Bear Of The Month – Zara

August 30, 2022 | By Malavika Jayachandran
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Over a decade ago, two young Asiatic black bears were found huddled within the trunk of a burnt Chinar tree. In a most unfortunate incident, the mother of the cubs was attacked by villagers who perceived her as a threat. Leaving her young cubs in the only safe place she could find, the mother bear tried to defend herself — but in vain. She was unable to overpower the fear that fuelled their frenzy. When the Wildlife SOS team members arrived at the spot, they were shocked by the aftermath of this event and immediately rescued the distressed cubs. As they were too young to survive in the wild on their own, the cubs were rehabilitated at the Pahalgam Rescue Centre. Identified as one female and one male, the bear siblings were named Zara and Raja. 

Zara was extremely traumatised after witnessing the loss of her mother — a fate we wish no young animal suffers from. Upon their arrival at the centre, the Wildlife SOS staff had to devise a sensitive way to nurture these young cubs. This was no easy task: on the one hand, the team needed to meet the needs of the cubs, but on the other hand, they had to maintain enough distance from them so that their natural behaviour was not lost. 

Raja (L) and Zara (R) were found huddled within a burnt Chinar tree. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS]

Zara and Raja were placed in the same enclosure with each other, where they were slowly introduced to various structural enrichments. These included planks upon which they could climb, logs with small holes in them where food was placed, and a pool to bathe and swim in. Though hesitant at first, they two gradually began to approach the enrichments with curiosity. The added element of some tasty treats came as a prize, and they soon began to keep themselves busy with the enrichments. They particularly enjoyed their barrel enrichment, which was filled with various treats and had small openings through which these tasty treats could be extricated. Zara kept herself busy for hours, trying to extricate the dates and nuts from them and quickly gobble them down!

As the two bears grew older, their relationship dynamics revealed that Zara was certainly the more dominant one of the two. Our ‘Bear of the Month’ is quite a feisty one! She makes sure to let her moods be known to her brother Raja, especially when she’s not keen on playing with him. Zara is also quite vocal, communicating her feelings with grunts, whines, roars, slurping sounds, and hisses. Though they are accustomed to each other’s presence, they are given their meals separately to ensure that there is no tussle between the two over food. 

Zara absolutely relishes her meals of rotis (Indian flatbread) in the morning, along with an assortment of honey and dates to garnish them. In the evening, she slurps a generous helping of porridge laced with milk and jaggery. To make sure that all her nutritional needs are met, Zara is also fed a diet of seasonal fruits, along with some supplements to keep her healthy. Though Zara has a voracious appetite and finishes all her meals, her sibling Raja seems to lower his food intake during his moulting period. At that time, he is given more protein rich meals to make up for the reduction. 

Zara is a dominant and vocal bear. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]
Zara is a dominant and vocal bear. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]

Being an active bear, Zara also loves to climb the trees within her enclosure. One can often find her perched upon a tree. Despite Asiatic Black bears being on the heavier side, they are good climbers due to their powerful limbs and broad paws which they use to grab the branches of the trees. In the wild, Asiatic Black bears are one of the largest arboreal mammals, spending almost half of their life in trees.

The Pahalgam Centre has heavy snowfall and in the months between December to February, the place looks like a winter wonderland straight out of a fairy tale! During the winter months, Zara loves to play in the snow. She can be seen digging the snow and making a burrow beneath it to sleep in a cosy spot. 

To ensure that the bears have something to keep themselves entertained in the winters, the staff hides various treats underneath the snow while the bears are in their den. Once Zara and Raja return to the field, they proceed to sniff out the treats from their hiding spots! Their strong sense of smell and their wild instincts allow them to find every single treat. This activity designed by the caregivers, is important for their mental stimulation, as well as their physical exercise. Though the caregivers are dressed in layers of warm clothing to set up these enrichments, the Black bears do not have to worry about any additional heating measures. 

The bears love playing in the snow. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS]
Black bears love playing in the snow. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS]

Being a marvel of nature, these bears have very thick fur and skin, and are resistant to the chilling temperatures of the Himalayas. Hence they are the perfect inhabitants of the region! However, in many parts of the world, their existence is threatened by the practice of bile farming, wherein the gall bladder of this animal is harvested to extricate fluid used in traditional medicine. Due to this many of these bears are poached from the wild and undergo immense torture.

Though Zara is cared for at the Pahalgam Rescue Centre, she has lost the chance of being a wild bear in her natural habitat. Her story raises important questions about human-bear conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, which are known to occur most in the orchards of walnuts, cherries, and apples. With the increasing loss of habitat and decreasing prey base, bears often wander into these orchards for food and shelter, frightening the people who live there. In the last few years, due to the educational activities undertaken by Ms. Aaliya Mir, Project Manager and Education Officer at Wildlife SOS, a significant change has been observed in the way people react to the presence of wild animals. However, we still have a long way to go.

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