It all started with a front page story in Kantipur, a popular Nepali daily. The piece followed the life of a bear tamer in Siraha, who made a living by making a little sloth bear dance for an audience as he wandered around the southeastern district each day. The reporter’s tone was sympathetic to the man and his poor living conditions, and the piece touched many of the paper’s readers.
For Sneha Shrestha, however, nothing could be more infuriating. “The first thing I wanted to do after reading the story was go with my team to Siraha to rescue the animal and free it from torture,” said Shrestha, who runs an animal welfare charity.
Her team travelled overnight from Kathmandu to rescue little Dhutharu, the one-year-old male sloth bear in a village near the district headquarters Lahan.
The sloth bear
Named after sloths for their lethargy, sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) like Dhutharu are found in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Secretariat.
They are also listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
Since NGOs like Sneha’s Care are not authorised to rescue wild animals themselves, Dhutharu was handed over to the government, with a request that he be transported to a wildlife recovery centre in India as Nepal does not have such a facility.
But, six months on, he is languishing inside a small cage in the country’s only zoo in Kathmandu. Government officials have dismissed repeated calls by Shrestha and other activists who urge that the sloth bear be sent to India, on the pretext that the animal is Nepali property.
The activists argue that the government should not make an issue of the ‘nationality’ of an animal, primarily one that is wild by nature, when deciding where the animal should live.
Does wildlife have a ‘nationality’?
The debate surrounding Dhutharu’s fate exposes the government’s poor preparedness to deal with transboundary wildlife conservation, which has become a recurring issue for Nepali authorities.
The case follows the controversy during the transfer of Rangila, said to be ‘the last’ of Nepal’s dancing bears, to India in 2018.
Shrestha had hoped that the government would easily hand Dhutharu over to a wildlife sanctuary in India as Nepal had already sent two rescued ‘dancing bears’ to India in the last decade: the first in 2010 and the second in 2018.
Other animal rights activists agree with her. “We already have two precedents, hence sending the bear to India should not be an issue,” said Niraj Gautam, who was involved in the two earlier cases.
“But this case is different,” Gopal Prakash Bhattarai, the chief of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, told thethirdpole.net. “In the Rangila case (2018), the rescuers had documents that showed the bear came to the Nepali side from India. [In Dhutharu’s case] they do not have any such evidence. Hence, we do not entertain requests for repatriation.”
Gautam, who worked for the Jane Goodall Institute until a few months back, and led the rescue and repatriation of Rangila, recalled that repatriating the bear was not as easy as Bhattarai is now making it sound. Even then the department was not ready to listen to activists, and left them no choice but to reach out to the political leadership.
“The decision to send Rangila was made during a cabinet meeting,” Gautam said, adding that activists had shared some ‘soft’ evidence at the time.
“We told them that the communities making bears dance are scarce in Nepal; even if a Nepali still does it, it is under the influence of the Indians; and mostly, such animals are rescued near the open border, so the animal must have belonged to India.”
Gautam explained that the tradition of dancing bears is unheard of in the hills and mountains of Nepal, and exists only in the southern plains that border India. InIndia, the practice is now illegal, and is dying out.
The rarity of the practice drives media coverage, and these are always called ‘the last dancing bear’. Raju, rescued in Bangalore in 2009, and Rangila rescued nine years later in Nepal, were given similar titles.
In Dhutharu’s case, the tamer has told the Kantipur reporter that the bear is the last remaining member of a bear couple gifted to his grandmother from her Indian parents as part of dowry. Dhutharu is likely the third or fourth generation of the bear couple’s family.
The ghost of Sridevi
Gautam highlighted another reason why the nationality issue should be dismissed.
He has seen how a dancing bear named Sridevi died in the central zoo in 2018. International animal rights organisations like World Animal Protection concur that Sridevi died because of the poor living conditions in the zoo. Gautam now fears the same tragedy may await Dhutharu.
