In the Indian Himalayas, threatened Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) are frequently drawn to energy-rich human food sources such as apple orchards and other crops.
This resource-driven movement frequently brings bears and humans into close contact, increasing potential risks for either side that can end in retaliatory killings of bears by local people.
Because of this, bears are often relocated to less-populated areas. But scientists working in India are saying this conventional technique may be doing more harm than good.
Asiatic black bears are found across a wide swath of Asia, from southeast Iran to northeast China, and fossils indicate they once ranged as far west as central Europe. However, despite their expansive distribution, the species is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN.
One of the bears’ biggest threats is habitat loss from the clearing of forests, making their current distribution very patchy. The bears must also contend with widespread illegal hunting, driven in part by the lucrative market of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
In China and Southeast Asia, these bears are often exploited for the bile in their gall bladders, which TCM purports – and scientific evidence refutes – have medicinal properties.
The mountainous Dachigam landscape in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is recognized as harboring one of the densest populations of Asiatic black bears in India. Confrontations with bears in this region appear to be on the rise, and local researchers say managing bear-human conflict has become challenging for the state’s wildlife protection department.
Dr. Lalit Sharma, a wildlife biologist and member of the IUCN-SSC Bear Specialist Group is currently working with data collected over four decades to map and classify land use/land cover change in an area covering about 550 square kilometers in the Greater Dachigam landscape. His analysis thus far shows that forest cover accounts for about 42 percent of the area, much of which is fragmented. Furthermore he highlights a major land-use change in the region, as local farmers switch from rice and other traditional crops to high-value crops.
The region’s human population is growing, resulting in conversion of more agricultural land for development and consequential encroachment on forests.
“It is also important to highlight that a boom in horticulture production in Kashmir is one of the major factors leading to increased bear-human conflicts in forest fringe areas” Sharma said. “The situation is becoming more dangerous when ripened fruits such as apples are left over in the open field.” Conflict incident reporting data indicate that the majority of bear attacks on humans are taking place in orchards and croplands.
Asiatic black bears forage on plant parts such as flowers, leaves and fruits, which show a marked seasonal pattern in availability in Dachigam National Park. Buds and flowers peak in spring and early summer, while fruits and berries follow in summer. Nuts and acorns dominate in autumn. During summer and autumn, bear food resources become very fragmented since the majority of fruit-bearing plants the bears like to eat are confined to small patches.
Climatic changes may also be leading to increased clashes between humans and bears. According to Sharma, Asiatic black bears in Dachigam historically have been reported to hibernate from November to March – a period of around 130 days. Reports from recent years, however, found their hibernation period to be considerably reduced to about 40 days. The researchers attribute this to reductions in snow intensity and cover in Kashmir Valley. The data show that bear conflicts peaked during spring and late autumn, which Sharma says suggests that the bears’ hibernation changes may be aggravating bear-human conflicts in the region.
To mitigate these conflicts, the provincial wildlife department prefers to move – or translocate – “nuisance bears” from different sites in the greater Dachigam landscape to Dachigam National Park. While this may sound like a good idea, research shows it’s not very effective since not all translocated bears settle in their release sites. In fact, experts say bears often return to their capture sites.
A team of scientists led by Dr. Mukesh Thakur of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) studied bear translocation in the Dachigam area. The researchers tracked the movement patterns of translocated bears through DNA analysis, or “fingerprinting.”
Dr. Mukesh, who goes by his first name and is currently Assistant Professor at Amity University in Noida, concluded that the timing of bear translocation was important since “food resource availability plays a significant role in retaining bears inside Dachigam National Park.” His findings suggest that bears translocated during summer when surplus food resources are available remained in Dachigam National Park while bears translocated during a food stress period (spring and late autumn) returned to their capture sites.
The scientists warn that translocations are a strain for the bears themselves. As they attempt to return to their original sites through territory unknown to them, bears may come into conflict with humans in different ways such as being killed by vehicles on roads. The researchers suggest that translocation of “nuisance bears” is, at best, a short-term solution to human-bear conflicts and not an effective technique from an animal welfare standpoint. However, translocation is often supported by local communities as it brings them immediate relief from bears.
In addition to being hard on individual bears that try to find their way back, translocations can result in overcrowding and harmful changes in demographics in and around Dachigam National Park, Mukeshsaid. He suggests that a greater diversity of release areas may help the situation. Mapping where bear food resources are in the Dachigam landscape at various times of the year could also help alleviate the problem, with experts saying it could aid in identifying potential sites suitable for translocation. They also recommend aversive conditioning before release to make the bears less likely to approach human communities.
Mukesh, Sharma LK, Charoo SA, Sathyakumar S (2015) Conflict Bear Translocation: Investigating Population Genetics and Fate of Bear Translocation in Dachigam National Park, Jammu and Kashmir, India. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0132005. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0132005.
Mukesh and Sathyakumar, S. (2015). Population genetics of Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) in Dachigam Landscape, Kashmir, India. Final Project Report. Submitted to International Bear Research & Management (IBA). 27Pp.
Sharma LK (2012). Ranging pattern of Asiatic black bear with reference to food availability in Dachigam National Park, Kashmir. PhD Thesis. University of Saurashtra, Gujarat, India.
This article was first published by Mongabay.com on 31 Dec 2015.
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