By Majid Nabi
Srinagar– Highlighting the escalating conflict between humans and wildlife, the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Department in an incident in May successfully captured a Himalayan brown bear in a village in North Kashmir. The bear’s behavior had become increasingly weird as the beast raided graveyards possibly in search of human carcasses and venturing into residential areas of Handwara, posing a threat to lives and livestock.
Similar encounters have been reported in villages such as Behnipora, Budshungi, and Shatigam, where residents feared the presence of multiple bears in search of food. To protect the graveyards, villagers took turns to stand guard, but the situation remained challenging.
Experts believe that the unusual behavior of the bears can be attributed to insufficient food in their natural habitat.
Wildlife Warden, north Kashmir Mohammad Maqbool Baba told Kashmir Observer that brown bears venture into human habitations in search of food and their presence, at times, prove lethal.
Baba also said that growing urbanization and transformation of forest areas into tourist places besides using agricultural land for residential purposes are the primary causes of wild bears venturing into human habitations, resulting in encounters.
“Efforts to develop the valley into a tourist destination is a welcome step and deserves appreciation. However, intruding into forests and transforming them into tourist places poses a challenge to nature,” he added.
Last year, a study conducted by Wildlife SOS, an Indian wildlife conservation organization, revealed that a staggering 75 percent of the Himalayan brown bear’s diet in Kashmir consisted of scavenged garbage, including harmful items such as plastic carry bags, milk powder, chocolate wrappers, and biryani.
The study shed light on the significant challenges faced by the Himalayan brown bear population, primarily due to habitat destruction caused by human activities such as encroachment, tourism, and grazing pressure. With limited information available about this species, researchers estimate that only 500-750 bears remain in India, underscoring the urgent need for their conservation.
The survey conducted in critical bear habitats and prime tourist destinations, including Thajiwas Wildlife Sanctuary, Sonamarg, Laxpathri, and Sarbal villages, provided valuable insights into the decline of the bear population. Sonamarg, known for its role as a bear habitat, was particularly significant.
“The brown bear’s diet includes mammals, berries, fruits, insects, alpine bulbs, plant roots, grass shoots, domestic goats, sheep, and voles. However, at times they consume polythene, chocolate wrappers thrown by people, when they find nothing to eat. This mostly happens in winters,” Baba said.
In North Kashmir, he said, brown bears are found in Gulmarg, Rajwar forests and Delina hamlet of Baramulla district, while a good number of them are also found in some areas of Bandipora district.
“Their population is intact, yet the number fluctuates as per location, which happens as a result of deportation. We have captured many brown bears in the Handwara belt,” the wildlife department officer said.
These nocturnal creatures heavily rely on their acute sense of smell to find food. Weighing over 250 kilograms, the Himalayan brown bear is the largest animal found in the Kashmir region. They primarily inhabit altitudes ranging from 2,000 to 2,500 meters above the tree line.
While brown bears have established habitats in various parts of the subcontinent, including Pakistan, Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir, their presence has increasingly come into contact with humans as they venture into lower altitudes in search of food. The encroachment of human settlements into their habitats has played a significant role in the rising number of encounters.
Conservationists in Kashmir have observed a growing frequency of brown bear sightings in their natural habitats, including Sonamarg, Drass, Kupwara, Pahalgam, the Pir-Panjal range, and Gurez in the Bandipora district. This rise in sightings can be attributed to the encroachment of human activities into the bear’s habitat.
The incidents of human-animal conflicts, Baba said, take place due to human interference as humans at times intrude into their habitation, resulting in encounters between the two sides.
“Otherwise, brown bears don’t unnecessarily attack anyone,” he added.
Improper disposal of kitchen waste by both residents and nearby hoteliers has worsened the situation, as the bears easily find food and frequently come into contact with humans. The availability of easy food sources has altered the behavior of the brown bears, delaying their hibernation and reducing their inclination to hunt for food.
Given that the global population of Himalayan brown bears is estimated to be less than 1,000, with potentially only half that number in India, urgent conservation measures are essential. These bears are listed as “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List.
A study conducted in the western Himalayas predicts a significant decline of approximately 73 percent in the bear’s habitat by 2050, highlighting the urgent need for preemptive spatial planning and habitat protection to ensure the long-term survival of the species.
The increasing incidents of conflict between humans and Himalayan brown bears in Kashmir further emphasize the findings of this study. Immediate action is required to address the root causes of habitat destruction, promote responsible waste management practices, and raise awareness about the importance of coexistence with these magnificent creatures.
“There are many reasons for human-animal conflict. Landscape changes, population explosion, land use change and many other connected, inter-connected issues,” Regional Wildlife Warden Rashid Naqash told Kashmir Observer.
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