After the death of Sridevi and repatriation of Rangila, Dhutharu is the first bear to reside in the zoo. Nothing substantial has changed for the past two years.
“We can’t be sure, but we can suspect that Sridevi died because of negligence and lack of better care,” Gautam said. “Perhaps a sanctuary will have different conditions. A zoo is never the best option for conservation.”
Internationally, zoos are meant for exhibition and education, but sanctuaries provide wildlife a better environment.
For this reason, the two facilities cannot be considered alternatives to each other, said Carol Buckley, a wildlife conservation expert. “Zoos cage and chain wild animals such as bears and elephants – who normally travel miles each day – in unnatural and small exhibits, resulting in the animals’ psychological and physical breakdown,” she said. “The ultimate goal of a progressive sanctuary is rehabilitation and returning the animal to a healthy state of being.”
Corroborating Buckley’s explanation, Shrestha said that Dhutharu has been kept in a narrow cage that deprives him of free movement. She said the zoo rejected her offer of a bigger cage.
Chiranjibi Prasad Pokharel, Project Manager of the Central Zoo, was defensive. “Perhaps they [the critics] do not know the way we take care of the animals here. Nepal has already set many examples in wildlife conservation and we, at the zoo, also provide them the best possible care,” he told thethirdpole.net. “If we had not been serious about their welfare, why would have we rescued them in the first place? Our goal is to let the animals live a painless life.”
Pokharel, however, accepted that the zoo management has not been able to provide the best possible habitat to the animals for lack of space. The government frequently talks about expanding or relocating the zoo, but the plans never materialise, the official added.
A turbulent future
Although he agreed in principle that a zoo is not the best option for conservation, the department’s chief, Bhattarai, pledged that the government of Nepal will manage such cases in future, so there is no need to hand animals over to foreign sanctuaries.
“The fifth amendment to the Wildlife Conservation Act three years ago has introduced the provision of establishing rescue and rehabilitation centres. Based on the law, the government is preparing to establish such centres in all seven provinces of the country,” he said.
The Wildlife Conservation Act is the law that regulates all wildlife affairs in the country, from governing zoos and national parks to efforts to control wildlife smuggling. The amendment authorises not only the government but a private individual or institution to establish an animal rescue and rehabilitation centre after meeting certain criteria. However, the government is yet to formulate any regulation or guideline that will facilitate implementation. “Everything will happen, but it will take time,” Bhattarai said. “You know we are a developing country.”
The same amendment also has a provision about gifting wild animals to foreign governments for the sake of their conservation and management. However, the law does not have any clause regarding transfer of any animal to a foreign sanctuary.
Activists fear the problem will persist for many years. “The wildlife habitat is shrinking in Nepal, forcing many wild animals to come to the streets or to human settlements. In turn, we will rescue more such animals in the upcoming days,” Gautam said. “But because we [the nation as a whole] do not consider the issue of animal welfare seriously, they will suffer for life.”
The government has plenty of options to take care of such animals inside Nepal, added Gautam.
“They say there is no space, but it is not true. We can manage such animals in the Chitwan and Bardiya national parks,” he said, recalling that Rangila and Sridevi were kept in the Parsa National Park for a few weeks after they were rescued. However, he said, “It is sad that we do not have any provisions for that now.”
Bhattarai pointed out challenges. “There are many practical difficulties. You cannot just cram all the animals in one place together. They have different natural habitats and the forest areas we allocate should match that. We need to recruit skilled human resources including veterinarians,” he said, repeating, “Everything will happen, but it takes time.”
Meanwhile, claiming that Dhutharu’s health has improved since the rescue, the department is planning to release him from his narrow quarantine cage into a bigger cage for exhibition.
For Shrestha, however, the bigger cage is also too congested for Dhutharu as four bears already live there.
“I wish I had sent Dhutharu to India before informing the government, [even if it meant I was put] behind bars for doing something I was not authorised to,” she said.