Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Released bear thrives in his new home

Back in the summer, a wild bear was reported to International Animal Rescue's partner in India as he had strayed near a village on his hunt for food. He was captured by Wildlife SOS and taken to the International Animal Rescue and Free the Bears funded sanctuary in Agra, where he was declared fit and well, and ready to be released somewhere safe, away from human habitation. First though, he was fitted with a radio collar, which was delivered in person by International Animal Rescue's chief executive, Alan Knight. This would allow the bear to be tracked by the team and provide valuable insights into the behaviour of wild bears, for the benefit of future rescued bears as well as our current residents.

Below is an update from the field team: 

The radio collared sloth bear was released back in Suhelwa Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh.  We call him SB01 for purpose of our record keeping and research.  Here's an update on what SB01 has been up to for the past few months.

The first few days after the release of the bear (SB01), the radio signals we received showed the bear moving in the north eastern direction of the dense forest in the Suhelwa Tiger Reserve.

Bear trackingHe remained in the same area for almost a week before he finally moved ahead closer to the border of the Tiger Reserve that shared boundaries with out neighboring country of Nepal. This got us a bit worried, knowing that Nats and other community poachers illegally trade bears into Nepal and kill them for their body parts. Our intelligence had confirmed presence of a lot of wire snares in Nepal and we were concerned.

Soon our bear SB01 crossed into the Nepal border and we lost all radio contact with him. With no radio signals our tracking team worked hard for over ten days climbing all the high points in the region trying to get a radio signal but didn't get any signal. Finally our field research team started gearing up for a visit to Nepal and meet with forest officials there to take their assistance in locating the bear, when one morning in August, much to our team's delight, we started receiving signals from the radio collar again.  Much to our relief, SB01 had crossed back into India and moved into West Suhelwa Range and away from the Indo-Nepal border.

It appear our bear SB01 is settling in well in the Suhelwa Tiger Reserve. The radio signals we are tracking indicate the bear is a densely forested area close to a large water reservoir, which we assume he selected due to the availability of food and the location being far away from human settlements.

The signals from bear SB01 also indicate deliberate avoidance of human settlements, which is a very positive sign.

Waiting for the signalOn one occasion, we received signal of the bear being 15 kms away from a village near Dagmara.  We are prepared for receiving reports from villagers who may sight the bear, but SB01 did not go any closer to the village and nobody has reported any bear sightings so far. Fingers crossed!
In early September, there were radio signals received that placed him an area near Raniyapur dam. Our team is in the field tracking the bear and we shall keep you updated on his adventures and movements. Thank you for your support.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Building and rebuilding enrichment in Bannerghatta!

Kat Fingland’s third and final blog post from Bannerghatta

So I helped to build an enrichment item! And then I watched the bears attempt to destroy it...

There's a constant cycle of rebuilding enrichment items (like platforms, frames to hang balls and logs from, etc) which are then destroyed within literally a few days or even a few hours. The workers feed the bears in the morning and the afternoon, provide some enrichment food mid-way, and the rest of the day is pretty much spent putting things back together for the bears to ecstatically demolish again.

Two rescued bears have a squabble over whose turn it is to play on the climbing frame!They are wily creatures...with the platform that I helped build, two of them worked together to dig out around the foundations before one of them climbed on top to give the whole structure a really good shake with its 130kg mass.

I rediscovered my gecko room mate who had managed to hide from me very well: he took up residence in my sink. Literally, inside the sink...down the little hole at the back of the bowl that helps to prevent overflows. I discovered this when I returned from the centre slightly earlier than usual one day and, on opening the bathroom door, managed to give both of us a fright as I surprised him and in response he flip-flopped all around the sink bowl before scampering back into his home.

