Pakistan’s bears caught in the rush for a good ‘rescue’ story

Author: By Meriel Beattie in Kund, Pakistan

Struggling to survive amid cruel bear-baiting and obstructive bureaucracy, Pakistan’s endangered population of wild bears now faces a voracious new predator – the British tabloid journalist.

Conservationists from the- World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) say their attempts to encourage the Pakistani authorities to stamp out bear-baiting and to promote conservation are being threatened by what the WSPA believes was a bid by the Mail on Sunday to buy its own bear to “rescue” for its readers.

WSPA fieldworkers in Pakistan said a team of journalists from the Mail on Sunday arrived in the country two weeks ago. They were there initially to follow WSPA’s ongoing campaign to save fighting bears and suitable cubs and transfer them to a special sanctuary. However, when it seemed as if no official rescue would take place before their deadline, the Mail journalists inquired about buying a bear from gypsies near the capital, Islamabad.

John Joseph, WSPA’s regional manager for Asia, said he was appalled by the newspaper’s approach. “It seemed to me to be clearly an attempt to commit an illegal act. For the past two years we have been putting pressure on the Pakistani authorities to try to enforce the law,” he said.

“If people just come into the country and just start brandishing a chequebook and buying animals illegally and then try to pass them onto us, and we accept those animals, it will blow any credibility we have with the Pakistani authorities. We’ve always been against any sort of purchasing. It sets a precedent that animals have a value. All it will do is increase the amount of illegal trade in these animals in the long run.”

The bear the newspaper chose to “rescue” was a dancing bear, which did not fit the charity’s criteria of fighting bears. When the WSPA fieldworkers refused to co-operate (on the grounds that it would be illegal for anyone other than the Pakistani authorities to handle the animal) the charity was warned by its head office that the Mail on Sunday would criticise it in print for refusing to co-operate in a “rescue”. The newspaper did not return calls about the allegations yesterday.

The plight of Pakistan’s dwindling population of Asiatic Black and Himalayan Brown bears hit the headlines in the UK in January whenThe Independent published details of horrific bear fights which were still taking place in Pakistan despite an official ban.

For an entry fee equivalent to 35p, hundreds of spectators were able to watch bears, which have had their teeth and claws pulled out, being savaged by packs of dogs. Although bear-baiting was declared illegal in Pakistan in 1998, the authorities had little encour- agement to enforce the ban – and nowhere to put rescued animals if they did. A special bear sanctuary was set up here at Kund, the meeting point of the Rivers Indus and Kabul, with £100,000 raised in Britain by WSPA. But it remained empty for five months, with some local officials claiming it was too difficult to transfer confiscated animals from one part of Pakistan to another.

Yesterday, however, that changed, with the arrival of the sanctuary’s first resident. Neelum, a two year-old Himalayan female brown bear, was rescued by foresters in Kashmir and taken to the sanctuary. Although not a fighting bear, WSPA say that the very fact that Neelum could be transported successfully from another region sets an important precedent.

Project manager, Peter Henderson, said: “It shows that the inter-provincial movement of a bear is possible and we can tell the provinces of Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab to stop stalling and offering pathetic excuses as to why they can’t move confiscated animals.” Mr Henderson has been working to set up the sanctuary for more than a year. He said that the Pakistani authorities were being more co-operative on bear protection issues since the British media covered the scandal in January.

However, while Neelum sniffed her new surroundings, the Mail on Sunday team was not present to cover her rescue. WSPA fieldworkers said they had disassociated themselves from the journalists after it suspected they intended to purchase a bear as a part of their story. They said they believed the journalists had now returned to London without buying a bear.

“They were out here with a two-week time limit and desperate to get a sensational story,” Mr Henderson said. He added that he thought WSPA workers and donors would be concerned that the organisation had sanctioned the Mail on Sunday trip in the first place.

“I cannot understand why anyone in our office in London would even entertain the thought of going anywhere near something like this at this stage of our project,” he said.

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