Frequent sightings of Himalayan Brown Bears near human settlements have been reported throughout Kashmir. This has alarmed wildlife experts, who contend that such occurrences are caused by growing urbanisation. Many more startling revelations have also come to the fore according to a recent study.

In what is being called a “shocking discovery” about this endangered wild animal, a study on the reclusive Himalayan bear found in Jammu and Kashmir discovered that 75% of the brown bear diet in the area comprised plastic, chocolates, and Biryani.

The research conducted by Wildlife SOS, an India based wildlife conservation organisation titled “Himalayan Brown Bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) Ecological and Human-Bear Conflict Investigation In Kashmir With Special Reference To Bear Habituation To Garbage Dumps In The Central Wildlife Division” was recently released.

the Wildlife SOS Study stated: “In Ganderbal district- the Central wildlife division of Kashmir, Himalayan brown bears appear in rolling uplands, alpine meadows and sub-alpine forests. Due to the increasing human population, habitat degradation, expansion of tourism and tourism related infrastructure developmental activities, expansion of roads, tunneling activities, livestock grazing (sheep’s and goats) and other human activities, brown bear population is highly disturbed and threatened.”

Due to encroachment on the forest land, and continuous habitat degradation, the status of the Brown Bears continues to be endangered in this area. However, at the same time it is leading to a more conflicting situation.

Aaliya Mir, Conservation Head Wildlife SOS, said that, “due to increasing human population, habitat degradation, expansion of tourism and tourism related infrastructure developmental activities, expansion of roads, tunneling activities, livestock grazing, retaliatory killings, collection of medicinal plants and other human activities, the brown bear population is highly disturbed and threatened.”

Wildlife conservationists in Kashmir have noted increasing sightings and spread of the brown bear in the last two to three years in a few of its habitats including the hills of Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Gurez.

Dr. Tawqir Bashir Assistant Professor in Centre of Research For Development, (CORD) at the University of Kashmir said that encroachment on wildlife habitats by humans is one of the major reasons that impact the brown bear population in the Kashmir valley.

“Brown bears are mainly found in alpine meadows and in recent times tourist activities have increased manifolds crossing the limits of ecologically balanced tourism,” he said.

The study conducted by Wildlife SOS, highlights how the human-big mammal conflict has increased in Kashmir, where it was previously uncommon to see due to the vast proportion of high alpine pastures where it lives.

“There are potentially many reasons for the high number of attacks, though the foremost reason likely stems from the conversion of natural habitat to orchards and agricultural fields. Several animals have been killed in the retaliatory action by the angry mob but at the same time a certain human population ended up being either killed due to the ongoing Man-Bear Conflict or getting injured because of it.

“This scenario is quite disturbing as it will have a direct effect on the population of these bears. It will create a negative perception among humans against these magnificent species,” said Aaliya.

There are many reports that inappropriate disposal of trash, agricultural and marine refuse acted as major attractants for brown bears and resulted in human bear conflict .

These Brown Bears have long escaped researchers’ eyes, because they live in the isolated alpine regions of the Himalayan range in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and Nepal. “What we do know is that anthropogenic influences are gradually driving this enigmatic creature to the verge of extinction,” stated the Wildlife SOS report.

The report mentioned that these interactions are believed to exist mainly because of insufficient quality and quantity of food resources in their natural habitats in particular seasons, and habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, conversion of forest land-use change for different purposes like agricultural, road/rail network, industries, and hydropower projects.

The Wildlife SOS team conducted an in-depth diet analysis of the Brown Bear. This was done by studying scats of 408 Brown bears. The findings showed that milk powder, plastic carry bags, and chocolate wrappers were all found in the scats of 86 bears. Even glass fragments were found in some scats.

“As much as 75% of all that Brown Bears consume comes from garbage, which means that their frequency to scavenge garbage is much higher than eating wild plant matter, crops, and even hunted sheep,” stated the study.