A rescued bear has a quick nap after a climbing sessionThe part of my study I enjoyed most was getting to sit and watch the bears...I've learnt so much about how they behave just through observing them and you can see their individual personalities. You get the chance to see some very funny behaviour too, like one bear who rugby tackled his dozing friend to instigate a mock fight or another playing in his water bowl on a particularly hot and sunny afternoon. It was great fun watching them with coconuts too, throwing them on the floor (they know to target concrete) in order to crack them open, before squabbling over the pieces. I've now received all of my data and am currently analysing it to see which food item was their favourite – from a first glance, coconut is the clear winner!

We had training in how to use GPS in order to track released animals - there's a female who will be released back into the wild soon, with a tracking collar to help provide more information about the lives of sloth bears in the wild, which will hopefully help reduce the number of human-bear conflicts that occur.

Unfortunately a trip to the hospital was also taken...I thought I was going to make it through without getting ill, but it wasn't to be. I had gastroenteritis for a few days, so although I was doing the typical British stiff upper lip ("honestly I'm fine, I don't need a doctor" while curled up in a ball on the floor) Dr Arun, rightly, made me take a trip to the hospital. I was given a supply of antibiotics and supplements to help me try and shift it.

My last few days were really good fun! I spent some time with one of the guys, Deepak, and his friends, going bowling and go karting, and then out to drinks at a roof top bar, watching the fireworks all over Bangalore city as processions took their Ganesha idols down to the lakes to submerge them.

I was also pretty surprised that the enrichment I made was still standing when I left – that’s British engineering for you!

On the last day, I also went on a safari around the national park (seeing elephants, lions, tigers, white tigers and, of course, the bears) and went to the zoo and the butterfly house. I said goodbye to the guys and thanked them for their hospitality - it was actually quite sad saying goodbye as this has certainly been a truly unforgettable experience.

Monday, 28 October 2013

International Animal Rescue: A New Life for Shakir

Reproduced below is an account by our Indian partners Wildlife SOS of the effectiveness of the Kalandar rehabilitation programme. The Kalandars are traditionally a nomadic people who have relied for centuries on dancing bears for a living. With support from International Animal Rescue and Free the Bears Australia, the programme played a vital part in the Kalandars’ willingness to surrender their bears and embark on a new way of life.

In our attempt to solve the problem of 'Dancing Bears' in India, we worked with an approach that would not only free the bears from their cruel owners but also would provide a different life for the Kalandars. We needed to stop sloth bears being taken from the wild and used for entertainment. We understood that in order to do that we needed a holistic programme. Something that addressed the poverty of the Kalandar tribe and ensured the conservation of sloth bears in the wild. The Kalandar families were living from hand to mouth and the bears were their only source of income. In many cases Wildlife SOS provided jobs to the Kalandar people at the rescue centres for the bears, in others we tried to provide alternative livelihoods.
A Kalendar surrenders his dancing bear to International Animal Rescue and Wildlife SOS

One such example is of Shakir Kalandar, who now has a changed life. Shakhir is a 22 year old that lives in a village called Korai in Uttar Pradesh. His grandparents used to dance bears until they surrendered their bears to Wildlife SOS.

In 2011, Shakir met with an accident that stopped the flow of blood in his left hand.  His nerves were damaged from the shoulder joint which made it impossible for him to do any kind of work with it. "It was such a traumatic situation for me, I had a family to support and I was not able to get a job." Shakir tried to work as a labourer at a construction site after surrendering his bear. "After the accident, everywhere I went for a job they rejected me because of my hand. I went through a major crisis for more than two years that included starvation and poverty," he added.

Shakir approached Wildlife SOS in the hope of being freed from his wretched situation.  After being reassured by Geeta Seshamani, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, he was optimistic about a new life. Shakir expressed, "Geeta ma'am assured me that Wildlife SOS would help and support me. In the next few days a team from the NGO came to my house and sponsored a small grocery shop for me worth Rs 7500. I am grateful to the organisation for understanding my pain and taking immediate action to help me."
Former bear owner Shakir now earns his living running a grocery shop, instead of relying on his dancing bear.

