BEYOND THE PRETTY PICTURES...
Advocacy for Himalayan Brown Bears
Ok, so I have confession to make right at the outset. Of late, I seem to have developed a bit of inertia when it comes to posting. Even this post wouldn't be happening without some persistent prodding and berating by one of my well meaning friends; Who lamented the fact that inspite of having so much content lying around on my hard drive, I just don't post regularly. About how I am losing out on promotional opportunities and how...in this day and age, you've got to maintain a bit of social media visibility. Especially if your work is all about Experiential Mountain Travel and Conservation, and has an unmistakable visual impact. See the fact is, in spite of my best efforts, I suck at this whole 'Social media presence' thing. I am just not savvy enough and still haven't figured out how to make my posts engaging. Or even when and how frequently to post.
Plus, if I am entirely truthful, there's also a bit of inhibition that comes from seeing quite a bit of overkill on these platforms. Which brings me to one of my pet peeves: You don't ipso facto become a Conservationist, just by clicking good pictures of endangered wildlife. You've got to have mud on your boots. Engage with the issues, beyond the pretty pics...on a sustained basis. The fact is every third or fourth person now is the owner of a DSLR, or a really good GoPro or camera phone. A lot of the so called 'Wildlifers' I see these days, take great pride in being called 'The Snow leopard Man' or 'Brown Bear Man' and posit themselves as champions of endangered wildlife. But they just don't have any sincere engagement beyond getting pretty pictures of endangered species like Snow Leopards. Agreed, the pictures undoubtedly spark interest (which, unfortunately, sometimes even turns out to be detrimental to the species and its habitat, in the long term); But pictures at any cost, seems to be the new dictum. Been there...done that. Another lifer in the bucket list ticked off. They really aren't concerned about the long term wellbeing of either the species, or its habitat, or the nuanced conservation issues that may be hiding behind the pretty pictures.
Therefore, it is really gratifying when you meet another genuine Naturalist or outfit that shares your philosophy of engagement beyond the 'Photo ops'... Here's a big shout out to Roots Ladakh - Muzammil Hussain & Karamjit Singh, who are kindred spirits and people after my own heart. Most of us have seen attractive Himalayan Brown Bear pictures emerge out of Dras and Kargil recently. But how many of us are conversant with the fact that behind the pictures, there's an ugly chapter of man - animal conflict unfolding. An increase in the population of the Himalayan Brown Bears (Ursus arctos isabellinus) and a disruption of their seasonal patterns (caused mainly by humans), have lead to a significant increase in conflict between the Brown Bears and Pastoralists; Particularly in the Drass - Mushkow Valley sector in Kargil. Incidents of predation on domestic livestock have increased manifold and even a few cases of attacks on locals have been reported. This is a very delicate issue, where a fine balance has to be achieved between ensuring the wellbeing of these majestic animals and their unique habitat and safeguarding the interests of the local community. Roots Ladakh, under a WTI grant, have been trying to create awareness about this nuanced situation and also making productive interventions with the affected communities.
I had the good fortune recently (in April 2022), to go with Roots founder Muzammil Hussain and engage with community members of Pandras, a medium sized village, located about 13 km from Dras and 60 Km from Kargil. This village is right in the middle of thriving Brown Bear habitat and incidents of conflict with Brown Bears are increasing day by day. I do hope that the three video clips below, at the end of this writeup, will give you an understanding of the overall picture. In the first clip, we are trying to make a pitch with the panchayat members of Pandras, about installing night-time predator deterrent lights (Fox Lights) and remotely triggered sirens. These are proven to deter the Brown Bears from approaching the village, raiding holding pens and predating on domestic livestock. Hopefully, measures like these (along with other factors), will help in mitigating this situation of conflict with the Bears.
The second clip is to show you how these brown bears live cheek by jowl with people. This is a big Mother Bear with two cubs, very close to the Pandras Village. The same bears often stray into the villages especially at night, to predate on livestock (which is an easy food source for them), engendering this unfortunate conflict. The third clip is of a Mother Bear with two suckling cubs. Mama Bears with cubs are especially vulnerable, as the cubs at this stage are totally dependent on their mothers, when it comes to negotiating their tricky terrain and acquiring landscape learning. Not only that, this is also the time when they will learn to identify potential food sources. Therefore, if the mother regularly visits human garbage dumps to scavenge: or raids local cattle holding pens to predate on domestic livestock, the cubs will learn the same behavior, which then becomes generationally entrenched... Leading to exponentially growing conflict between the bears and humans sharing this remarkable Himalayan landscape. We are, however, sanguine that with proper advocacy and proactive (innovative) conservation interventions this conflict can be prevented from reaching a point of no return.
As conscientious and Responsible organizers of Himalayan Natural History Exploration trips in this area, And being hard core Conservationists ourselves, we will play our part in this. This is a project very close to our hearts and we intend to keep engaged with it long term: At the very least, for the sake of ensuring a sustainable future for these majestic denizens of our beloved mountains.
-- Rahul Ogra
Post Script: We've deliberately clicked the third video clip from a clients DSLR LCD display. This to give you a 'point of view' of the kind of bear sightings that happen on our trips. This is exactly how our clients get to see the Bears