Free-staters help prevent Himalayan brown bear extinction

Henry

Thanks to two Free State smart heads, the world will soon know more about the seriously endangered Himalayan brown bear – a subspecies of the large brown bear that only occurs in the Himalayas.

Two of these bears were last month under the guidance of prof. Francois Deacon from the Department of Animal Science at the University of the Free State (UF) and dr. Willem Daffue, veterinarian, mountaineer and explorer, tagged with GPS collars in Pakistan.

“To tag these two with collars was a great achievement,” says Deacon.

“There was a good chance that these animals would become extinct without us knowing how to protect them or their remaining habitat. We don’t really know what they eat and what threatens them the most. The collars will be able to tell us a little about it, where they roam, hibernate, what they eat, when they eat and where they may be moving beyond borders or to neighboring countries.”

Deacon and Daffue took a team to Pakistan earlier this year as part of the Himalayan brown bear project after receiving an invitation from Pakistan’s Department of Environmental Affairs in collaboration with Dr. Ume Habiba from the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board.

In July and August of this year, the team, led by Deacon and Daffue, spent three weeks with veterinarians in Pakistan to fit GPS collars to the bears. However, the efforts were unsuccessful.

Daffue then returned alone to Pakistan in September where he finally sedated and collared two bears.

Deacon says that during their three-week visit, the team only saw eight bears in the Deosai National Park in the western Himalayas and only got two chances to tag a bear. However, both attempts were unsuccessful.

“We even tried to put out bait for them, because searching for the bears during the day at an altitude of between 4,500 and 5,500 m above sea level and on steep slopes is extremely difficult. It is almost impossible to navigate that terrain as the Deosai National Park is huge. We waited forever to see a bear at the bait station and only slept about three hours a night.

“The locals suspect there may be 66 bears left, but we think it could be much less,” says Deacon.

The purpose of the visit in July and August was not only to tag the bears with collars, but also to assist the local community with training sessions on how to deal with animal husbandry, among other things.

Daffue “rediscovered” the Himalayan brown bears in 1991 when he went mountain climbing in a remote part of the Himalayas and then visited the UFS to meet with prof. OB Kok and dr. Hennie Butler to discuss the possibility of researching the behavior of the bears.

“They (the Department of Zoology) went over (to Pakistan) and did behavioral studies on the bears, such as their daily activities, and studied their general ecology. The results were published in 1993/94. This was the last research done before this new initiative was launched,” says Deacon.