Now Shakir runs a small grocery shop in his village where he caters to the daily needs of his community and he is able to earn an approximate income of Rs. 3000 per month. This income is used to run his house and take care of his health necessities. The economic empowerment of the Kalandar man will provide him with a dignified life and help him feed his family.

Friday, 18 October 2013

International Animal Rescue: Life among the bears and other animals

Kat's second blog post from Bannerghatta
Working in the national park is ideal for seeing the animals that are indigenous to India. In the week or so I've been here, in addition to the elephant that we spotted on my first day, I've now also seen a family of wild boar (piglets included), lots of different birds, deer, hares, a macaque monkey and several mongooses.
Speaking of elephants, the Wildlife SOS team was sent to rescue one on Sunday: apparently it had wandered near to a village and the locals all went to look at it, but it became frightened and charged, tragically killing a small boy. Wildlife SOS was called in to drive the elephant away from the village - hopefully the elephant was sufficiently frightened by the experience that it won't go back.
Watching elephants from a safe place

There's still a lot to get used to here: the culture is just so different to the UK and we spend a lot of time discussing the differences between our countries. Particularly the food - it is all very tasty, but I think I normally have curry about once every six months at home!
During the week, the Wildlife SOS team was called to another rescue - this time a leopard caught in a snare. As they were about to dart it in order to cut it free and give it a general health check, it jumped and managed to free itself. As long as his paw isn't too badly injured he should be fine, which is a relief. They even brought the snare back to the centre, complete with tufts of leopard fur...
During the week, we had an escapee bear. The cheeky thing had managed to dig a huge hole, find a gap in the massive stone wall and squeeze himself out. He knew he'd done something bad though: as the workers approached him, he sheepishly ran back in with a guilty look. This is currently being resolved to ensure he doesn't escape again! 
Squabbling broke out between the rescued bears over enrichmentFor my study, I have been asked to find out which food enrichment item the bears prefer: so we are giving the bears six food items (watermelon, coconut, ground nuts, Pedigree biscuits, dates and monin [syrup] - there are others that they provide, based on the season and what is available for purchasing, but these six are most regularly used and readily available) in their "socialising enclosure" to forage for. I am noting down the order in which they find them and how long they spend with each item.It's really interesting to watch them pop open a watermelon so easily and slurp out the insides within seconds - you can see with those claws and that strength why an enraged bear is so dangerous!
There's one bear in particular, called Madhan, who loves coconut - for the last few days, all he has eaten is the coconut. As this research is being repeated every day, the bears are starting to learn that the six items are available but they only have a certain time limit, so they will ignore less preferred items that they have found in order to track down their favoured ones (returning to the skipped ones only once all their preferred ones have been found and eaten.) Madhan, in particular, will gloss over all the other items in order to find the coconut and he will then spend up to half an hour scraping every last piece out with his claws.

It seems to be going quite well so far. More news and results next week once I have finished...

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Bear diaries blog by Kathryn Fingland from the UK

So, I have first ever time in Asia, let alone India. I already get the feeling it's going to be unlike anything I have ever experienced before.

The people at Wildlife SOS are very welcoming and friendly to me, giving me beer and always making sure I have enough food and sleep to recover from my jet lag. And we all share the same interest in wildlife and conservation (although when I’m talking about the foxes and badgers in my garden, they're talking about trying to avoid stepping on cobras in theirs!)

I've now had my first couple of days at the Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre...I've seen a wild elephant, come nose-to-nose with a Sumatran tiger and, of course, met the bears!

The centre is based quite far into the national park, so sightings of wild leopards, elephants and sloth bears have been reported by those who work there. Luckily, we managed to spot an elephant in the trees at the side of the road. It was only brief (maybe 5 seconds or so) but I still felt very lucky to see one, and so close, on my first day!

