Himalayan littering leads to brown-bear habit changes

Kushagra Dixit –
Large-scale littering in the Himalayas by trekkers and campers have led to Himalayan brown bears — a critically endangered species close to extinction — being drawn to human detritus and losing their natural abilities to hunt.
Conservationists say such bears rescued recently from different regions of Jammu and Kashmir will never return to the wild.
One such “conditioned-animal”, a nine-month-old brown bear, was found running haywire with its head stuck in a food-can at a campsite for pilgrims and hikers in September. The cub was rescued by the state wildlife protection department, airlifted to Pahalgam and kept under observation for almost two months.
Last week, officials finally sent it to the permanent care of a bear rescue centre run, Wildlife SOS, where it will spend the rest of its life.
“The bear seemed to be an orphan and was living off kitchen waste and garbage. They are opportunist feeders and since there is no proper disposal of kitchen waste, especially at the campsites, they become habituated to this, ultimately losing their natural instinct to hunt,” Wildlife Warden (Sourth Division) Intesar Suhail said.
Besides, due to its dependency on the garbage, experts also fear the hostility of people as another threat the bears face.
According to Suhail, this is not the first such instance and he had witnessed several bears living off and wandering around garbage in Dras, the Himalayan gateway to Ladakh, most of which were dumped around army camps.
As in the rest of India, solid-waste management is also an issue in the Himalayan state with summer capital Srinagar alone generating about 450 tonnes of municipal waste every day. This is also affecting the wildlife.
Good hunters and heavy eaters, brown bears stay with their mothers for the first two-three years and, before going into hibernation in winter, eat to their full potential. However, once they begin losing their natural instincts due to alternative and easily-available food sources, they stop hibernating. “Only wild bears hibernate for about four months as food is limited in winter. However, those under care or those who have become highly dependent on human food waste or crops do not generally hibernate because they are getting their full quota of food,” Pankaj Chandan, head, Western Himalayan Landscape at WWF, said.
Speaking of the shift to alternative food, he said there’s no scarcity of the brown bear’s prey-base, which includes blue sheep and even ants.