As the brown bear thrives in Deosai, villagers feel threatened

Pakistan has managed to push through a revival of the brown bear population in the stunning landscape of the Deosai National Park, but the revival has led to concerns and conflicts among the locals
<p>The Himalayan brown bear</p>

The Himalayan brown bear

“We may be forced to kill the brown bear,” a young villager told us angrily during a visit to Sadpara village, situated 30 kilometres from Baltistan region’s capital city of Skardu. “It eats our cattle.”

The picturesque village lies between Sardu and Deosai, the world’s highest national park at 13,500 above sea level. Spread across 358,400 hectares, this beauty is also popularly known as ‘the roof of the world’ and ‘land of the giants’.

K2, the world's second highest mountain peak [image by: Kamran Saleem]
The majestic K2, the world’s second highest mountain peak [image by: Kamran Saleem]
Against the backdrop of the Nanga Parbat mountain, the crystal streams, flora, fauna (including 150 species of medicinal plants) and wildlife make Deosai a living heaven on earth. Snow keeps the plateau covered almost eight months in a year, until spring showers its magic and the spot attracts tourists from across the world. Deosai was declared a protected wildlife territory in 1993, and with it, the flagship Himalayan brown bear, too was protected.

Threatened by the bear

The indigenous community of Deosai harbours misconceptions about the ursus arctos, commonly known as the brown bear. The community views the bear as a threat and says it hunts their cattle. The park administration, however, rejects this idea as a myth.

brown bear in Deosai
The brown bear is an omnivore, but experts reject the idea of it hunting cattle [image by: Kamran Saleem]
mother brown bear and her two cubs in Deosair
A bear with her cubs in Deosai [image by: Kamran Saleem]
Even though it has been 26 years since Deosai was declared a national park, the dispute between the park administration and villagers about the threat of the brown bear has not been settled.

The brown bear is an omnivore and its main habitat in Pakistan is the Deosai National Park. It can also be found in North America in alpine meadows, as sub-alpine scrub is its natural habitat. Some of them have been spotted in Gilgit-Baltistan’s Rama Valley and Biafo Glacier. They are rarely ever spotted in Chitral or the Khunjrab National Park in Pakistan.

Waqar Zakaria, an official on the wildlife management board in Islamabad who has spent 38 years of his life working for the conservation of wildlife and played an important role in the establishment of Deosai as a national park, said that a tremendous effort was made to protect the brown bear. .

He said, “Almost 30 years ago, we only found 17 bears during a survey. We put all out efforts to convert Deosai into a protected territory and in a recent survey we saw that the number has reached 76. It’s a huge success, but villagers are not comfortable with this growth.”

Local veterinarian Ghulam Rasool said, “The population of the bear has increased but there is not enough food for them. For this reason, they enter into the village areas for their prey.”

Abbas Jan, the owner of a Deosai travel company in Sadpara village, agreed,  saying the area specified for the national park is no longer enough for the Himalayan bear. For this reason, he said the bears now hunt near nalas (streams) close to the village — an ideal spot for cattle grazing. Villagers said in the last year, eight goats were hunted by bears at Mapelin stream — a figure seen as a huge loss.

“We traced the footprints of the bear and found its scat at the scene of the incident last year. We provided all the evidence to the park administration, but instead of compensating us, they ignored it,” he said.

Bears enter the village area before the start of the hibernation period in the extreme winter. Last year, the villagers said they hunted dozens of cattle.

land of Deosai shown frozen
The land of the Deosai is covered by snow for 8 months of the year [image by: Kamran Saleem]
“We also witnessed its presence inside the village,” said Fida Ali Sultani, a hotel owner and resident of Chilam Astore village.

But while the villagers express frustration at the bears allegedly hunting their cattle, there is another side to the story.

Anees ur Rehman, the chairman of the wildlife management board, said he rejects all the evidence provided by the villagers.

“The brown bear is an omnivore, but it is extremely unlikely that it hunts cattle as prey. We have examined the bear’s faeces and it confirms that they only eat herbs and voles,” Rehman said. .

“There is no doubt that cattle are being hunted, but they must be targeted by different predators. This park is also the habitat of wolves and the snow leopard. The bear has gained importance since this became a national park, so [the other predators] are not being blamed,” he added.

two marmot peering through the grassland in Deosai
The Deosai is home to many animals, including the adorable marmot [image by: Kamran Saleem]
Zakaria, too, rejected the villager’s version of the story and said, “It is possible that the bear attacked some animal in an exceptional circumstance, but it is not a regular occurrence. Besides, the livestock is corralled for the safety of cattle in Sadpara village.”

Land lost, no revenue

Villagers around Deosai are further disgruntled for financial reasons, as they had to surrender their inherited lands voluntarily for the national park. Although they were promised jobs, education and health infrastructure and were told that revenue generated through tourism will be spent on the community, the promises were not fulfilled.

Muhammad Akram, a district officer in the forest and wildlife department of Gilgit Baltistan, endorsed the grievances of the locals and said; “The land dispute has been settled and soon the government will sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the villagers to give them their share from the park’s entry fee.

At present, entry passes for locals are set at PKR 40 (USD 0.26), PKR 200 (USD 1.29) for other Pakistani nationals and USD 8 for foreign tourists.

Waqar Zakariya said that the department should spend the income of the park for development of those villagers who are contributing towards conservation activities for the brown bear. He added that the park has hired 25 watch men from local community and the villagers are also running hotels and transportation business and these are also benefits of the park they are receiving.

Ashiq Ahmad Khan who is associated with Ev-K2-CNR as a scientific expert and is reviewing the Deosai National Park’s management plan said he is working on an operational plan for Deosai.

“I will push for cattle insurance so the dispute can be settled forever,” he said.

Threat of brown bear hunters

The endangered brown bear is also facing the danger of hunting.

Fakhar Abbas, who works as the director in federal wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation centre, said that the ursus arctos is not a serious topic of concern because of its global population, but is critically endangered in Pakistan where it faces the threat of extinction. It is also included in Appendix 11 of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

two brown bears in grassland in Deosai
Despite laws against it, the brown bear is hunted by poachers [image by: Kamran Saleem]
Abbas told that there is a ban on trading the bear in Pakistan but despite that, there is evidence that the Makri Market of Thana Gulbahar, Peshawar (the capital city of Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa province) is the largest trade market for the bear. They are also aware of a display centre in Gujranwala (a city in Punjab) where at least two dozen bears are sold per year, of which at least four are brown bear cubs. In Pakistan, they are used mostly for a street circus. Others are smuggled outside the country for their hide and use of their organs in the medicine market.

Kamran Saleem, a filmmaker who spent several months in Deosai shooting his documentary titled ‘DEOSAI – The Last Sanctuary’ said his experience showed him that the bear is still being hunted in the extreme winter season and there are some hakeem (traditional medicine practitioners) in Skardu, who sell medicine made from the organs of the bear. He said the sellers of such medicine make an effort to ensure the buyers are not linked to any government institution.

It has taken 26 years to impose a management plan after the establishment of the national park in Deosai, but tensions among villagers continue to simmer. Without a strategic plan that takes care of local realities and concerns, the success may not be long lived.

All photographs by Kamran Saleem, whose work can be found here.