The centre also houses two tigers: a Royal Bengal tiger which was caught in a snare and sadly had to have his paw amputated and a Sumatran tiger that was rescued from the UK where someone had been keeping him as a pet. I was kneeling down at the barrier to the Sumatran tiger's enclosure to look at him sunbathing, when he decided to come have a look at me too. He came right up to where I was kneeling and pushed his nose up to the wire to give me a good sniff, so he was less than a foot away and separated only by the fence! Tigers really are beautiful animals and it was so amazing to be that close.

I've also been introduced to the daily routine of looking after the bears, and spent some time observing them throughout the day. Every morning they are fed a mix of porridge, honey and milk, and the "slurping" noise they make eating this is deafening! It's rather like the noise you get when you're drinking a milkshake through a straw and you're down to the dregs... The staff have to get up at 3am to start making this breakfast, which shows commitment! The bears also make a humming sound, sounding exactly like a swarm of bees, when they are resting and contented, which is quite a relaxing background noise.

I'm starting my research tomorrow (doing the trial run before starting it properly on Monday for two weeks) as I have now finalised the plans with Dr Arun, so I will write another blog soon explaining what I am (trying) to do and how it is progressing.

That’s all for now!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Treating sloth bear teeth in Agra, India


What did you do at work today? I treated sloth bear teeth in India! It’s not every day that your hear that! I was invited by my veterinary dentist colleague, Lisa Milella, to join her and a “human” dentist, Paul Cassar, on their next trip to the Agra Bear Rescue Sanctuary in India. The sanctuary is run by Wildlife SOS, and funded by International Animal Rescue and Free theBears.

Over the last ten years Lisa and Paul have visited to inspect and treat the bears’ teeth within the sanctuary, and provide veterinary dental education for the Wildlife SOS vets.  Of course I jumped at the chance to be involved in such an exciting project!

What is a sloth bear?

The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) is an insectivorous species of bear found within the Indian subcontinent. They were originally classified as sloths due to the length of their claws, which can grow to 7cm! They are stocky, with a long shaggy black mane and a white ‘V’ shaped marking on the chest. They weigh between 60-150kg, and have a life expectancy of 20-25 years. They are omnivorous, and love fruits and honey, but they consume a lot of termites and ants and are very well adapted to these! Their sense of smell is tremendous, enabling them to locate termite nests. They expose the nests with their long claws, and then blow out the dirt and suck out the termites with their lips like a vacuum cleaner nozzle. Sloth bears are classified as ‘vulnerable’ and protected under CITES regulations. They are threatened by habitat loss, and sometime hunted due to destruction of crops of aggressive behaviour. They are also poached from the wild and sold into a number of cruel industries: bear bile farming, bear dancing, bear paw soup and bear baiting. 

What’s a dancing bear?

Sloth bears have also traditionally been used as dancing bears, the practice of which dates back to the Mughal era. The Kalandar people have been historically associated with dancing bears. Cubs would be bought or poached, and then “trained” to become dancing bears to entertain people and earn money for their Kalendar master. To make them safer and easier to handle, young cubs would have their teeth broken with a hammer, and a rope or ring placed through the nose and muzzle with a hot poker. This inevitably led to numerous painful problems with the mouth and teeth. Broken teeth would be excruciatingly painful, and would quickly become severely infected, with root abscesses. The bear’s natural defence mechanism against the pain of the rope through his nose is to rear up on its hind legs with its forearms outstretched, which was sold as ‘dancing’. The rope (attached by a ring pierced through the soft muzzle of the bear) would often cut into the eyes causing pain and blindness. Bears also became blind due to malnutrition. This barbaric practice was outlawed in 1972 but there were still around 800 bears on the roads between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur in the late twentieth century. International Animal Rescue has worked closely with Wildlife SOS in producing a phenomenal sanctuary in Agra, housing nearly 300 bears. The charities have not only rescued bears and given them the veterinary care they require, but helped support the Kalandar people by educating and providing employment to ensure that their livelihoods were safeguarded.

