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The Giant Bears of Deosai

By Ahmer Ali Rizvi 
Hunters and poachers pose constant threat to Himalayan Brown Bears, the largest animal on Deosai plateau.

Deosai or "Dev Vasai" - the Land of Giant, is a vast plateau beyond the mountains of Kashmir in Himalayan range. The highland was named for a famous legend described by the Gujjars, who used to spend summer here and rest of the seasons in Himalayan foothills. They believe in a fable according to which centuries ago there was a "Giant", who lived there all the year round and grow all the crops he needed for himself on this widespread land.

Today, this terrain is yet said to be the land of the giant. Not possessed by that legendary creature but by the giant "Brown Bears". Yes, the Deosai plateau is an imperative abode for the Himalayan Brown Bears. This flat terrain is as high as 13,500 feet above the sea level, situated 35 km south of Skardu. It's a huge and high meadow of rolling mounds and grass with a numerous dens and burrows offering an ideal habitat for grazing animals. The total area of Deosai plain is about 3,000 sq km.

Brown Bear belongs to the widest range of any specie of bear in the world. It is found in abundance in Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Kodiak Island in North America. Alaskan and Kodiak genus are the largest of its family with an average weight of 300 kg. Smaller populations are found in Canada, eastern and western Europe and northern Asia.

Himalayan Brown bear varies in size but generally appears larger than all other wild animal species in the region. Heaviest specimen recorded as 160 kg the Himalayan Brown Bear is comparatively smaller than Alaskan bear, but no doubt, it is the largest animal on Deosai plateau. Its colour varies from dark reddish brown to light sandy shades. In physique, Brown Bear is characterized by a distinctive hump on its shoulders, a slightly dished profile to the face and long claws on the front paws.

Brown Bear generally occupy a wide range of habitats including dense forests, sub-alpine mountain areas and tundra. In Pakistan, it is restricted to alpine meadow and sub-alpine scrub zones. Some bears have also been spotted in Panma and Biafo Glaciers, whereas a very few Brown Bears are suspected in Chitral, Khunjerab National Park - Gilgit and Neelam Valley, Azad Kashmir.

Brown Bear mainly eats vegetation such as grass, sedge, bulbs and roots. It also eats rodents such as rats, dormice, ground squirrels, hedgehogs, marmots and fishes. In some incidences, Brown Bear in Deosai has been found killing domestic goats and sheep.

The most interesting thing about a bear is its "Winter Dormancy". In early days of winter when snow starts covering grassland and weather becomes harsh, Brown Bear holds back grazing and other activities in open areas and enters den to spend whole winter. It usually hibernates for five to seven months from November to April. During this, its body temperature, heartbeat and other metabolic rates are reduced. Its requirement for food and water is also eliminated. At the onset of summer, it wakes up and comes out of den in search of food again. Some scientists believe that Brown Bear does not hibernate completely as other animals, which live in cold climates, do.

Under most circumstances, Brown Bear is found lonely when wandering or grazing in grassland. However, female is usually accompanied by its cubs. During the breeding season, a male is used to be associated with a female only for two weeks. Mating takes place from early May to the middle of July, while the baby bears usually come into the world from the months of January to March.

Brown Bear in Deosai is a slow moving and breeding animal as compared to its cousins in other parts of the world. In other regions, the litter size is generally one to three and a female usually breeds every three years. But in case of Himalayan bears of Deosai, the litter is limited to just one or two every three to four years. The reason is itself the low population of male animals to make a perfect pair over and over again. Furthermore there are several climatic constraints. For example, being situated at an extraordinary height, there is insufficient oxygen to breathe, which is required adequately for a healthy breeding female. There are many other obstacles from the atmosphere like scarcity of food during snowfalls. Though average life of a Brown Bear is 30 years but in Deosai very few bears survive beyond the age of 20.

There is also a continuous threat to bear population in all locales of its existence due to the poaching of young cubs. These little bears are captured by gypsy tribes who tame and train them for dancing and circus shows. Since the female is closely attached and very watchful to its cubs, poachers kill the mother first making the young ones easy to capture.

Another threat to Brown Bear is from the hunters for its skin, fats and other body organs. Hunting is usually carried out by the local villagers. Some local quacks believe that its fats and some other parts enhance virility. There is no reality in these thoughts, yet they do misguide people inadvertently or deliberately in order to make money. Sale of bear's skin and other organs is an established and organized business in northern areas. Professional hunters usually kill adult male Brown Bear and transport its parts to the local markets of Gilgit and Skardu. These practices have been continuing for a long time. Consequently, the Brown Bear's population has declined to the alarming limits.

During the last decade, a few but effective measures have been taken for the survival of Brown Bear in the region. In 1993, Himalayan Wildlife Project was founded with a substantial financial support from international environmental concerns. The idea was to protect this vulnerable specie from total dearth. A team of five persons visited Deosai plateau in July 93 and camped there for two months. The purpose was to study and evaluate the status of Brown Bear. After a thorough survey and monitoring, they estimated a total population of only 19 bears of both sexes in the area. They also collected basic information about its feeding habits, routine movements and breeding biology. This was a landmark towards the protection of this wonderful creature.

In the same year, the administration of northern area designated Deosai a National Park, through which hunting, poaching, mining or any act of destruction to wildlife within the area becomes a legal offense. Some wildlife check-posts have also been established in Sadpara - Skardu, Chilam and Godai - Astore valley, in order to keep an eye on poachers and hunters. The credit of these achievements goes to the Himalayan Wildlife Project teams who not only recommended but also forced all these measures to be taken to protect Brown Bear in the region.

In subsequent years, several educational programs have also been conducted for local villagers in order to make them aware of the importance of healthy wildlife and environment. Proper census as well as detailed observation of the Brown Bears on scientific basis is being conducted every year during July to October. For the first time in Pakistan, radio transmitters have been used to monitor the movement of bears in its environs. Brown Bears are tranquilized carefully and collared with sophisticated radio transmitters. Since 1996 a total of seven adult bears have been collared with transmitters and are being observed by Himalayan Wildlife Project team.

Presently, the population of Brown Bear in Deosai has increased to 30-35 animals with a mix of few little cubs. The population growth has been very slow over the period of 8-9 years but there is still a hope for these cubs to multiply over next 5-10 years.

Brown Bear is still under threat of extinction in its inimitable colony. Unfortunately, hunting is still done and poaching of cubs is also carried out, but there is a marked decline in these ruthless practices over the past few years. The other climatic threats to the Bear population are always there and are unavoidable. But the side-by-side efforts taken to protect Brown Bear and educational programs are the lasting hopes for this beautiful animal to survive and the Deosai to remain the land of giants.




  • The News on Sunday, The News International (www.jang.com.pk)

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