March 2, 2022


The Himalayan Brown Bears

Snow leopards and migratory birds are probably what first comes to mind when one thinks of wildlife in Ladakh. However, Himalayan brown bears, ancient cousins of the enormous grizzlies, seem like a secret best kept by the high-altitude alpine meadows of western Ladakh.

Brown bears, or "dren-mos" as they are called in the region, are small bears that weigh up to 250 kilos and live between 3000-5000m above sea level. These bears are found mostly in the "Deosai" plains, in and around the Karakoram range, with only a small population found in Himachal and Uttarakhand.

There is no substantial research on these glorious small bears but it is estimated that Eastern Ladakh is home to about twenty-five to thirty bears as of today. These shy creatures lived like you would imagine any wild bears would: digging roots, searching for shrubs, and occasionally feeding on small animals and insects. The reality of the situation however for these bears shifted dramatically after the Kargil War. The impact of war on wildlife, especially on such a sparsely populated species, in an area that is often not documented, can very easily go unacknowledged. However, when a consequence of war is a gradual bear migration into human settlements resulting in the largest cause of livestock depredation in the region, it becomes slightly harder to ignore.

The Kargil war in Ladakh- the constantly shifting LOC (line of control), landmines, and army camps sprinkled across the valley have resulted in a great habitat loss for these bears and have changed their diet from roots and shrubs to food waste from army camps. This resulted in the most unfortunate dependency that naturally became a cause for human-wildlife conflict.

"Dras" in the Kargil region of Eastern Ladakh is most affected by both grain and livestock raids. On first hearing about these sightings, Muzammil Hussain, CEO of the travel company "Roots Ladakh" thought he had found his next wildlife tour idea. Following this lead, he visited "Dras" and found himself empathising with the situation, frustrated at the lack of data, and with a newfound purpose to find a solution.

In 2018, Muzammil ly was offered a small grant by the Wildlife Trust India. He used the limited resources available to him then to start with a project aimed towards short term mitigation strategies and local capacity building. In 2019 when the grant was renewed his team installed wildlife deterrent lights around agricultural land, grain storage units and animal sheds. These lights saw a visible decrease in raids but over two years the bears habituated to the lights and the frequency of raids saw a steady rise.

Muzzammil also pointed out that it is peculiar and uncommon for bears to cause this kind of depredation but these bears are nothing if not adaptive and intelligent. Villagers have also reported sightings where the mother bear teaches her cub to take apart mud-brick walls and windows with almost human-like strategy and perfection.

As fascinating as this is, and as engrossing as it is to hypothesise why these bears are acting so unnaturally, it is important to note that there is still not nearly enough data to substantiate claims answering all the why's and how's. In 2021, in pursuit of more data and sustainable solutions, Muzzammil ly founded "The Himalayan Brown Bear Trust" to apply for larger grants and CSR funds. Today, the trust is building an elaborate proposal aimed towards habitat conservation, baseline research and education. It is amazing how one individual could create the kind of impact that Muzammil ly has created. His bear journey started as excitement to capitalise on these sightings but then quickly morphed into an effort towards conservation and harmonious living.

We do not know if it the war, increasing population, the lack of tolerance towards wildlife as a part of village life or the bears' acquired taste for processed and home-cooked food, but we do know that probably more than people or grains or livestock; this community of thirty magnificent brown bears need protection to return to their normal.

Photographs for this article have been shared by Karamjeet Singh who has accompanied Muzzammil ly on many bear adventures in the Kargil region over the last few years.

By Rinchen Ithtok