Tourism pressures could be changing bear behaviour

Tourism pressures could be changing bear behaviour

The death of an Asian black bear, which fell from a helicopter while being transported for release in a jungle in Khao Yai National Park, may reflect the result of tourism pressure on animal behaviour and habitats.

The bear was reported dead on Feb 12. But the news was only released this past week, sparking criticism on social media about how well the operation was prepared and raising pressure on the government to improve wildlife transport equipment and vehicles.

The bear was female, weighed 80 kg and was aged six to seven. On Nov 30 it came out off the jungle within the boundary of Khao Yai National Park -- a popular tourist area with over 1.2 million visitors between October 2015 and September 2016 -- to a village in Nakhon Nayok.

Out of concern that it may attack people, it was caught and sent to Nakhon Nayok Wildlife Quarantine Centre to be sent back into the forest.

Wirach Chatupanaporn, chief of Protected Area Regional Office 1 under the Department of National Parks Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), which oversees Khao Yai, says the operation to release the bear back into the wild was launched on Feb 12.

The unconscious bear was held in a net hung under the helicopter, which flew deep into the jungle. It was tagged with a tracking device for study purposes.

A survey team was sent to prepare the ground at a spot where the bear would be released.

However, staff in the helicopter reported they faced turbulence which made the helicopter swing, causing the bear to fall.

The bear was later found 4km from the drop-off point.

It's unclear at this stage how and why the bear fell from the net. It's suspected that the winds may have caused the hooks that were holding the bear to slip.

Mr Wirach says a committee was set up to investigate the cause of the bear's death. It will take over a week to find the result.

"But I can say that the pilot for that flight is a competent one. The operation was well equipped," he said.

"It's impossible to use land vehicles because the bear must be released deep in the forest so it would be less likely to cross into human habitat."

A similar operation was conducted in 2009 in good weather. It was the first operation to transport a bear by helicopter into the jungle in Khao Yai, which ended successfully.

With the public criticising the size of the helicopter, which may not have been suitable for the operation, Mr Wirach replied that "we used the available resources we had".

Black bears occasionally come out of the jungle.

Panudej Kerdmali, secretary-general of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, suspects this may be a result of the animals' behaviour changing as a result of changes in land use and increasing tourism.

According to the DNP's records, the number of visitors to Khao Yai National Park rose from 671,569 in 2008 to over 1.2 million in 2016 fiscal year.

During the New Year week from Dec 30 to Jan 3, Khao Yai hosted 156,574 visitors who left more than 45,406kg of waste.

Mr Panudej says black bears do not normally approach humans directly. It's possible that the bears are adjusting to find an easier way to get food, resulting in more being found near visitors.

Another possibility is that bears may be injured, threatened or have lost their parents, so they are seeking other suitable areas to live.

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