say it is over an year since the Court order was given for the transfer of the Sloth Bears from the Safari Park to rehabilitation and that due to the delay by wildlife officials to move the Sloth Bear cubs to a rehabilitation centre they have now got used to humans and cannot be rehabilitated and released to the wild.

In the wild
Commenting on the delay in transferring the Sloth Bears a senior wildlife official said the cubs were not taken back to the DWLC because the department didn't have the required facilities to rehabilitate these cubs prior to their release to the wild. Director CES Sujeewa Jasinghe told Ceylon Today that the DWLC has made arrangements to transfer the Sloth Bears from the Hambantota Safari Park because the rehabilitation centre is now complete.

"The Sloth Bears will be kept at the soft releasing site for some time. Their behaviour will be monitored. The bears' feeding patterns and climbing habits will be observed and the animals will then be transferred to the bear rehabilitation centre and gradually trained to survive in the wild. Certain procedures have to be followed to change the behaviour patterns of the bears before they are released to the wild. The adult bear was earlier released by the DWLC at Lunugamvehera but had to be brought back after it was injured by humans. These bears will be monitored well and released only when wildlife officials are certain the animals can survive in the wild. Electronic collars will be fitted on the animals to monitor their movements once they are released. The delay in transferring the Sloth Bears from the Hambantota Safari Park to Galge by the DWLC will not affect the rehabilitation process," Jasinghe explained.

Contact with humans
He added that a female Sloth Bear's home range is 2.2sqkm and a male Sloth Bear's home range is 3.8 sqkm according to information released by researchers and according to a recent study there are around 500 to 600 Sloth Bears presently in the wild. Director General DWLC M.G.C. Sooriyabandara confirmed that one Sloth Bear was transferred from the Hambantota Safari Park to Galge and the rest of the animals will be taken gradually.

"The veterinary surgeons are presently monitoring the behaviour patterns of the Sloth Bear. The Court in their order has given directions and guidelines that have to be followed during the rehabilitation process of the Sloth Bears. Visitors are not allowed to see the Sloth Bear at Galge because the animal has to have minimal contact with humans prior to its release to the wild," Sooriyabandara explained.

"A National Sloth Bear Conservation and Monitoring Programme has commenced and a census study on Sloth Bears will start in January 2018. The CES is working with the DWLC to ensure the protection of these animals," Jasinghe explained.

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