Historicizing Bear in Chitral

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Historicizing Bear in Chitral

The history of Chitral, on some of the themes, is replete with symbolism and anecdotes, and some ways it wants indigenous perspectives to taking the readers, from variety of sources, to the point of interest. Living close to nature, the people of Chitral, have experienced, observed and lived with the ecosystem, in most cases, if not documented the reminiscence over the course of time, has orally been transmitted and remembered.

Rich in biodiversity, Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, homes ‘1 of the 34 biodiversity hot spots in the world’ (Khan & Bhagwat, 2010). Although Chitral also faces with severe poverty, in this region, it has not only a diverse fauna but also a ‘great floristic variety’ (Stewart, 1982).

A couple of days back, in a video on social media, brown bear (Ursus arctos) was seen running in Shandur plateau, took me back to recall what I had heard from my parents and society about this unique specie. A friend of mine from Laspur—a village down to Shandur plateau, when this specie came to our discussion, he also testified sighting of a bear with a cub, last year in the area. Some Khowar (lingua-franca and one of the 14 languages spoken in Chitral) words and phrases still relate with bear in our daily conversations.  Bear, in Khowar language, is called Ohch (اوہݯ ). it has, however, different names; drenmo in Northern Areas, for vegetarian bear, spang drenmo, and shai drenmo for carnivorous specie of Tibetan plateau.

Bear and cub PC The Dodo–photo by the writer

The population of brown bear is sparse and isolated in Asian countries i.e. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, India, Nepal, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Nepal, Turkey, Iraq, China, Mongolia. And Himalayan brown bear—subspecies of brown bear, present in Pakistan. The northern areas, the southern and eastern parts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (the then NWFP) cover the range of bear.

Brown Bear Sakrdu–photo by the writer

The beastly bear baiting (Joseph, 1997) used to be an important traditional event in Pakistan, in which rich feudal lords, in rural areas, provide bull terriers and organize the bear fight. In these fights the bear wins at a great cost to itself and to the dogs. The gypsies, also known as qalandars, train the bear and provide for such events.

It has been a common practice, until 1975, taking the trained bears to Chitral for sporting i.e. dancing, and those qalandars were locally named as Ohch Phoneyak (اوہݯ پھونیئک ) Getting people together, for a cash payment, they would organize bear’s dance for them was strangely fascinating to see a big, fatty and an ugly animal to dance. Back in 1975, a dance of bear was organized in village Charun, the owner was paid Rs.10, at that time.

Bear with Qalandar –photo provided by the writer

There are few words and phrases still relate to bear in Khowar vocabulary, which remind this specie time and again.  Someone with big, fatty, ugly features with rough hairs, is called ohch locally, and, sarcastically, people were also named ohch in case of having mentioned feature(s) and sometimes doing heavy manual work. In case, someone, ‘gets bizarrely angry’ is related with bear, saying that ‘ohch bilinji biruo ghona’ (اوہݯ بڑینڅی بیروو غون )means like a bear turns up furious. When someone, with fatty body, may be oddly dressed, dances incongruously is said ‘to have danced like bear’ (ohch phonero-ghon/phonetami)( اوہݯ پھونیرو غون/پھونیتمی)

Angry bear–photo provided by the writer

Bear has been a becoming animal in Chitral, saying that, some people would eat the meat of bear in the southern part, is the part of orally contesting history, which the locals don’t corroborate. It is commonly known that people in highlands of Chitral have harmed bears only when they killed their animals, damaged scarce crops and fruits, and it is known to all that there is no market, even now, for the parts of this animal.

An oral story is attributed, in Chitral, with Kalash valleys that they used to have buckets (vesku (ویݰکو )— made of wood sticks) a hole in the bottom, left under the walnut trees and near corn crop fields.  During nights, bear would come down from forests used to collect walnuts down from the tree to the bucket, and as they take full buckets up to carry walnuts came out of it. They used to collect them back, again and again, and repeated it till dawn. As people came out to their fields on morning, they would find a pile of walnuts collected along buckets under the walnut trees every day, and corncobs across fields.

The brown bear lives in northern parts, since it is linked with the region where this population lives, and black bear has mostly been spotted in southern parts of Chitral. Seven years back a report (Endangered Black Bear, 2012) appeared in a national daily in which Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus) was spotted near Pak-Afghan border in Arandu forest was, of course, exciting for biodiversity specialist and some of the locals. It was indeed shocking to know again a news published about black bear, 4 years later, about its extinction (Zahiruddin, 2016).  This report also notes that this specie is widely poached in Afghanistan because it indicates from the body parts widely available there in the market.

Veshku–photo provided by the writer

A research study on the ‘Bears in Pakistan’ (Abbas, Bhatti, Haider & Mian, 2015) maps several black bears, among other areas, in Arandu (12-15), Succo (7-8) and Bumburet (4-6), while the brown bear’s concentration is highest in Laspur (4-7), Mulkho (3-4), and Bumburet (1-2) individuals.  The area of brown bear is highly extended than black bear, but the Deosai National park has the concentration of brown bear with the population of 25-27 individuals (Wildlife of Pakistan) has recently been designated as critically endangered in IUCN’s Red List of Mammals of Pakistan. It has seven populations, don’t exceed 20 individuals, probably persist in the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Hindu Kush ranges; the Deosai Plateau in western Himalaya hosts the only stable population where 43 bears counted in 2006 (Nawaz, 2006). It has been least studied specie in Asia where a small isolated population of Ursus Arctos exists in mountainous regions of ‘50 % has critically declined during past 100 years’ (Servheen, 1990). It is a fact that the population of bear has dramatically declined in the region and Chitral but the factors of decline, however in the latter is different from the former.

Brown Bear–photo provided by the writer

The population of bear, in Pakistan, is declining because of bear baiting, poaching of bear cubs for sale to gypsies, killing of parent bear to catch cubs, poaching for the commercial sale of bear parts,  loss of habitat and humanly-induced fragmentation or caused by climate change, unmanaged tourism, growing human population, expanding infrastructure, increasing number of livestock and dependency on natural resources particularly alpine pastures in specific regions.

There is a dire need of conservation of critically endangered species through effective management of protected areas, preservation of habitat, better management of natural resources, and introducing environmental education in curriculum so the existing population of this unique specie could survive in different areas of Pakistan as a unique amalgam of our ecosystem.

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