Why Does Protecting Bears Help Snow Leopards?

In the Himalayas and Central Asian Mountains, snow leopards share parts of their habitat with brown bears – and both carnivores are vital parts of this mountain ecosystem. They also both come into similar conflict situations with the people who live alongside them. Protecting the cats is our mission, but sometimes, this also means helping bears.

a brown bear caught by a research camera in Broghil NP, Pakistan
a brown bear caught by a research camera in Broghil NP, Pakistan

Last fall, a herder living inside Pin Valley National Park in India’s Spiti Valley found his hut severely damaged. Stored food had been eaten and thrown around. As it appeared, a rather large animal had broken into the hut. Rinchen, a member of our India team, visited the herder to investigate what had happened. But when Rinchen got to the scene and spoke to the people, he quickly realized what had happened. “It was a bear”, he exclaimed, a little surprised.

There hadn’t been any previous records of brown bears from this part of the Himalayas.  A new species of large carnivore had evidently colonized the Pin Valley National Park! Much like the snow leopard, the brown bear is an indicator of a relatively healthy ecosystem, so its presence in this area is an encouraging sign – also for the cats!

“We try to help conserve snow leopards, their habitat, and the associated mountain biodiversity across Asia. This often includes the bears”, says Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science& Conservation Director. “We’ve been studying the cats and their prey species, but in order to really understand the dynamics in the ecosystem they live in, we also need to learn more about fellow predators such as the brown bear.“

Learning about bears
Our Pakistan team has been doing just that: Working with a team of international colleagues, Dr. Muhammad Ali Nawaz, the Snow Leopard Trust’s country program director, has been studying the habitat use of Himalayan brown bears in Pakistan’s Deosai National Park – across the border, but not all that far from Pin Valley National Park. “We wanted to find out which parts of the park were particularly important to the bears, so they can be protected more effectively”, Dr. Nawaz explains. “We also investigated how human presence influences the bears’ habitat use.”

A snack to a brown bear: Golden marmots in DeosaiNP. Photo by Zaki Reza
A snack to a brown bear: Golden marmots in DeosaiNP. Photo by Zaki Reza

As their recently published study shows, bears prefer marshy, grassy areas with high vegetation density and an abundance of marmots; the bears’ primary protein source in Deosai. As it turns out, only 50% of the National Park meets these criteria, so the protected area suitable to bears is significantly smaller than it would appear at first sight. An increase in human activities threatens to further make life hard for the bears. Grazing negatively affects bear habitat, and with livestock numbers growing fast in the region, the bears find themselves under increasing pressure.

“As more and more human activities expand into in the core zone of the park, we might see an increase in conflicts”, Ali Nawaz says.

Carnivore’s Conflicts
His colleagues in India are equally aware of this very problem – and the incident in Pin Valley serves as a timely reminder. “Bears may be attracted by garbage in the villages and by food stored in the mud huts of the local people. On the Tibetan Plateau, there have been incidents of bears damaging property, killing livestock and sometimes injuring or even killing people in their attempts to get to this food”, Charu Mishra explains. “This can be devastating for the affected communities – and it’s bad news for all the area’s carnivores, not just bears but also snow leopards, as conflicts between humans and wildlife intensify.”

Managing conflicts by helping herders to cope with predators has long been a pillar of our conservation strategy for snow leopards – and wherever bears share the cats’ habitat, we are trying to help local pastoralists and wildlife managers cope with them, too.

Our China team led by Prof. Lu Zhi has been studying the problem and experimenting with local people to make their houses more secure.

Sagnam village. Photo by Neelima Valangi
Sagnam village. Photo by Neelima Valangi

Trying to learn from their Chinese colleagues, our India team has held meetings with villagers after the bear incident in Pin Valley National Park. They’ve has started to work with local communities on strategies to live alongside bears. Given the team’s long relationship with the communities in Pin Valley, they are already in a position to start assisting them.

The village of Sagnam, the largest in Pin Valley, is an example. Here, our team has helped the local herders start a community-managed livestock insurance program to help share the costs of livestock depredation by snow leopards. Since bears occasionally cause livestock losses, their immediate next step will be to discuss with the community and try to extend the program to cover livestock losses by bears.

“We hope to see more bears in this area in the future, but if we do, we must also continue to find ways to help local communities coexist with them”, Charu Mishra says.

Muhammad Ali Nawaz, Jodie Martin & Jon E. Swenson (2014): Identifying key habitats to conserve the threatened brown bear in the Himalaya. Biological Conservation 170 (2014) 198–206.

Special thanks to the Whitley Fund for Nature for their support, and to Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi for contributing to this article.

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