... and so they stayed
24 March 2014
Among other things, the first year’s survey assigned names to places (that already had Balti or Shina names) as well as the hitherto nameless bears. Deo nau Thuk where wolf scats were spotted became Wolf Peak; the amphitheatre south and east of it, Bowls. As for the bears, a female with young became Aunty; the biggest male was Big Boy of Kala Pani, so named for the area around the southwest corner of Deosai that it frequented. Yet another male exhibiting aggressive behaviour towards nursing mothers became Shaitan (Devil). All these names have stuck fast to this day.
The year 1994 was for consolidating the previous year’s research as well as collecting social and land usage data. The Deosai grassland was being exploited both by the communities on its periphery as well as the far-ranging Gujjars who had spread the name they gave to the plateau across the plains of northern India. Both groups entered the grassland at about the same time as the freeze ended around the middle of June and exited with the setting in of dawn frosts three months later. Local communities kept to those tracts of Deosai that were nearest to their base villages, living there during the brief summer in rude stone and canvas shelters. The nomadic Gujjars, on the other hand, being self-contained with tents went into the heart of the plateau and, depending on the availability of grazing, frequently moved about. As time went by and human and livestock populations multiplied, pressure on Deosai increased in consonance. More and more areas that were unutilised in the past were being trampled by domestic livestock.
Two years of field research brought out interesting facts as well as fiction regarding the bears. Of the two species of bears to be found in Pakistan, the Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus), is the more widely spread. It is seen in pockets from Kashmir in the east to Waziristan in the west to the Toba Kakar Mountains of northwest Balochistan and the warmer and more arid hills of Makran in the deep south of Pakistan. Some have also been spotted in the Khirthar Mountains that separate Sindh and Balochistan as well as the Suleman Mountains in southwest Punjab. This bear is not the subject of this work, however. The second species, the Brown or Snow Bear (Ursus arctos) is the focus here. Of the ten sub-species of U. arctos that are distributed widely across the higher latitudes of the Old and New World, the sub-species U. a. isabellinus is the one to be found on Deosai Plateau. That is, this somewhat non-aggressive beast is first cousin to, among others, the dreaded grizzly of North America, the polar bear and the Siberian bear.
Compared to its darker relative, the Asiatic Black Bear, the isabellinus sub-species is restricted to alpine meadows and scrub above timber line ranging in height from 3900 to 5100 metres in Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan. Outside the country it is found in Nepal, Afghanistan and the Central Asiatic Republics. Nowhere is the extent of its population known; everywhere it is under so much threat as for this sub-species to be listed in the Red Data Book. In Pakistan U. a. isabellinus stands endangered. The nineteen animals of Deosai in 1993 comprised the single largest known concentration of brown bear in the country. In other words, both this population and the habitat were unique.
The brown bear of Deosai is exceptional among its ten cousin sub-species because of its unique habitat. Well above timber line and removed from human habitation, the plateau deprives the bear of a varied diet. Here there are no berries and nuts to feed on nor human detritus to scavenge. Here the bear relies mostly on a vegetarian diet of sedge and rhizomes abundantly found on the plateau. Data collected in 1994 by HWF also showed rodent bones in one sample of bear scats while it was learnt from local and Gujjar shepherds that bears routinely scavenged outside their camps where their favourite food was lactic matter discarded after butter extraction. They are also known to dredge the shallow streams for fish.
The naturalist T. J. Roberts* was told by Gujjar shepherds that though it was rare, bears sometimes attacked and took domestic goats and sheep. After taking three goats in a period of two months, one such bear, he says, was eventually shot by the shepherds. Marmots, plentiful on Deosai and ever watchful against eagle and bear attacks, make up a rare treat for the bear that is smart enough to place itself between the marmot and its burrow.
Roberts records that adult male bears vary from 1.5 metre to 2.2 metres in body length while females of corresponding age are about 15 percent smaller. This is significantly smaller than the European and North American cousins of isabellinus and could be in consequence of its largely vegetarian diet. Subsequent to a 2004 survey in the region south of Deosai, HWF communicated that scats of the same species showed a rich diet of nuts and berries in the heavily wooded regions of Kashmir. That population was seen to be somewhat heftier than Deosai residents, presumably because of the richer and more varied diet.
