The frequency of sightings of the Himalayan brown bears in Lahaul Valley of Himachal Pradesh is increasing, warming the hearts of conservationists and naturalists since it indicates the species is thriving at elevations ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 feet above the mean sea level in the Himalayan terrain.
Forest guard Shiv Kumar said he photographed a sloth of five brown bears, comprising two females and three cubs, last week in Tindi forests, adjoining Pangi in Chamba district.
He photographed another female bear and her two cubs in the same area in May.
Kumar, who first captured a snow leopard on film through camera trap in the Lahaul Valley, told IANS that the Himalayan brown bears can also be sighted in Pattan and Miyar valleys in the district.
However, its cousin, the black bear, can be seen only on Pattan slopes which are covered with thick coniferous forests.
"The bear droppings are common in the fields these days. But they rarely attack humans. Their attacks on domestic animals increase by April end when they come out of hibernation," said octogenarian Hira Dorjey, a resident of Thirot village.
State wildlife officials agreed that the brown bear numbers are increasing, though exact data on the Himalayan brown bear is not available in the absence of wildlife census in Lahaul.
Divisional Forest Officer Jai Ram Thakur attributes the rise in wildlife -- both mammal and avian species -- to increasing green cover in the picturesque Lahaul Valley, populated mainly by Buddhists, who breed sheep and goats.
Taking the help of villagers, especially the women, in protecting the forests has been a great success in the landlocked Lahaul Valley in Lahaul-Spiti district, which remains cut off for at least five months from the rest of the world from December due to heavy snow.
Forest Department officials said over 140 'mahila mandals' or women's groups in 28 panchayats in the valley have been guarding the forests through community participation.
These groups impose fines of Rs 5,000 on those caught axing trees, with offenders even facing a social boycott.
Besides the Himalayan brown and black bear, other rare wildlife mammal species found in these rocky regions at altitudes of 2,800 metres or about 9,100 feet are the snow leopard, Tibetan wolf, blue sheep, ibex, red fox, musk deer, marmot, pika, weasel, palm civet, and yellow throated marten, besides 85 bird species, including the Himalayan griffon and bearded vulture.
According to Kumar, many of the bird species come for summer migration.
"I think some of the birds use Lahaul as a stopover during migration to Kashmir," said Kumar, who has been working in the region for over a decade now.
Admitting that there could be a good possibility of brown bear sightings in Lahaul, wildlife expert Bipan C. Rathore, who has been working on this species in the Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary in Chamba district since 2002, told IANS that the Lahaul area needs to be scientifically studied.
He favours starting a programme in the entire Pangi range to take care of restoring or preserving the habitat of the brown bear. The Pangi range separates Chamba district from the Lahaul Valley.
Rathore said he spotted brown bears four times on a single day in May in different areas of the Kugti sanctuary.
Among the four species of bears in India, the Himalayan brown bear has the smallest spatial distribution and is found in low densities in alpine regions of the greater and trans-Himalayan regions of the country.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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