Meera Bhardwaj:

Change in land patterns and switchover to sunflower, groundnut crops, has affected the behavior of sloth bears. The cultivation of these two commercial crops in the Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) of Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary in Karnataka has been attracting sloth bears to no end. 

According to noted wildlife expert and researcher, Dr Samad Kottur although sloth bears feed on fruits, ants and termites, they are attracted by sunflowers and groundnuts too. The two crops are a rich source of oil and protein and so, bears become habituated to venture out. During the night, they go out, attracted by the aroma of not only sunflower, groundnut but also sugarcane, oil palm and other crops.

Since under the ESZ rules, agriculture, horticulture, etc are a permitted activity, farmers cannot be told to stop growing certain crops. In fact, many farmers around Daroji are growing commercial crops that earn them money. The bears do not destroy the entire crop but eat only a few seeds and fruits but the farmers want compensation for their entire acreage. They need to keep a watch while solar fencing can be provided to them to protect their crops in the ESZ. Further, fodder plants, sunflower can be grown inside the Sanctuary.

Many farmers in the 17 villages bordering Daroji which fall in the ESZ have switched over from cultivating traditional crops to sunflower crops in the last few years. Notified on September 25, 2019, Daroji has an ESZ area of 158.70 sq kms with an extent varying from 1 to 4.7 kms around the PA.

Dr Kottur said, “We need to educate the farmers and create awareness about such issues. However, at the same time, alternative crops that fetch them an equal amount of money have to be advised. For the farmers, the first priority is income while the bears are their adversary. 

A committee comprising experts from the fields of agriculture, horticulture, irrigation, education, etc should be formed who can formulate a plan for growing the right crops in the ESZ area. But for this, we have to change the farmers’ mindset, he added.

Although the sunflower crop looks beautiful in the stark environment surrounded by rocky hills and big boulders, these crops attract sloth bears and have led to conflict situations wherever it is grown all along the borders of this sanctuary. Since the ESZ notification, every stone quarry surrounding the sanctuary has been shut down. With the result, loud blasts and ensuing dust which once used to disturb these serene surroundings has come to an end.

It is during summer (February-July) when sloth bears venture for food and water. According to local activists in Kamlapur, there is a crop pattern change in the ESZ of Daroji. Sunflowers have been cultivated just adjoining Daroji and this has been attracting bears to raid the crops as they feed on the seeds. Farmers have sustained losses and in the coming days, conflict may arise if action is not taken soon. Farmers have to be educated and we have to stop them from growing sunflowers in the ESZ area. In the last seven years, cultivation of commercial crops like cotton, chilly and fruit crops are on the rise. 

Dr Samad Kottur adds, “Bears often traverse 5-6 kilometers from their habitat for foraging and sometimes, run into humans. When crops grown near the sanctuary are raided, the farmers tolerate as they get good compensation. In recent times, there have been no reports of attacks on humans in this area. There are only stray incidents as cases have drastically declined. The highest compensation for crop losses is paid by the forest department in both Daroji and Gudekote.”

As per the Daroji Management Plan, the native vegetation of the forest has been protected and progressed towards natural forest succession. Most of the agricultural land is rain fed and the reaping of bumper crop depends upon good rainfall. Some of the villagers have dug bore wells to irrigate their land to grow cash crops like sunflower, maize, groundnuts etc. Some lands in the villages of Daroji, Devalapura, Metri, Venkatapura etc get water from the TB  canal and farmers grow paddy, sugar cane, banana etc. 

Forest officials said bears eat a variety of food like insects, fruits, plants, honey but they are relish termites, ants and honey. But the diet is mostly termites for which this species is specially adapted. They also eat the fleshy flowers of Mahua. They also raid agriculture crops like Sugarcane, Corn and Yams etc.  They also dig for the white grubs of large dung and longhorn Beetles which tunnel in the earth.

Further semi-nomads having sheep usually visit the Daroji area at least once a year causing very alarming damage due to the huge number of sheep that result in concentrated grazing. 

However, bears known to feed on some of the tree species, such species are being planted in vulnerable areas adjacent to SMC structures, along nalas etc., so that bears will get food easily and they will not move out of the Sanctuary in search of food, they add.

The total area of Daroji is 82.72 square kilometers which includes Bilikallu East Reserve Forest and Bukkasagara Reserve Forest. With rocky outcrops, boulders and caves, the Sanctuary is home to more than 150 sloth bears. The Karadikallu Gudda has hundreds of Caves where the vulnerable Indian sloth bears and other wildlife live and sustain.