Lisa and Paul have made several visits to the sanctuaries over the last ten years, donating valuable dental equipment and instruments, as well as educating the Wildlife SOS vets in how to detect and treat dental problems in the bears. The keepers have also been trained to examine their bears’ mouths and detect any tell-tale signs of infection or pain. Many bears have received vital dental treatment already, and this trip’s mission was to re-check some bears that had already received treatment, and treat new bears. It was a real honour and privilege to be able to go out with Lisa and Paul to help International Animal Rescue and Wildlife SOS provide the dental treatment the bears need.

Anesthetising the bears

A blow dart was initially used to anesthetise the bears, which were then transferred into the hospital via a stretcher. Once in the operating theatre, they had a tube placed down the airway to allow delivery of oxygen and anaesthetic gases, which is very similar to dogs and cats.We don’t normally have to blow-dart dogs and cats though!
Transferring the sedated bear
I then placed a tube down the anaesthetised bear’s airway. The bear had its vital signs monitored throughout the anaesthetic, and was placed on intravenous fluids.

Once anaesthetised, the bear’s mouth and teeth were thoroughly examined, and dental radiographs taken. Again, very similar to what I do when I examine dog and cat patients! The bears suffered from different types of painful dental problems. Some of the bears’ teeth had been damaged by their original owners for the purposes of dancing; the canines would be broken off with hammers. Not only is this painful, but also allows infection to enter the root and cause an abscess. Sometimes the teeth were pushed further into the jaw, creating deformed teeth trapped within the bone. Teeth would also wear down naturally due to the ‘sand-blasting’ effect of sucking up termites.
An extracted canine tooth and abscess

Some larger teeth could be saved by performing a root canal procedure. This is similar to the procedure performed in humans, dogs and cats. The inside of the tooth is filed and disinfected before a sealer is placed inside the tooth, and then a filling placed in the crown of the tooth. Silver (amalgam) fillings were used in the bear’s teeth because this is a strong filling, and unlikely to wear down. Other teeth could not be saved and required extraction. This was not an easy procedure due to the size of bear teeth! A surgical extraction technique was performed involving raising a flap of gum and removing some of the bone overlying the tooth using special drills. Large, bear-sized equipment was also needed!

The bears all made very smooth recoveries from the anaesthetics, and their ages ranged from 1 ½ - 30 years old! The bears that have received dental treatment will all undoubtedly be feeling much better. The sanctuary allows them to live peaceful, safe lives in comfort. They have huge amounts of space to perform their natural behaviours, have climbing frames to exercise, ponds to cool off in and tree trunks hiding honey! They also receive care and love from their keepers, and veterinary attention from the Wildlife SOS team. I was so impressed with not the only the facilities, but the care provided to the bears. The whole team (vets, keepers, security guards, the cook) is committed to saving and helping their beloved Indian sloth bears. It is evident in the way they talk, and carry out their daily work. Providing such immaculate care for the bears is expensive. I have made a donation which will help the bears for a short while, but to continue providing such exceptional care, the sanctuary requires regular donations. Please consider making a one-off or regular donation to help this incredible project. Every little really will make a big difference.

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Tuesday, 21 May 2013

An update on the bears rescued in February

This is an update on the four bears rescued from the Indo-Nepal border in February of this year. For the original news piece on the rescue, please click here to read it on our website.

