Bear Diary: Sebastian, The Burly Bear Under Our Care!

August 25, 2023 | By Natasha Ashok
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Nestled amidst the tranquil peaks of the Himalayas is the lovely and quaint hill station of Sonamarg, the ‘Meadow of Gold’. Historically known for its significance as a gateway on the ancient Silk Road that connects Kashmir with Tibet, it gained stature after the 1999 Kargil War, when it emerged as a strategic point for the Indian Army. Today, it is more popular as a tourist destination among fishermen and hikers.

Himalayan brown bear Sebastian sitting in his enclosure
Sebastian was rescued from Sonamarg Town in Jammu and Kashmir. [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Akash Dolas]

The area, open for six to seven months a year for visitors, has a number of restaurants and hotels that cater to them. Interestingly, it also became a strategic getaway for a very intelligent and resourceful Himalayan brown bear. This bear had developed a tendency of raiding hotel kitchens, leading to close encounters with locals and tourists. In 2018, after two failed attempts to relocate the brown bear, the forest department reached out to Wildlife SOS to take charge of his safety and well-being. Named Sebastian, this brown bear now resides at our Dachigam Rescue Centre.

Despite coming close to human settlements in the first few years of his life, Sebastian is a solitary and shy bear who doesn’t like to be in close proximity with people. Calm and composed, he prefers the tranquillity of solitude over the hustle and bustle of crowds. Thus, while designing his enclosure, we made sure to keep in mind his natural disposition and personality. His surroundings are replete with lush greenery and fruit-laden trees that mimic his wild habitat, and offer him a sense of security.

Himalayan brown bear Sebastian in his enclosure surrounded by fruit-laden trees
Sebastian resides in a large enclosure that mimics his natural environment. [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Akash Dolas]

As the largest bear under our care, Sebastian was given a vast enclosure all to himself. Here, he has meticulously created spaces that adhere to his liking. Sebastian has made a number of dens that are hidden and offer him secluded areas to retire into, each having entry and exit points that have been clearly marked by him. He has even designated zones that double up as his own personal lavatory!

Sebastians enclosure only houses natural enrichment structures. Among them are the wooden platform and the pool that take centre stage as his favourites. His love for playing in the water is a spectacle to behold as he can spend hours just splashing around in the pool. His wooden platform is surrounded by wild cherry and other fruit trees that provide him with good cover during the colder months and provide him with fresh, tasty fruits in spring. His enclosure also gives him the opportunity to sniff around for termites, ants and other insects that is part of his natural diet.

Himalayan brown bear Sebastian on his favourite structural enrichment- the wooden platform
Sebastian’s favourite structural enrichment is his wooden platform that is surrounded by fruit bearing trees. [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Akash Dolas]

Sebastian’s meal plan includes a well-cooked and thick multigrain roti in the morning that is made up of atta (wheat), rice, maize and either bajra (millet) or jowar (sorghum), which changes according to the season. His afternoon snack comprises a selection of seasonal fruits that include his most loved watermelons and apples. In the evenings, he is provided with porridge made of dalia (broken wheat grains), milk and jaggery, into which two boiled eggs are also added to ensure that his diet is well-rounded.

Over the years, similar to how his caregivers have started to understand Sebastian and his preferences, Sebastian too has formed a bond of trust with his caregivers. This increased understanding has resulted in the staff to begin regular target training sessions. Target training holds a significant role in animal care as it helps to streamline the process of caregiving, medical treatments, and regular checkups. Using positive reinforcements, animals are motivated to respond with desired actions needed for the team to proceed with their helpful activities. Target training leads the animal to cooperate with the staff. Most importantly, it also reduces the need for chemical tranquilisers during their examinations. For Sebastian, our team uses treats like honey, peanuts, and dates to reward his active cooperation.

Himalayan brown bear Sebastian's enclosure mimics his natural environment
Sebastian, the largest bear under our care, has a soft spot for dry fruits, especially dates smeared with honey! [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Akash Dolas]

Not only during these sessions, Sebastian also gets to relish these treats in his food-based enrichments like feeder balls! Honey-smeared on tree logs, along with protein-rich nuts like peanuts and walnuts, and tasty dates that are scattered around his field stimulates his foraging skills and encourages his natural instincts to take over.

Rescued as a young bear that was just three-years-old, it was astonishing to learn about Sebastian’s dependency on food from human settlements. To watch the eight-year-old live a peaceful life with proper nourishment serves as a powerful reminder of the current state of affairs that wildlife in India has been forced to deal with. Sebastian’s encounters with people coincides with the unchecked expansion of several places like Sonamarg. Habitat encroachment disrupted Sebastian’s natural behaviours, compelling him to turn to readily available crops, cattle, and kitchen food for survival. To support Sebastian’s care, and contribute towards the conservation of animals and their habitat, please consider making a donation to our diverse projects.

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