According to Aaliya Mir, “The diet that these Brown Bears eat out of the trash at Sonamarg is not the diet which they are used to in their natural habitat. Since the diets which they ingest have plenty of oils, preservatives and spices. This will definitely have an ill impact on their health and who knows what other effects they have in the long run.

“These bears have not gone into hibernation during the winters and their behaviors towards the animal which supposedly are their prey is also different.”

Sharing similar opinions on how the diet preferences of these animals have lately witnessed a major shift, being replaced by the ease of "garbage accessibility", Dr. Tawqir added, “we also require proper waste management systems as a number of brown bears have been sighted at the dumping sites during night time in order to avoid encounter with humans.

“These garbage sites are easy access to food which if not available, will avoid the visitation of bears to these dumping sites and search for food in their natural habitats.”

He too believes that the hibernation time has also decreased which is expected to be related to climate change.

Dr. Mohammad Muslim, Assistant Professor

Department of Environmental science University of Kashmir said that climate change will have a significant impact on the flora and fauna of Himalayan region. “Melting glaciers, erratic and unpredictable weather conditions, changing rainfall patterns, and increasing temperatures are impacting on the people and wildlife of the region,” he said.

Another research study conducted in 2021 demonstrated a practical approach to "predict and disentangle the effects of climate change and human land use change on species connectivity, and highlights the importance of climate change mitigation in effective conservation".

“Future land use and climate change escalate connectivity loss for Himalayan brown bears" found a substantial loss of connectivity for Himalayan Brown Bear (HBB), indicating connectivity being a limiting factor for future HBB subpopulations in Western Himalayas," it stated.

The study also indicated climate change under the high emission scenarios could completely eliminate the connectivity for HBB by year 2070.

"However, ongoing climate and land use change can also impact other ecosystems and species in this landscape. Therefore, a comprehensive assessment of climate and land use change impact on a range of species representing the vulnerable ecosystems of this landscape is needed using comparable methodologies to produce a multi-species connectivity assessment that can be used to guide comprehensive conservation planning,” it stated.

Few other studies have revealed that there has been a rise of at least 0.5 degrees Celsius in the temperature of the Indian Himalayan region, accompanied by an almost 10 per cent variation in humidity levels.

“Climate change will severely impact the eco-hydrological processes by impacting plant phonology, tree line shifts, freezing and thawing, change in precipitation patterns, climate extremities etc. In response to the changing climate in alpine regions which are the grazing and hunting sites for the species inhabiting the region.

“The Himalayas is one of the world's most fragile regions to global climate change, with impacts manifesting at a particularly rapid rate. A situation that is predicted to intensify in coming years, with dire and far-reaching impacts,” said Muslim

The Wildlife SOS team in the survey, conducted between July 2021 and October 2021, with approval from the J&K Wildlife Protection Department, identified certain important hotspots where the bears raid garbage sites.

These garbage sites act as a foraging ground for domestic and wild animals alike. “Apart from brown bears, red fox and jackals were also seen regularly around these garbage sites along with other domestic animals like dogs, ponies and cattle,” it stated.

The Wildlife SOS team has submitted a list of recommendations to the Wildlife Protection Department, Shri AmarnathJi Shrine Board and J&K Tourism Development Authority among other stakeholders, including creating proper waste disposal management.

“Limitation should be imposed based on the carrying capacity of the landscape to avoid future conflict. Systematic garbage disposal systems should be put in place in and around the holy cave area and animal proof bins should be placed around community kitchens at the holy cave. Wildlife crossing areas should be identified and necessity to place sign boards and speed breakers to control the speedy vehicles,” recommended the study.

“Livestock grazing pressure should be reduced in the concerned areas. Also, as Kashmir is a famous tourist destination, we should promote tourism but at the same time its time to focus on eco-tourism to maintain the natural environment and habitats of bears,” Tawqir suggested.

Keeping in view the safety of local people and Pilgrims, it is important to consider the recommendations in order to ensure the minimisation of current and the future brown bear-human conflict situations.

Cubs were also spotted in the garbage sites [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS]

Photographs Courtesy Wildlife SOS