Dhritiman mentioned in his YouTube video, that if he had gotten few images of brown bear in his very first trip, those would have been just few images. But as he did not get images in most of his trips, he realized the power of “not getting”. He does not consider those trips as failure rather those are the ways to learn more about brown bears. Now he knows lot more about behaviour, habitats, feeding habits of bears and their interaction with local forest dwellers who are dependent upon collection and gathering at their habitats.
Himalayan brown bears eluded world famous wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee several times, but the situation is very different now in the villages of Drass located near International border of India and Pakistan occupied Kashmir, which is politically known as LOC (Line of Control).
Brown bears, known as Dren-mo (in Kargil) or Eeash (in Drass) in Ladakhi, of this region are not just considered as ecologically important; they are perceived as politically significant as well.
Drass was a tehsil or sub-district of the district Kargil of Jammu and Kashmir state of India until Article 370 was in effect there. Article 370 of the Indian constitution gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, which has been the subject of a dispute between India, Pakistan and China since 1947. This article conferred on the state the power to have a separate constitution, a state flag, and autonomy of internal administration. On 5th August 2019, the Government of India issued a Presidential Order revoking Article 370, making all the provisions of the Indian constitution applicable to Jammu and Kashmir and enacting the division of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories to be called Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir and Union Territory of Ladakh.
Since then Drass is part of Ladakh and Himalayan brown bear becomes a major wildlife tourism attraction of this UT of India.
After spending 48 hours of mandatory acclimatization in Leh (the second district of Ladakh besides Kargil), I along with fellow explorer Abhijit Sudhindra, exploration lead Debasish Banerjee of Wild Wonderers Expeditions and local guide Bahow Ud Din, headed towards Dras on 22nd of October 2022. The 48 hours of acclimatization before travelling to any high altitude areas was a newly introduced advisory of the newly formed UT’s tourism department to tourists and visitors travelling to Ladakh by road or air.
Unlike Dhritiman’s initial brown bear explorations, Abhijit and I were much luckier in terms of bear sighting. On first day evening at around 4:30 PM, our driver Mumtaz Ali spotted an adult female and her cub climbing a snow capped far away mountain ridgeline when dusk was about to set in the Holiyal village of Drass. Debasish and Bahow Ud Din were busy in scanning mountains of Mushkoh valley, last village of India before LOC, another potential bear movement zone. After receiving call from Mumtaz they also hurried back and together we celebrated our first sighting of the abominable snowman of Trans Himalayas.
Image: Fist sighting of brown bear at Drass, pc Author
We stayed in Drass between 22nd November evening and 26th November morning; and in those days we saw around 17 brown bears including adult male, female and few small as well as sub-adult cubs.
But if you just go by this number and think it was like my Bandhavgarh trip in the summer of 2022, where I saw 23 tigers in five days, then you are far from reality.
The bear sighting used to happen in early morning, as during first light of the day they generally move back to high ridge of mountains after their all-night venture for food-searching in local villages and army bases. Therefore, we had to be present at potential bear movement spots at as early as 5 o’clock in morning, when it was dark.
Standing with all photography gears in hands, packed in all winter clothes, in a windy morning at the foothills or meadows of Western Himalayan high altitude villages, when temperature of early winter morning used to vary between -4o to -8o C, cannot be compared by any standard with going for gypsy safari in early morning or afternoon in Central Indian forests.
The terrain of Trans Himalayan brown bear exploration is treacherous, inhospitable, with jagged peaks above 15000 feet. In many occasions, bears were spotted, through binoculars of Bahow Ud Din, moving through different route than what was anticipated, where we were waiting or hiding behind boulder. Some time we distinctly saw them walking along the edge of a canal flows between mountains and villages, and in next moment we lost their sighting as they were disappeared behind the curve of a mountain ridge. In order to get any reasonable shot of those bears we had to run between boulders scattered across the meadows; sometimes we had to trek along the steep mountainous path.
These were not easy for people like us who live at sea level altitude and try hard to walk in mountain slope where the air was thin due to low oxygen level. At times walking 500-600 meters used to get us so exhausted as if we ran 2-3 km.
After all these effort, if you expect an outcome equivalent to your tiger portrait shots from Central Indian Landscape, then you are certainly not yet there to take part in brown bear expedition in Trans Himalayan landscape. In this terrain, you need to learn to appreciate brown bear habitat shots against the muted colours of titanic jagged Trans Himalayan Mountains, contrasted by the turquoise blue rivers that snake through its valleys, and the alpine forests that add just the right amount of pop.
However, even this much of brown bear sighting by any eco-tourists in Indian territory would not have been possible if 1999 Kargil war had not happened.
Army of both the country guards the disputed International border between India and Pakistan, known as LOC. However, because of extreme cold weather, inhospitable living conditions and heavy snowfall, it was norm for the India and Pakistan army to vacate some of its forwards posts during winters and re-occupy them in summers.
