The Bear Minimum
Why effective management is essential in the Mount Abu – Jessore Corridor
© PRASENJEET YADAV
Picture this – crack of dawn on a quiet summer morning in April. One treks up to Guru Shikhar, the highest peak in the Aravallis, passing hardwood trees of teak, bael, and amla, and wild orchids. A quick time lapse – as one peers across the crevasse of blue-green-brown abundance, one can see the way land use has changed over the years with agriculture rising steadily in place of scrub and barren, rocky brown land. Instances of human-animal interactions are on the rise in the region, with species like the vulnerable sloth bears seeking space for food and movement, as the forests diminish and the human footprint increases. Various studies reflect that the issues of habitat degradation, fragmentation and lack of protection of corridors that facilitate movement are impacting the sloth bear populations of the region.
Conservationists call for a holistic solution to tackle the issues faced by the species, a strategy based on landscape–scale conservation values.
Mount Abu–Jessore Ecoregion
In Sirohi district of Rajasthan, nestled in the ancient folds of India’s oldest mountain range are the forests of Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary, which was declared a protected area in the year 1980 and was recently notified as an Eco-Sensitive Zone. The 288 km2 ecoregion is home to a variety of large fauna like Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), jungle cat (Felis chaus), chinkara (Gazella bennettii) and particularly – the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus). The solitary, shaggy-coated bear, native to the Indian subcontinent is a native resident here. The mid-sized bear’s choice of meal – ants, termites and fleshy fruits – can be found here in plenty. This is incidentally the only forest in the region where one can find a variety of wild orchids. The region is plentiful in floral biodiversity with various species of sub tropical thorn shrubs thriving here, along with rare varieties of wild roses and ferns.
Upon driving approximately 60 km. southwest from the centre of the Mount Abu town in the Aravallis, one reaches the Jessore Sloth Bear Sanctuary in Banaskantha District, Gujarat, which was notified as a protected area dedicated to sloth bear conservation in 1978. Namesake to the spectacular Mount Jessore, a picture perfect backdrop, the Sanctuary is reported to support one of the highest sloth bear densities in India (Sukhadiya et al. 2013). Other fauna reported in the sanctuary are the leopard , sambar (Rusa unicolor), wild boar (Sus scrofa), Indian crested porcupine (Hystrix indica), etc. Also supporting a large diversity of birds and reptiles, the area has a great ecological significance as it acts as a buffer between the arid desert and the dry deciduous forest.
An approximately 40 km2 stretch of land connects Mount Abu to Jessore and acts as a corridor for wildlife movement between the areas. Set in the semi-arid – dry deciduous region of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the corridor gets its much needed respite through the small streams, rivulets originating and meeting the West Banas River. Deora Dam reservoir is one of the larger water sources of the region. It has been reported that ~68% of the corridor land is farmland with ~30% classified as Open Forest and Scrub (Vyas, 2020). Most of the forest areas in and around this corridor act as catchment for the West Banas and assist in replenishing the ground water. Over time, this corridor has become increasingly instrumental for securing unhindered movement of sloth bears.
Since both Mount Abu and Jessore support high density of sloth bear populations in the Aravallis landscape, maintaining connectivity between these two ecoregions is crucial to ensure viability of their populations in the area. Not just for sloth bears, Mount Abu –Jessore corridor also aids the movement of leopards and hyenas, among other species, and helps these species thrive in the region. The areas demarcate the western limit of sloth bear’s range in the Aravallis.
Shrinking Land and Lunches
As per a recent notification (2020) declaring an Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) around Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary, most of the corridor area now comes under regulation of the Environment Protection Act (1986). ESZ’s are meant to act as ‘shock absorbers’ for the protected areas, preventing encroachment and restricting environmentally detrimental activities like mining, construction etc.
Data available on land use in the corridor suggests that there have been substantial changes in the land use pattern. Over the past 30 years, area under agriculture has increased considerably, largely owing to conversion of barren land and forests into crop fields (Vyas, 2020). This has resulted in fragmentation of forest and scrubland which provides habitat, food, and cover to various species. It is essential to protect the remaining forest and scrubland patches within the corridor from any further degradation, and restore habitat connections where needed, as sloth bears have strong habitat associations (Ramesh et al., 2012; Das et al., 2014; Puri et al., 2015 ) and a fragmented corridor could impact them dearly.
Sloth bear populations need to stay geographically connected to maintain healthy genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding. However, protecting and maintaining wildlife corridors in India is an epic challenge, since they don’t fall within the ambit of legal protected area category. Despite being so crucial to maintaining structural and functional integrity of an ecosystem, wildlife corridors are often given less importance in governance. Any reform must first begin here, at the foundational level of recognising these ecoregions for their immense service of ensuring habitat connectivity. While some rules and guidelines under the National Tiger Conservation Authority can be favourably invoked to provide protection to tiger and elephant corridors, more needs to be done. In a sea of human settlements, agriculture, and linear infrastructure, without wildlife corridors, forests will become isolated pockets of biodiversity, severely affecting the long-term viability of populations of many species. An effective policy with the values of sustainability and conservation-led development will improve corridor management, thereby ensuring the populations of our shaggy-haired bears are sustained.
- Patil, A. , Dharaiya, N., Thatte, P., Mount Abu-Jessore Corridor Profile, Coalition for Wildlife Corridors. 2022. http://corridorcoalition.org/Profiles/CorridorProfile_MountAbu_Jessore.pdf
- Sukhadiya,D., J.U. Joshi, and N. Dhairiya. 2013. Feeding Ecology and Habitat Use of Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus) in Jassore Wildlife Sanctuary, Gujarat, India. Indian J. Ecol. (2013) 40(1): 14-18
- Ramesh, T., R. Kalle, K. Sankar, and Q. Qureshi. 2012. Factors affecting habitat patch use by sloth bears in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Western Ghats, India. Ursus 23(1), 78-85, (1 May 2012). https://doi.org/10.2192/URSUS-D-11-00006.1
- Vyas, S., 2020. Assessment of change in land use land cover in Western Aravallis with respect to sloth bear habitat (M. Phil. Thesis). Hemchandracharya North Gujarat University, Patan.
- Das, S., Dutta, S., Sen, S., S., J. A., Babu, S., Kumara, H. N., & Singh, M. (2014). Identifying regions for conservation of sloth bears through occupancy modelling in north-eastern Karnataka, India. Ursus, 25(2), 111–120. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24643778
- Puri, M., Srivathsa, A., Karanth, K.K., Kumar, N.S. and Karanth, K.U. (2015), Multiscale distribution models for conserving widespread species: the case of sloth bear Melursus ursinus in India. Diversity Distrib., 21: 1087-1100. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12335
- Dharaiya, N., 2009. Evaluating habitat & human–bear conflicts in North Gujarat, India, to seek solutions for human–bear coexistence (Research Project Report). North Gujarat. Available at: https://ruffordorg.s3.amazonaws.com/media/project_reports/14.11.07%20 Detailed%20Final%20Report.pdf
- Will the latest sloth bear corridor in Mount Abu serve its purpose?