Adult bears go into hibernation about the end of November either in natural caves or excavate their own dens with front claws designed especially for digging. They emerge in late April. Mating takes place in early summer and the young, normally two in number, weighing less than a kilogram each, are born blind and covered with dark brown silky fur while the mother is still in hibernation. The gestation period as observed in captive specimens of this sub-species is about two hundred and forty days. When the female emerges from hibernation towards the end of April, the cubs are active and stay with the mother over the summer. Females are known to first breed at the age of five years. Though a captive specimen (of another sub-species of this bear) lived for over thirty years as recorded by Roberts, isabellinus age in the wild is unknown.
The bear has a highly developed sense of smell, being the primary means of locating food and danger from intruding humans. Observations on Deosai show that though it has excellent near vision, the bear suffers from inability to judge shapes at distance. U. a. isabellinus is not seen to be aggressive towards humans, preferring instead to run away when confronted. There is of course some threatening posturing before the animal departs. A nursing mother, on the other hand, can be outright dangerous.
Deosai bears are diurnal, becoming active about half an hour before sunrise. They spend the rest of the day feeding, travelling and resting. Feeding takes up on the average nearly 67 percent of their time while travelling consumes on average about 26 percent time. Adult males spend as much as 80 percent time feeding. It is of interest that sub-adult bears spend less time feeding (53.6 percent) and more walking from place to place (40.7 percent) – perhaps with a view to imprinting their locale.
The threat to the bear in Deosai and surrounding areas was from hunters who preyed upon the unsuspecting, lumbering beast for the unlikeliest of reasons. Bear body parts were in great demand in folk medicine. Bear fat was considered a miraculous unguent for aging and rheumatic joints. The gall bladder and os-penis (with its bony inside) made for marvellous aphrodisiacs. A minced bear penis, mixed with chicken feed and fed to a rooster generated unprecedented sex drive and staying power in the bird, so went the lore. Keeping it away from the hens overnight thus permeated this enviable energy into its meat. And so, by extension, eating that roasted cockerel transferred the energy to the eater.
Innumerable bears were slaughtered and their penises fed to roosters at the altar of man’s insane desire to keep the weakening flesh in consonance with dreams that refused to flag with advancing age. And many a man, feasted on an appropriately fed and roasted rooster, failing to perform beyond his capacity went looking for the next os-penis in the belief that this one time something went amiss with the formula and needed to be rectified. The recipe of course was never in doubt for its power came from the bone in the bear’s penis.
Back in 1993 when HWF first began work on Deosai, it was learned that bear fat marketed in fifteen-gram vials was freely available at Gilgit, Astore and Skardu at sixty rupees a piece. In 2010, the price had gone up to about three hundred rupees. The os-penis commanded several thousand rupees per piece – the price being entirely dependent on the purse, age and desperation of the buyer. Most gall bladders went to the folk medicine market in Kashgar and beyond in the Chinese province of Xinjiang for about three or four thousand rupees in 2004. The fur, contrary to what most would believe, was the least expensive item. Consequently, a single bear sold off in parts could fetch about Rs 75,000. By the end of 2010, the price was nearly Rs 300,000 – thanks largely to the better controls.
Ursus arctos isabellinus is primarily a non-aggressive animal. When accidentally confronted it tends to give way to humans. That having been said, it is essential to understand that it does possess natural instincts that make it dangerous and certain things must be kept in mind in DNP.
- Contact with a mother with young must be avoided at all costs.
- Never whistle, shout or gesture wildly in the presence of a bear. Bears are seen to be annoyed by such activity and can attack.
- A charging bear is merely threatening. Never turn and run in such a situation but remain perfectly still. The bear will eventually retreat.
* Roberts has authored two authoritative titles, The Mammals of Pakistan and The Birds of Pakistan.
Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore
Related: Some came looking
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
- At March 24, 2014 at 11:50 AM, Muhammad Athar said...
Its enjoyable & informative artecale. Thanks for shearing
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