Michael Oreo

Michael Oreo loves the fresh fruit basket
delivered to his den every morning!
Michael Oreo (formerly known as Oreo, but renamed Michael Oreo in honour of one of our biggest and best supporters) is three years old, and was rescued from the Nepalese border by Wildlife SOS in February this year. He weighed 86kg, and has put on a further 8kg since his arrival at International Animal Rescue’s Agra Bear Sanctuary. His keeper says the bear is a big fan of porridge and fruit, and particularly enjoys the sugarcane enrichment! He also enjoys playing with the ball in his den.
He was recently introduced to Goldie, one of the other bears seized in the raid. They get on really well, and enjoy playing together. Michael Oreo loves playing with water, and splashes it out of his drinking tub at every opportunity! He is surprisingly bold around his keeper, and does not seem worried by strangers.
This lovely bear is undergoing treatment for a mild respiratory tract infection as diagnosed from his initial chest radiograph and blood analysis results. Sadly his dental exam revealed that all his canine and incisor teeth are missing. This will be closely monitored by his keeper to ensure that he can eat properly and that any infection (as a result of the crude way his teeth were knocked out by poachers) is caught and treated swiftly.


Truffles waits by the door of his den hoping
for a second breakfast!
Truffles is a mischievous and affectionate bear, aged around fifteen months old. He is still in quarantine after his dramatic rescue from the Nepalese border in February, along with three others.
Touchingly, Truffles was so ecstatic when the coarse rope - which had been forced through his soft muzzle by the poachers - was cut away, that he rubbed his nose along the ground before dashing outside into his run, running round and round as if to celebrate his freedom.
His keeper describes him as a happy-go-lucky bear, who greets him with “bear hugs” and nudges when he arrives each morning with breakfast. He is a bear who enjoys his food, and has grown very fond of the keeper who supplies it!
Fortunately, Truffles’ dental examination did not reveal any serious issues, and the visiting dental team from the UK (blog post to follow!) gave them a thorough clean. However, it was clear that there had been an attempt to break his teeth when he was very young, as his teeth have grown through with the tips broken off. This does not seem to have caused him any problems, though.
Truffles’ love of food has resulted in a weight gain of 5kg, putting him at 67kg. He loves porridge so much he puts his whole face into his bowl rather comically to make sure he doesn’t miss a single precious oat! He likes to play with fruit before munching it, and like, Michael Oreo, enjoys splashing in his water tub, treating it like a miniature swimming pool!
Unlike Michael Oreo, Truffles is quite wary of strangers, and prefers them to keep their distance.


Kandi is doing well in quarantine
Kandi is believed to be around two years old, and was rescued alongside Michael Oreo, Truffles and Goldie in February. He is quite small for his age and has lots of growing to do, weighing only around 60kg. He is a friendly little bear, and enjoys lots of attention, making him very popular with the keepers.
His appetite is quite small, and he will often not finish his evening meal of porridge, but tucks into the fruit with gusto. He loves to splash around with his water, and when the keepers hose his den down, he tries to wrestle the hosepipe away from them to spray the water on himself!
Kandi has a painful infected injury to one of his claws, but it is responding well to treatment. It hasn’t dampened Kandi’s spirits, and he seems to be enjoying his temporary stay in quarantine.


Goldie is blind, and suffered terribly at the hands
of his captors
Goldie has the saddest story of the four bears rescued in February. Aged just five years old, he is already blind in both eyes. He weighed 98kg on arrival, which for a male bear of his age is a little underweight. He displayed signs of tremendous hunger, yet he was not eating properly. Consequently, one of the on-site vets sedated him and did a full medical examination of him.
Thanks to this diligence, it was discovered that poor Goldie was suffering from a serious infection in a rotten upper canine tooth. His Kalendar “master” has been particularly brutal and careless towards Goldie, and he has probably suffered from unbelievable pain throughout his life. Fortunately, the dental team from the UK were in Agra in April, and removed this tooth. Goldie is now enjoying his diet of porridge and fruits, and has put on weight since the successful operation.
It is not yet known if his sight will be able to be restored or if the damage done to his eyes (probably by the rope through his nose rubbing on his optic nerve) is permanent. What we do know is that if it is possible to restore his sight, then our fantastic vet team will do it!

The rehabilitation and lifelong care of these four sloth bears will be expensive. If you can, please visit our website to make a donation. If you are unable to make a financial contribution, please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, via email and any other way you can think of to help raise awareness of the work we are doing to protect India's bears!