During 1998-99, allegedly, Pakistani army breached this truce and intruded 10-12 km across LOC and occupied winter vacated posts of Indian army in Mushkoh valley, Marpola Ridgeline in Drass, Kaksar area of Kargil and Batalik, Chorbatla and Turtuk sectors spread over a frontage of approximately 150 km. Apparently, the aim of Pakistani army was to sever the road link between Kashmir and Ladakh.
This entire region of Drass including Mushkoh valley (the last village of Indian Territory), which is very close to LOC and where the most fierce battle between two armies had happened, is the potential brown bear movement area.
When Pakistani intrusion came into notice by Indian army, they responded to the challenge promptly with speed and ferocity by mobilising close to 30,000 troops.
Our local guide Bahow Ud Din, who belongs to Indo-Aryan Brokpa tribe of Ladakh region, was three years old when 1999 Kargil war happened. He is the youngest among six brothers and his entire family had to evacuate their village in Drass and move to Srinagar during war. Eight years after the war when he returned to his village Holiyal, Drass started changing. More importantly, wildlife of Drass started changing.
According to Bahow Ud Din and other local villagers, during Kargil war, the deployed Naga and Gurkha regiments killed birds and herbivores like chukar partridge, pika, Himalayan marmot and even ibex for supply of meat. Even local villagers were involved in hunting wild lives for meat. However, Indian army irrespective of any regiments posted at Drass were empathetic to brown bears. In fact, feeding brown bears was favourite sport for Army personnel.
Feeding wild lives might make them human friendly but also alter their natural behaviour. Therefore, petting of brown bears by Indian army gradually transformed them into vermin for local villagers. Brown bears of Drass became frequent visitors to army base camp and adjacent villagers to scavenge on food waste thrown by human. Omnivorous predators gradually started converting into opportunistic semi-scavengers.
Gradually that had led to human-wildlife conflict in villages of Drass.
A Ladakhi researcher, named Niazul Hassan Khan, studying the Himalayan brown bear population in India, in his article “The Brown Bears Of Kargil”, published on 13th November 2020, in online edition of Nature in Focus, has mentioned, “It was May 2019, in the Drass valley, when a sub-adult female brown bear had ventured into a human settlement, and she was mercilessly pelted with stones. While attempting to flee, the bear slipped off the hill and fell into the piercing cold water of the Drass River. The carcass of the bear was found almost 10km downstream by the Kargil wildlife department officials, who had struggled in the frigid river water for hours to retrieve the >100 kg leviathan. A necropsy revealed that the bear’s stomach and gut were loaded with human-based subsidies like rice (70%) and other vegetative items (30%).”
Our local cook for this expedition Khadim was also a Forest department guard under Drass range of Kargil Wildlife Division. On the first day of our stay at around 11:30 PM, he got a call from local village about bear intrusion and he had to visit the village to provide a resolution. Couple of days later around similar time again he got another call. Fortunately, no retaliation had happened in any of those cases.
Brown bears now frequent villages of Drass in darkness. Burking of village dogs in Drass is the “alarm call” equivalent of Bengal Tigers in tiger reserves. If you hear relentless barking of dogs from a nearby village, then next day early morning before dawn that village and surrounding mountains/meadows should be your potential brown bear photography destination. If that village was adjacent to any army base camp, then probability of sighting would be even higher.
This theory actually worked for us in many occasions. Our closest encounter with the animals were on the meadow adjacent to a village next to Kargil Battle School (locally known as KBS). KBS is the camp, which provides pre-induction training to Indian soldiers deployed in the high altitude posts along the LOC. In one night one of our hosts in Drass, Mohd Salim told us that, his wife had heard continuous dog burking from the village near KBS. Salim’s house was also in that village. Based on Salim’s Intel we reached there in early morning and kept waiting until break of dawn.
We were not disappointed as we saw an adult female and her three cubs were emerged out of the villages and slowly started walking along the canal flows through the village. Moment they noticed us; started running and climbed the mountain to go far from us.
In one evening during our scanning in Mushkoh valley, few kilometres away from LOC, we found two army personnel were approaching towards us. They were in their evening walk. When they met us and knew about our purpose of being there, started taking lot of interest in brown bear.
One of them was Subedar Suresh Kumar, In-charge of Grenadier section, who completed his 30 years of services and awaiting retirement by end of December 2022. He told us pointing towards a hilltop, “Behind this hilltop is Pakistan and everyday around 9 PM bears come down to our base camp from there. In evening, they come to India from Pakistan and then in morning they again go back. We witness this cross border bear movement every day.”
Based on an article published in Mongabay on 1st May 2014, written by Sandhya Sekar, the Himalayan brown bear is found in three major mountain ranges, Hindu Kush, Karakoram and the Western Himalaya, and four inter-mountain highlands. Sekar mentioned in that article, that Pakistani scientist Muhammad Ali Nawaz of the Quaid-i-Azam University/Snow Leopard Trust worked with researchers from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and University of Lyon, to carry out a study to determine which habitat was most preferred by the bear. They found Deosai National Park in northern Pakistan supports one of the densest populations of Himalayan brown bears.
