The month of November has been a particularly bloody one for the under-threat Asiatic black bears of Mansehra district. While the picturesque green hills and forests of the region are a natural habitat for the species, co-existence for man and wildlife has been anything but peaceful here.
On Nov 12, a female bear and her cub wandered into Jabori village in Siran Valley, resulting in a chase that ended with the mother being shot in a house. Her cub was later killed in the field.
Separately, another female bear in Hungrai village was killed by locals on Nov 9 when it entered a pen and injured a sheep. In a fit of rage, villagers chased the bear and pounded her with gunfire and sticks.
Just last week, charged villagers put down two black bears and two cubs to avenge the brutal mauling of a village boy Sajid and his mother in Mansehra's Kaghan Valley.
According to the Mansehra Wildlife Division, six bear-related deaths and 15 grievous injuries have been recorded from 2000 to 2015. With six humans and 13 bears killed in the last fifteen years, there appears to be no end to the human-bear conflict unless authorities act fast.
But experts feel that with the right awareness campaigns and environmental preservation, the creature can be saved from becoming extinct.
Who is this animal?
An opportunistic and fierce predator, the Asiatic black bear is to Mansehra what the common leopard is to Abbottabad.
Also known as white-chested bears, these creatures are usually diurnal (active during the day), though they become nocturnal (active during the night) near human settlements. These medium-sized bears have a lightish muzzle and ears which appear large in proportion to the rest of its head. A brown phase may also occur. They live in family groups, comprising two adults and two successive litters of young. They are adept tree climbers and will often do it to elude their enemies.
The conflict begins
Each year from September to November, Asiatic black bears proceed to adjacent villages to search for fruit plants and maize crops when food in their natural habitat is scarce. They often chance upon human food along the way, and this is when the potential for conflict increase.
As their habitats shrink, bears frequently encroach on human settlements, attacking people and damaging their crops. In turn, locals respond with retaliatory killings as a result of which human-bear conflicts in Mansehra have become commonplace. This is threatening the long-term conservation of bear species.
Ibrahim Khan, Senior Manager Conservation and Head KP Region WWF-Pakistan, says the human-bear conflict is the single biggest threat to black bears in Pakistan.
"Bears are killed in retaliation when they attack people's fields and sometimes their livestock as well."
He says that because of deforestation and degradation, bear habitats have shrunk in Pakistan. Additionally, early snowfall in Mansehra has forced bears to come down to villages in search of food, making them attack maize and potato fields.
"Deforestation is bringing bears close to humans. Their migration corridors are shrinking due to increasing human settlements which means that their habitat is now fragmented. At times, bears have to pass through human settlements in order to reach their habitat but people kill them due to a lack of awareness."
No scientific study has been conducted in the area to determine the existing number of bears but wildlife watchers estimate that there are 150-200 bears at present.
A villager's death and some narrow escapes
When 71-year-old Shah Wali's cattle returned home on Oct 3 after grazing without their master in Mansehra's Paras village, his sons immediately sounded the alarm. Gathering other villagers, they traced the route their father took. Halfway through, they witnessed a horrific sight: a female bear and her cubs were gnawing on the flesh of their defenceless father.
Upon shouting, the offenders fled but it was too late. Shah Wali had died an unthinkably bloody death, with his head severely damaged and one part of his body completely eaten away.
On Oct 14, Nadia Bibi, aged 6, was playing in her backyard in the evening when she was attacked by a bear which entered through the maize fields. Dragging the child from her head, the bear led her to the fields. Her mother, who was baking flatbread at that time, was alerted by her daughter's cries. She shouted and roused other villagers who gathered in the field around the bear and the victim. The animal eventually fled. Nadia, who suffered injuries, was admitted in the hospital. She has since then recovered.
Tajunissa, 30, was digging clay to renovate her house on September 20 in Mansehra's Kund Sarbori village when she suffered a vicious bear attack, which left her with a permanent injury to the left eye, and an inability to open her mouth properly.
While the villagers are understandably concerned about safety, resorting to the indiscriminate killing of bears is a knee-jerk reaction to the conflict which will likely result in the extinction of this vulnerable mammal.
Saving the black bear
According to the Mansehra Wildlife Division, rural inhabitants deliberately create unfavourable conditions for black bears, such as cutting shrubs from reserve forests where they reside. They also collect non-timber forest products (NTFPs) — like mushrooms and other herbs — which are consumed by the bears in abundance.
When bears don't find food in their natural habitat, they seek out human food sources. Hence, it is crucial that activities in reserve forests be banned. To ensure this, the government should increase the number of wildlife watchers.
Immediate action is needed to highlight the importance of the species for the ecosystem which can help to restore their population, Khan says, adding that WWF-Pakistan is working on a proposal to secure funding to protect Asiatic black bear by sensitising communities and preparing community activists so that they can help to reduce human-bear conflicts.
He also stresses that the wildlife department needs to be empowered because at the moment they have limited staff.
The author is a M. Phil Researcher studying Human-Wildlife Conflict Management at Department of Wildlife Management, PMAS-Arid Agriculture University in Rawalpindi.