Why Asiatic Black Bear is Losing Sleep

Athar Parvaiz

Wildlife researchers in the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir in north India say that climatic variations and extreme weather events in the region during the past several years have led to disturbance in the lifestyle of Asiatic Black Bear and some migratory birds.

While the virtual transformation in black bear’s way of life is now causing more incidents of man-animal conflict, the welcome extended by the changing climate to some birds like water fowls for overstaying in Dal Lake has been proving a great boon as prolonged stay of the winged visitors in Dal lake lends beauty to the lake which fascinates the tourists especially the ardent bird-lovers.

“We have been constantly witnessing a considerable decrease in the hibernation period of Asiatic Black Bear over the past several years,” said Regional Wildlife Warden for Kashmir, Shuja Hyderi.

This, he said, is happening because of the erratic climatic events like no snow or the unexpected rise in temperatures way early during winters — either in late January or early February — for the past several years now.

“The direct fallout of this reduction in hibernation of the Asiatic black bear is a sharp increase in the incidents of man-animal conflicts compared to the past as the animal now remains active for almost throughout the year,” Hyderi said.

Prior to 1990s, the top wildlife official said, the animal used to go to hibernation from November to March, “but now its biological setup has got completely disturbed with the animal hardly going for hibernation.”

Reasons for Skipping Seasonal Sleep  

Senior Wildlife scientist at the Centre for Mountain Wildlife Sciences in Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST), Khursheed Ahmad said that the change in hibernation period of the black bear is attributable to another important reason as well though the erratic climatic conditions seem to play a significant role for this shift in lifestyle of the black bear.

“The erratic climate certainly plays an important role. If there is a severe winter with heavy snowfall, the animal goes for hibernation as it finds it hard to move around and find food. But if there is less snowfall or less harsh winter, it prefers to roam around in the woods and nearby habitations in search of food which remains available to him,” Ahmad said.

“Another reason for his limited [or no] hibernation is the presence of   more orchards now as compared to the past. This animal thrives on the orchard products which remain available for him till late autumn,” the scientist said adding the horticultural area has increased from 70,364 hectares in 1990s to 1, 27,759 hectares in recent times in Kashmir as the farmers are rapidly shifting from paddy cultivation to apple cultivation.

The scientist said that the orchard products like apples provide the black bear fair amount of food and energy which keeps him active even during the winter.

“The black bear also gets maize and stored apples to eat. And, during the grading of apples while packaging, the apple growers throw away a lot of unwanted apples which also serve as food for the bear since, being a voracious carnivore, he has discretion for food,”  said Abdul Rouf Zargar, the Wildlife Warden for Dachigam National Park.

Mounting Man-animal Conflicts

According to the Wildlife officials, the Himalayan black bear’s lack of hibernation has increased the man-animal conflicts in Kashmir during winters in the recent years. As per the figures available with the wildlife department, 25 people were killed and 342 were injured in 2008-09 by the wild animal and this number reached to 40 and 562 respectively in year 2011-12 and has stayed around these figures for the last two years as well.

Himalayan black bear is found in good numbers in Kashmir. “It has been estimated that Kashmir has the highest density of black bears especially in and around the Dachigam National Park,” Ahmad said.  Despite the ban on killing of wild animals, unofficial reports suggest that at least 10 black bears get killed at an average every year as the wild animals descend down in human habitations. Yet they manage to kill and injure people.

The growing incidents have led the state government to increase the amount of compensation for those getting killed and completely maimed by the wild animals. The compensation has now been increased from INR 100,000 (USD 1700) to INR 300,000 (USD 5100).

Climate Variation: A Boon for Dal Lake!  

According to the regional wildlife warden, the erratic weather sometimes proves a boon as well, like it happened this year and some past winters since 1990s. “For example we have noticed that mild freezing or absolutely no freezing in the Dal Lake and other lakes has been encouraging the water-fowls to stay back in the lakes right through the winter. And this has been happening more frequently now,” Hyderi said.

Birds enjoy their welcome in Dal Lake!
Birds enjoy their welcome in Dal Lake!

“From the tourism point of view, this is quite a boon as the birds add to the beauty of the lake which fascinates the tourists especially bird-watchers.”

But, Hokarsar wetland —  which is called the queen of wetlands given the variety of feed it has for birds and because of the sheer number of winged visitors it receives — has retained less birds this year because of the damage caused to the wetland by the 2014 devastating floods.

“Hokarsar used to get around 800,000 birds as per rough estimates, but this number has considerably come down this year, given the damage caused to the wetland by the 2014 flood,” said Ahmad.

Hokarsar receives 80 percent of the birds in Kashmir as per the first ever survey of 13 wetlands across Kashmir by the wildlife department in early February this year. According to this survey, the Hokarsar wetland received only 4, 60,000 birds this year while all the 13 surveyed wetlands received 5, 76,000 birds. “From now on, we will repeat this survey every year,” said the regional wildlife warden.

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