In the month of November there were a spate of attacks by Himalayan Black Bears in various towns in Sikkim. All of a sudden the bears had begun to scavenge on garbage dumps invariably creating a man-animal conflict. The issue was becoming quite serious with the number of casualties increasing and the forest department finding itself incapable of handling the situation. Instead of trying to understand the root cause of the issue the forest department was only interested in tranquillising the bears and getting them back into the forest. this exercise proved to be an expensive one as the inexperienced Chief Conservator of Wildlife was badly mauled by a bear during this activity.
At a time when everybody seemed to be more concerned about protecting human lives rather than those of the bears , there was one person who stood out for them. My good friend and IFS officer Sandeep Tambe decided to write an article in the local newspaper to educate the people regarding the real issue. As it turned out, the issue was that there was an autumn famine in the forests because of which there was a severe shortage of bear food in the forest. The article below finally prompted the forest department to rethink the problem with a different mindset.
Forest bears in Urban Gangtok! – a nutty puzzle to crack
When the Black bears – animals of dense temperate forests, start making a bee line towards human dominated, urban landscapes, then it makes one wonder why? The Himalayan Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus), it is not restricted to the Himalayas, but is widely distributed over Asia – from India, China, Russia to Japan. Though largely herbivorous, it can be very aggressive toward humans, and has frequently attacked people without provocation. Let us at the outset laud the bravery of the forest and police personnel and their support staff, who faced a marauding black bear with bare hands, which is an extraordinary act of bravery and courage. Here’s wishing these brave men a speedy recovery.
Forest bears entering Gangtok, is a puzzle that is worth investigating further. Let us analyze the various theories going around. The first theory – “Wildlife population is on the rise, and is now spilling over”. With the phasing out of hundreds of herders, thousands of cattle and their ferocious dogs from the oak forests over the last decade, these oak forests have indeed become a haven for wildlife. The habitat has improved several fold, but surely the population of bear would not increase suddenly over one year to spill over to urban areas. We did not have these bear incidents last year or the year before that. If the wildlife population is growing, then surely we would have seen these conflicts rise over the years before reaching the proportion that it has now. There were no major incidents of so many bears transgressing into Gangtok over the last many years. So though the wildlife populations may be rising (no scientific surveys or census yet to prove this claim though) this does not appear to be the immediate cause.
The second theory is that of “Bears getting attracted towards garbage in and around human habitations”. This theory claims that with the growth in garbage and surplus food e.g. food dumps around army camps, and fringe villages, the bears have taken to scavenging garbage, and in the process are entering human habitations. The bears have got accustomed to easy food (just like the monkeys along the national highway), and have taken to rummaging the garbage bins. They have become used to human presence, and in the process have started intruding into urban areas in search of more easy food. If this were the case, then why are these incidents occurring only in autumn, and not round the year. The monkeys along the national highway are visible round the year without fail. It is the seasonality of the encounter – only in autumn, that provides us an important key to solving this puzzle.
Lets delve deeper now, what do bear feed on during autumn, before they hibernate? Studies conducted by various wildlife researchers like Dr. N. Manjrekar, Dr. S. Sathyakumar, Dr. Y. Hashimoto and others on the autumn dietary habits of the Himalayan Black Bear in Uttarakhand, Kashmir and Japan provide us with vital clues. Autumn is the time when the other food items like bamboo shoots, green shoots, larvae, tubers, eggs etc are scantily available on the forest floor. In autumn bears gorge themselves on high calorie foods mainly acorns and nuts (like oak acorn, walnut and chestnut), which comprise about 75% of their autumn food intake, storing the excess calories as fat. Oak forests in the state comprise mainly of Quercus pachyphylla (Baante), Quercus lamellosa (Buk/Phalant) and species of Castanopsis sp. (Kattus) which produce voluminous quantities of nuts, an important dietary item in bear food habit during autumn. Oak nuts (known as acorns) along with fruits of Symplocos sp. (kharane, kholme), Machilus sp. (kawla), Prunus sp. (lekh arupate) provide our bears with high-energy food, necessary for accumulating winter fat reserves.
Of the nearly 400 species of oaks worldwide, more than 9 of them make Sikkim their home. In Sikkim, extensive oak forests occur between 1700 to 2800 meters, having an extent of 1160 km2, which is about 16% of the total geographical area. The fruit of the oak is like a nut and is called an acorn. Oak trees start producing acorns by the time they reach 20 years of age, and can survive for nearly 200 years in the top canopy. Nut production is characterized by extreme variation among years and among individual trees. There are bumper years known as masting when huge quantities of nuts are produced, followed by lean years as well. Acorn crops can vary greatly from year to year. During “heavy” years, acorns can literally rain down from the trees, almost covering the ground beneath them in a carpet of acorns. In “sparse” years, one can travel from tree to tree and have difficulty locating even a handful. Studies from other parts of the world have demonstrated that weather at the time of flowering is likely an important contributing factor. Since oaks are wind-pollinated species, conditions during the pollination period that promote good pollen dispersal are believed to enhance acorn production. But there may also be other factors at work also. There are also internal rhythms present within trees that also influence how many acorns are produced. The nut production is also impacted by variation in weather parameters like temperature, relative humidity and rainfall. In 2008, Sikkim witnessed amongst the driest winters in living memory, followed by a delayed monsoon in 2009, and this changing climate could have affected the natural cycle of nut production. Keen environmentalists would have observed the sparse flowering of chestnut (kattus) and oak (bante, buk / phalant) in various parts of Sikkim earlier this year.
The driving force compelling the forest dwelling bears to leave the security of their forested habitat, appears to be a drastic downturn in the natural production of these acorns and nuts. What we are observing now are very hungry bears, desperately searching for fat-rich food items, and not finding them on the forest floor, are entering human habitations, as their time to hibernate is fast approaching. If they are not able to build adequate fat reserves before the advent of winter, then they risk death by starvation. As a last ditch attempt, the primeval urge to survive, is driving them, to leave the safety of their homes, and enter human settlements. In future, the lean acorn production in the monsoons could serve as an Early Warning System to forewarn us to prepare for wildlife encounters in our backyard in years to come. Supplementing the forest floor with sack loads of acorns, nuts and other high calorie food during autumn and winter in low natural production years, appears to be one of the ways to prevent bear starvation deaths and help them adapt to climate change.
Climate patterns over the last one year have been unusual. We had an extended autumn season followed by an extremely dry winter and a late monsoon. It appears that there is an intricate ecological linkage between the autumn food habits of the Himalayan Black Bear, the phenology of the oak trees and acorn production, weather patterns, and the forest bears entering Gangtok. Climate change has now started impacting the lives of not only humans, but our valuable flora and fauna as well. In this time of crisis, the local people are requested not to panic and abide by the appeal publicized by the Forest Department, and cooperate with the Department towards minimizing the man-bear conflict so that there are minimal casualties on both sides.