Missing Snowman: My Column in The Hindu

Missing snowman

AREFA TEHSIN

  • Fluffy teddy bear?:They roam the Himalayas.Photo: Wikimedia Commons
    Fluffy teddy bear?:They roam the Himalayas.

Poached, hunted, killed and their homes encroached upon… Will the Himalayan Brown Bear disappear for ever?

A seven–footed, sandy–coloured hairy beast, lumbering in the snow, as rare as the grey ghost (snow leopard) to spot on the slopes and peaks of the Himalayas. And when it towers over you, with his big head and tiny eyes, you, a trembling human might stutter “abominable…” before you pass out. The Abominable Snowman. No wonder the Himalayan Brown Bear is considered the reason behind the legend of Yeti!

Rare spotting

Sorry for the spoiler, Yeti or not, the Himalayan Brown Bear is far from abominable, and closer to a fluffy teddy bear. The Nepalese call it Dsu-teh, which is also associated with Yeti. Found between 9,800 to 18,000 feet above sea level, these brown bears are on the verge of extinction and not much is known about them in India; though we abound in their stuffed replicas — the teddies. These roly-poly bears roam and live in the Himalayas spreading over India, Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet. They are considered extinct in Bhutan. There are a measly 150-200 numbers remaining in Pakistan. In India they are found in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The best place to spot them is the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal.

Although the brown bear chomps on an occasional marmot or pika, the locals call it spang drenmo , meaning ‘vegetarian bear’. It is actually an omnivore and goes into a long, lazy hibernation from October to May. You might think how lucky the bear is to have such a long snooze, travelling between countries without visas and passports and looking huge and scary enough for people to draw imaginary sketches and spin yarns around it. Think again.

Unlike its American cousin, which is found in good numbers, the Himalayan Brown Bear is critically endangered. They are poached for their fur and claws for ornamental purposes and internal organs for use in medicines. They are killed by shepherds to protect their livestock and their home is destroyed by human encroachment. In Himachal, their home is the Kugti and Tundah wildlife sanctuaries and the tribal Chamba region. Their estimated population is just 20 in Kugti and 15 in Tundah. The tree bearing the state flower of Himachal — buransh — is the favourite hangout of this bear. Due to the high value of the buransh tree, it is being commercially cut causing further destruction to the brown bear’s home.

The Himachal Pradesh government has now taken notice of the plight of the brown bear. It plans to launch a conservation programme, with the help of the Union Government. A brown bear conservation and breeding centre in Chamba is to be set up. This is the first of its kind in the country. Let us hope that it starts in the next three or four months as promised.

After all, we wouldn’t want the Himalayan Brown Bear to become a legend like Yeti. Would we?

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