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Species in Focus | The Himalayan brown bear faces the brunt of man-animal conflict

Little data is available on the population of Himalayan brown bears in India but their numbers in the wild are on the decline

Himalayan brown bears can grow up to 7 feet long, especially the males, and are usually reddish-brown in colour. (Photo credit: iStock)

Species in focus: Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus)

Population: Approximately 500-700 individuals

Current status, according to the IUCN Red List: Critically endangered

Population trend: Decreasing

Unlike its main species—the brown bear—the Himalayan brown bear is an endangered animal that can be found in some of the most remote mountain regions of Nepal, India, Pakistan and Tibet. This omnivorous species is also present in parts of south and western Ladakh, and prefers high-altitude, open valleys. Worryingly though, its population is dwindling.

“Brown bears are plagued by man-bear conflict, rapid habitat loss, poaching for fur, claws and organs and, in some rare cases, bear baiting,” says Wildlife SOS co-founder and CEO, Kartick Satyanarayan. “Little data is available on the population and distribution of brown bears in India but their numbers in the wild are widely on the decline. Recent reports state that there are 500-700 individuals in the wild,” he explains in an e-mailed response.

According to an article on the Wildlife Trust of India’s website that looks at the role communities are playing in mitigating human-Himalayan brown bear conflict, the species is confined to three major mountain ranges—the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Western Himalayas. The article explains how the shrinking of breeding ground has forced the bears to reach lower areas and human settlements in search of food. Another possible reason behind the rise of such conflicts is believed to be climate change. Shorter winters and long summers could have had a disturbing effect on their hibernation cycles.

Writing in May 2019 for Bear Conservation, a UK-based non-profit, Kirti Chavan, a researcher at The Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust, says human-brown bear interactions have only been observed in high pasture land. “The incidents of the brown bears coming into the villages and raiding homes of people in search of food is a fairly new phenomenon,” he explains. Chavan is also part of the Himalayan Brown Bear project, which aims to study and mitigate the rise in human-brown bear interactions in Zanskar.

Despite being listed under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, the Himalayan brown bear faces what seems an uphill task to survive. As Satyanarayan explains, the fact that so little of the species is now left in the wild makes it all the more important to protect its population in India.

According to a 2019 United Nations report, one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction within decades. The Species in Focus series looks at one endangered species in every instalment.

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