The cross-border bear movement witnessed by Subedar Kumar and his fellow soldiers was in all probability happened from Deosai. Even Bahow Ud Din also had similar thought.
Reduction of natural prey of brown bears, like marmot, in post-war Drass, feeding by army deployed there and opportunity to scavenge on food waste thrown by villagers are increasing the potential of bear-human conflict. On the other hand, it is becoming a tourism opportunity.
Bahow Ud Din told us that once he lost hundred thousand Indian rupees as bears destroyed his livestock but now he is earning doubles or triples of that as a brown bear tourism guide. Now he has founded his own wildlife tourism company, named as Wild Life and Nature Trails. Debasish Banrerjee, founder and CEO of Wild Wonderers Expedition, is collaborating with him to organize eco-tourism for wildlife enthusiasts across India and World to Drass.
In 2022, Bahow Ud Din alone conducted five brown bear expeditions in Drass. Debashis conducted two and two more were lined up by end of 2022. Clearly, more and more wildlife enthusiasts in India and from other part of World are taking interest in Himalayan brown bears.
Because of their success, local administration is also taking lot of interest in promoting brown bear tourism in Drass. In our last evening at Drass, we were invited in a dinner with local administrative hot shots of Drass. Station House Officer (SHO) and Additional SHO of Drass Police Station, Block Development Chairman (BDC) of Drass, and Managing Director of local Ladakhi news channel – Drass Online were among the important guests. Excitement about brown bear tourism in Drass was very prominent in that gathering. Abhijit and I as wildlife enthusiast guests were always getting special attention in that evening.
Enthusiastic eco-tour organizers and local administrators even decided to construct few bear hides in potential bear movement areas, in order to ensure best possibility of sighting and shooting.
In first instance, it may sound similar to whatever is happening in Thattekad or Coorg or in other spheres of wildlife tourism, but I must agree the viability of eco-tourism depends on higher probability of sighting.
That certainly does not mean the forest should be turned into a “Disneyland” like some of the popular Central Indian tiger tourism destinations. However, a realistic possibility (however less it may be) of sighting elusive animals would always bring back wildlife enthusiasts to their habitats.
I witnessed existence of such possibility in Drass.
Despite of human-brown bear conflict, the animal is gaining popularity among the people of Drass. Local house owners are converting their places into home-stay facilities for eco-tourists, unemployed youths are starting taxi services, new restaurants are coming up, and local grocery stores are selling more products to incoming tourists.
Not just local economy, there is another emotional aspect associated with brown bear of Drass which often gets unnoticed. The SHO of Drass during that dinner party once mentioned, “Brown bear roams between India and Pakistan, whereas we human cannot cross LOC. Now bears should be our messengers for peace.”
SHO has his relatives in Pakistan. Many people of Drass have left their relatives behind the other side of International border. People of Drass very apparently live in a dilemma. They have soft corner for the land on the other side of LOC. During our stay in Drass, on 23rd October, coincidentally there was an India Pakistan Cricket match. It had a nail biting finish, and clearly, people of Drass was divided on the outcome of the match.
They are emotionally inclined towards other side of LOC, but they are genuinely loyal towards this side of LOC. Their respect and love for Indian army is undisputed. Indian army has done and still doing lot of development work in this otherwise forgotten land of Trans Himalayan India. They developed road, school, hospital, self-help group for women and created employment opportunities for local youths within Army.
Bahow Ud Din’s four brothers were soldiers in Indian army. He himself works for road construction activities for Indian army during off-season for tourism. Local army personnel and villagers recognized local’s support during 1999 Kargil war. Subedar Kumar told us how villagers used to move with Indian army along the difficult terrain of Drass, in order to show them the path through mountains.
Bahow Ud Din once said, “If 10% of local villagers of Drass had taken Pakistani side, then India would have never won this war.”
It was resonated in my head as “If 10% of local villagers of Drass had taken Pakistani side, then we would have never seen Himalayan brown bears.”
When we were leaving in the morning of 26th October, we again met BDC of Drass at the junction of Drass Town. He waived his hand towards us and said, “Brown bear is Aman ki Paigam for Drass, and we all should work together for conservation of this animal.”
During our conversation in that evening at Mushkoh valley, within few kilometres from LOC, Subedar Suresh Kumar said, “When there is no war, Indian and Pakistani rangers from both side have good time in exchanging pleasantries with each other. Indian soldiers share Bollywood songs with their Pakistani counter parts. No soldiers of any country want to break out war!”
Subedar told us, in last couple of weeks, every day at around 9 PM, from his hilltop watchtower, he sees a huge male Himalayan brown bear comes from Pakistan’s Deosai to India’s Mushkoh Valley in search for human made food, and before the dawn break it goes back again to its favourite habitat in Deosai.
Now readers to decide, whether Himalayan brown bear, the abominable snowman, known as Dren-mo in Ladakhi is the “Aman ki Paigam (Message of Peace)” or a victim of human interference to nature.
Nevertheless, I realized one thing distinctly, Himalayan brown bears, of this region are not just ecologically important species. Their conservation has political significance as well.