A brown bear roams the Deosai National Park after a GPS collar was fixed to it. — Dawn
A brown bear roams the Deosai National Park after a GPS collar was fixed to it. — Dawn

ISLAMABAD: Amid no increase in the number of brown bears at Deosai National Park over the past three to four years, the conservations have put GPS collars on one female and two male bears to study their behaviour and possible reasons which have led to a halt in their population growth.

The conservationists are concerned as to why the number of brown bears in Deosai has remained stagnant at roughly 75. Anecdotal accounts suggest that “severely disturbed and shrinking habitat” due to increasing human activities and possible in-breeding may be the reason behind this phenomenon.

However, with the help of GPS collars, the experts intend to find the actual reasons as well as their diet, hibernation and territory of these bears.

“It is unprecedented that this level of science is being utilised to study bears’ behaviour. The collars cost around $2,000 and $500 is service fees,” said Vaqar Zakaria, who is assisting Deosai National Park with its management. He is also a former member of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB).

Experts have put GPS collars on three bears to study behaviour; blame increased human activity for disruption in habitat

Before 1993, brown bears were hunted extensively. Its blubber used to be easily available in the markets of Gilgit and Skardu. Its gall bladder was in demand in China and its gentiles were also being sold. They were also captured for the inhumane practice of bear-baiting.

In comparison with its cousin, the American grizzly bear, a Deosai brown bear gives birth to one cub only.

“The American grizzly is also bigger weighing 600kg to 700kg. It can consume up to 25kg to 30kg of rich diet and litter size is three to four cubs every three years,” Mr Zakaria added.

The last survey conducted in 2005, put the brown bear population at 40-45 in the Deosai plains. Some 15 years on, following conservation efforts, the numbers grew to roughly 70. In the last three to four years, their population has reportedly become stagnant.

Conservationists attribute this to an increased human activity. After the park was established in 1993, a policy was drafted to restrict domestic grazing animals to 2,000 to 2,500 sheep in the protected area. Nonetheless, by 2012-13, grazing animals increased to 19,000.

Himalayan Wildlife Foundation, an organisation working for the preservation of wildlife, proposed a plan to restrict shepherds. Despite some progress, by 2020, the population of grazing animals increased again, to roughly 5,000, including horses.

When the park was established 30 years ago, tourist traffic used to be as less as 25 to 40 cars. Today, over 500 vehicles disrupt the quiet in the protected area.

“The disturbance level is extremely high… having an impact on bear population. This is an anecdotal explanation and not based on scientific study. But these are indications why population might be static,” Vaqar Zakria told Dawn.

The big question conservationists are asking again is how best to manage the park, starting with controlling the number of grazing animals and containing tourists in specific areas.

According to conservationists, mother bears need secure areas to stay away from males, who could kill cubs. “A male needs large pockets, at least 5 to 6km territory where it could roam like a king and repel intruders.”

“When humans start claiming territories, they push wildlife to the edges, which then wander into settlements/villages to forage. The core zones where bear population remained undisturbed have also been intruded by shepherds,” he said, adding that there had been incidents when bears had intruded camping sites.

In order to find out the causes behind the stagnant population growth, blood and hair samples taken from the three bears have been sent to international labs to study DNA, ascertain diversity in the gene pool and confirm if in-breeding has caused the stagnancy in their population.

“We are setting a target to increase bear population to 150 plus, in the next 10 to 15 years. It’s an arduous task. The wider gene pool mixing from Deosai all the way to Khunjerab has been disrupted by settlements, causing a disconnect. There are bears on both sides of the Line of Control but they cannot get across. The land is littered with mines and fences. Nonetheless, the GPS collars will help understand bear movement and help identify and set aside conservation areas again and improve management practices,” Mr Zakaria said in an optimistic tone.

Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2023

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