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Biogeography of sloth bears and Asiatic black bears at the edges of sloth bear range

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Project log

Nishith A Dharaiya
added a research item
The distribution of Asiatic black bears (hereafter ABB; Ursus thibetanus), sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) and sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) intersect in northeast (NE) India (Choudhury 2011, 2013). All 3 species were once recorded in Meghalaya, Assam, and Nagaland. Previously, we conducted workshops in these 3 states (Sharp et al. 2017), and developed particularly strong ties with Meghalaya, prompting us to do more focused work there. We aimed to determine which species were present (now and historically), where they lived, and if they might be competing for diminishing habitat. Here we present brief results (see Sharp et al. [2019] for more details).
Thomas Sharp
added an update
We begin rigorous field survey in the state Meghalaya in November / December this fall, 2018. We have the cooperation and support of the local government, and a real chance to find overlap between all three species.
Our Objectives include:
1. Obtain information about bear species occurrence in the West Garo Hills and Balpakram National Park by conducting transect surveys looking for bear sign and conducting camera-trap studies.
2. Perfect our survey methods for future use in Nagaland and Assam.
3. Use local knowledge (from forest officers) about bear ecology and threats to refine hypotheses about what is driving population declines in Meghalya, specifically in the West Garo Hills and Balpakram National Park.
4. Continue to build interest and knowledge in bears by forest officers to enhance their ability to monitor populations and foster more attention to bear conservation.
 
Thomas Sharp
added 2 research items
Camera traps are increasingly used to assess the distribution of wildlife, including bears, throughout the Indian subcon-tinent and Southeast Asia. Accordingly, researchers must be able to determine with near certainty the species—and in our case the specific species of bear—that has been photographed. This can be difficult in areas occupied by sympatric, similar-looking bears, especially when some photographs are unclear, at a bad angle, or of poor quality (McLellan 2012, Ngoprasert and Steinmetz 2012). Asiatic black bears and sun bears may be similar-looking in photographs because the size of the animal is difficult to ascertain; since these 2 species overlap on a fine scale across Southeast Asia (Steinmetz 2011), this can lead to (left) Camera-trap photo of an Asiatic black bear, recognizable by the smooth, clean-looking coat as well as a short, dark snout. Note that the ruff on the neck is common in both Asiatic black bears and sloth bears. The large ears are not visible in this photo due to the bear's posture. (right) Camera-trap photo of an Asiatic black bear, readily distinguishable by the large ears. Li Sheng Dusit Ngoprasert (left) Camera-trap photo of a sloth bear, recognizable by the general dome shape, debris stuck in the fur, and whitish snout. (right) Camera-trap photo of a sloth bear, identifiable from length of its back claws. Harshawardhan Dhanwatey Harshawardhan Dhanwatey
Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) historically occupied most of India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, as well as a narrow strip of lowlands (Terai) in southern Nepal that stretches through West Bengal into Bhutan. During the 1980s they were lost from a key national park in western Nepal, and in the 1990s were entirely extirpated from Bangladesh. Along the northern edge of their range, they are known to occur only in a few parks in the lowland Terai of Nepal. Reports of sloth bear occurrence in Bhutan have not been verified. The existence of similar-looking Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) in Bangladesh masked the disappearance of sloth bears there; this same issue may occur (or already has occurred) in Bhutan. We conducted interviews with government wildlife staff, undertook a brief sign survey, and examined existing camera trapping records to ascertain the status of sloth bears in Royal Manas National Park (RMNP) in southern Bhutan. We chose RMNP as the focal study site because we considered it to be the most likely place for sloth bears in Bhutan, due to the presence of grassland habitats and because it abuts Manas NP on the Indian side of the border, where sloth bears are known to occur. Our investigation revealed that the only recent evidence of sloth bear presence in RMNP was a single camera trap record from 2009, 2.4 km from the Indian border. We found sloth bear sign in Manas NP, but not in RMNP. In fact, we found no termite (a staple sloth bear food) mounds in RMNP. We trained wildlife staff on how to distinguish sloth bears from Asiatic black bears so that reliable visual sightings and sign can be reported in the future. Continued camera trapping (aimed at tigers) should provide a means for monitoring presence of sloth bears in Bhutan.