The first time I saw a big Brown Bear was on a street in Hyderabad almost 35 years back. The Bear held the neck of a young boy in its jaw as a performative act. Little did I know that this animal belongs to the Deosai plains of Skardu-Baltistan region in Northern Pakistan and will soon join the list of endangered species in Deosai. Located on the Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau alpine steppe, almost 35 km south of Skardu, Deosai is amongst the highest plateaus in the world with an average height of 4,114 metres above the sea level and covering an area of 3,000 square kilometres. It remains covered in snow for almost seven months in a year from November to May. As the snow melts flowers start blooming wildly attracting a wide variety of butterflies.
Deosai plains are considered one of the last frontiers of natural habitat for the Himalayan Brown Bear that once roamed freely in the mountains. In 1993, the total number of Brown Bear population in the plains had reduced to 19. In the same year Deosai was designated the status of National Park primarily to protect the specie and its habitat. With protective measures and monitoring, the number of Bears has steadily increased over the years, though hunting and poaching of cubs continues to a certain extent. The park is also home to a number of animal and bird species including Himalayan Ibex (Markhor), Golden Eagle, Lammergeier, Laggar Falcon and Snow Leopard.
During the spring and summer season the male Bear can be spotted roaming and grazing alone in the plains whereas the female moves with the cubs for their protection. The animal puts on considerable weight during summers and mostly survives on vegetation and sometimes preys on rats, mice, squirrels and fish. Some are also capable of killing goat and sheep and attacking humans especially when former interferes between female and her cubs. Mating also takes place during the summer season mostly during May and July. During the winter season the Bear retreats to a cave where it hibernates for several months. Experts say that it is not a complete hibernation but a dormant period in which the body temperature, heartbeat and other metabolic rates are reduced, thus decreasing the animal’s requirement for food and water. The female gives birth to the babies during the winter season inside the cave between January to March. The cubs are blind and without fur when born. They nurse on mother’s milk till spring and move outside the cave with the mother and stay with her for about two years learning survival skills.
Brown Bears in other parts of the world can weigh 300 to 400 kg, have an average life span of 30 years and produce 1-3 babies every three years. On the other hand the Bears from Deosai are smaller with the recorded heaviest being 160 kg, maximum life span of about 20 years and produce 1-2 cubs in four years. A number of factors contribute to these statistics, among others the climatic conditions, paucity of oxygen, food and water and winter dormancy. Other natural disadvantages could also be a contributor, however, the main dangers to the population come from the human beings, for example, grazing of domestic animals on the plains, hunting the Bear for skin and other animal parts and killing of the female Bear to capture the cubs. There is a need for constant monitoring of the park and the Bear population for its survival on these plains.