Animal lovers in Kashmir are excited owing to an increasing number of sightings of critically endangered Himalayan brown bear.
The rare animal, which had become elusive after militancy in 1989, has been seen five times in the past 20 months, bringing hope to conservationists.
Wildlife experts say that its population had decreased due as widespread violence and increased militarisation destroyed its habitat during the peak of militancy in mid 90s.
The animal was also killed by nomads, who encroached its habitat with their livestock, after army closed some of the prime meadows in higher alpine areas to control militancy.
“People were presuming that there were no brown bears left in this part of the world. But, since April 2014, we had five sightings of the animal,” said Mohammad Maqbool Baba, wildlife warden of north Kashmir.
This year, three brown bears were found wandering around Handwara-Zachaldara belt of the Kupwara district, which is close to Line of Control (LoC).
Earlier, two bears were sighted in Farkangali and Kachhama areas of the district in 2014. One animal was tranquillised in 2012 by the wildlife experts in the Rajwara area of Kupwara.
The Himalayan brown bear is the smallest sub-species of the brown bear. While the population of main brown bear species remains widespread across the world, its Himalayan counterpart, spread around the northern mountainous areas of India and Pakistan, is critically endangered. They are already speculated to have become extinct in Bhutan while only 150-200 remain in Pakistan. There is no exact data available about the population of the animal in India.
Besides, north Kashmir, the animal also used to wander in Srinagar’s Dachigam National Park, which is also the abode of black bear and Kashmir stag, Hangul.
Wildlife warden of the park Imtiyaz Ahmad Lone said he has never seen the animal despite spending the past 25 years of his life in the field.
“The past two decades of disturbance destroyed the habitat of this animal. The animal loves upper alpine areas and we know how things turned out in Kashmir’s forests and mountains,” he said.
As there is less violence in the forests now, the conservationists think that the animal may have survived the onslaught.
“The new sightings have given us some hope. It is a good beginning. I think its population is increasing,” added Lone.
However, Ghulam Mohiuddin Mir, Block Officer Kupwara forests, said militancy played some positive role in preventing poaching of the brown bear.
“Before 1989, the animal was poached for its fur, claws and internal organs. But during militancy, the authorities banned possession of arms in Kashmir. People would not dare to venture out into forests. So, I think there was less poaching in these two decades,” Mir said.
He believed that the animal was now coming down into villages as its habitat was closed due to installation of fences on the LoC.
“The animals’ habitat lies across both sides of the LoC. When there is a fence in between to stop them from venturing into forests of the other side, the animals are moving into human settlements for food,” he said.