16 October 2023 | Story André Damons | Photo Dr Willem Daffue
Himalayan Brown Bear
The very first ever GPS collared Himalayan Brown bear with the rangers that tracked it down, whom was successfully darted by Dr Willem Daffue in the Deosai National Park on 22 September 2023. Collar was manufactured for the first time by Martin Haupt from Africa Wildlife Tracking and sponsored by Dr Johan Marais from Saving the Survivors.

The world will soon know more about the Himalayan Brown Bear, which is listed as “critically endangered” in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, after a South African veterinarian managed to put GPS collars on two of these bears. 

The collaring of the bears comes as part of the Himalayan Brown Bear Project, led by Prof Francois Deacon, Associate Professor in the Department of Animal Science, at the University of the Free State (UFS), and Dr Willem Daffue, veterinarian and world-famous mountaineer and explorer.

Prof Deacon and Dr Daffue assembled and took a team to Pakistan after being invited to an initiative from Vaqar Zakaria and Anis ur Rahman and members from the Pakistan’s Ministry of Environmental Affairs in collaboration with Dr Ume Habiba from the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board. 

They spent three weeks in July and early August with veterinarians in Pakistan to put GPS collars on the bears but were unsuccessful. Dr Daffue then went back to Pakistan alone in September and managed to dart and collar two bears.

Other members of the team included Dr Johan Marais and Dr Richard Burroughs (veterinarians) and Hadrien Haupt from Africa Wildlife Tracking (AWT), who manufactures the collars for the Himalayan Brown Bear Project. This initial project was under the caretaking of the Himalayan Brown Bear Foundation and momentum started picking up after Prof Deacon and Dr Daffue’s visit to the Himalayas last year. 

“During our three weeks this year, we saw just eight bears (with all the rangers and drones at our assistance) and only got two chances to dart a bear, which were unsuccessful. We even tried putting out bait for them, because to go and look for the bears during the day is extremely difficult at an altitude of 4500-5500 meters and steep slopes. It is nearly impossible to navigate that terrain as the Deosai National Park is huge. We waited for ages to see a bear at the baiting station and only slept for about three hours a night. The locals think there might be 66 bears left, but we think it could be much fewer,” said Prof Deacon. 

Collaring the bears

Besides collaring the bears, the aim of the July visit was to assist the country with training sessions on how to deal with animal husbandry, providing (when animals are “under human care” for food, resources, water supply, shelter and security), tranquilising equipment and medicine, dart-gun training, drone surveys and the fitting procedure of GPS collars for telemetry (tracking animals using transmitter devices attached to them) on species such as leopards, pangolins and the Himalayan Brown Bear – a sub-species of the big brown bear which is only found in the Himalayas. 

“Collaring these two bears was a huge achievement. There was a good chance that these animals would most probably face extinction without us knowing how to protect them or their remaining habitat. We do not really know what they eat and what threatens them most. The collars would be able to tell us a bit about that, where they roam, hibernate and what they eat, when they eat and where they possibly move outside boundaries or into neighbouring countries. 

“These collars will now assist us in studying the animals and monitoring the few remaining brown bears in their natural environment, how they function and survive, and for us to then study and understand that environment and help to protect them from becoming extinct,” explains Prof Deacon. 

Himalayan Brown Bear Project

Dr Daffue “rediscovered” the bears in 1991 when mountain-climbing in a remote section of the Himalayas and afterwards came to the UFS to discuss with Prof OB Kok and Dr Hennie Butler the possibility of researching the bears, says Prof Deacon. 

“They (Zoology Department) went over and did behavioural studies on the bears – what their daily activities involve and their general ecology. The results were published in 1993/94. And those were the last studies until this new initiative to get something going again,” said Prof Deacon. 

Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation, Prof Vasu Reddy, said: “Prof Deacon’s invitation to a global initiative in South Asia is testimony to the standing and scholarly impact of a young UFS researcher who is pioneering leader in his field. His presence in Pakistan does us proud and attests to the impact of his research not simply nationally or continentally, but globally. 

“His research crosses boundaries to reach distant shores that advances science and conservation. We are extremely proud of what Prof Deacon is undertaking to push the boundaries and frontiers of science and conversation. Having had insight into his work, his ideas, his projects, including the international team of researchers and students he is drawing to UFS, all I can say is that we must watch the space for more to come from Prof Deacon’s stable.”

Training and teaching

While in the country, the team also spent time training and educating various stakeholders who are part of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) on the welfare of various animals found in the Margalla Hills National Park, collars, how to use the data, how to medically treat the animals and what medicine to use.

The team were very efficient and productive with the lectures and workshops and spent at least a week on training and teaching sessions for about 60 people. 

“Other training by Dr Richard Burroughs and Dr Johan Marais from Saving the Survivors, an NGO. This included training the local veterinarians how to dart animals, what medicine to best use, what collars we use, what you do with the collars and data during and after the fitting was facilitated by Hadrien Haupt from AWT on site. One of their biggest problems are leopards that come into villages and even the city to attack people, dogs, and cats. They want to know what to do with the leopards and how to deal with them in these challenging environments. 

“We gave several lectures and training sessions to staff from the department and other stakeholders that came from all over Pakistan. We also got to see and advise on the facilities where they house the animals they save and rehabilitate. Here, Dr Marais and Dr Burroughs also showed them what to do with these animals, how to dart them, how to medically treat the animals and what medicine to use.” 

According to Prof Deacon, they are also assisting and are part of planning the so-called “Re-wilding of Pakistan” to help facilitate and re-introduce Indian rhinos in some of the identified parks and hope to start with bringing seven Indian rhinos to Pakistan. During their time in Pakistan, the team were tasked to help determine suitable habitats for the rhinos.

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