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Rare Tibetan Brown Bear Discovered in Sikkim

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In the first-ever confirmed record of the Tibetan brown bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus) in India, camera traps installed by the Sikkim Forest Department and WWF-India recorded this rare species in the high-altitudes of North Sikkim. This discovery adds a new subspecies to the mammal diversity of the country. 

Over the last many decades during interactions with the Dokpas – the nomadic herders from the high-altitude areas of Tso Lhamo plateau and Muguthang, there was always a mention of a large unidentified animal stealing sugar and oil stored in the herder camps. This creature, due to its elusive nature, has also inspired the folklore of the Yeti across the Himalayas.

The breakthrough came through an extensive camera trap exercise conducted by a joint team of experts from WWF-India and the Sikkim Forest Department. The camera traps that recorded the bear were placed by Phuchung Lachenpa, Tashi Palden Lachenpa, and Palden Lepcha in the high altitudes of Mangan district and caught this elusive bear in December 2023. These photos highlight the characteristic yellowish scarf-like collar of this bear that broadens from the shoulders to the chest.

It is an omnivore with its diet generally consisting of marmots and alpine vegetation. This rare bear is very different from the more commonly found Himalayan Black Bear in terms of its appearance, habitat, and behaviour. It inhabits high-altitude alpine forests, meadows, and steppe above 4000 m.

Also, it is very shy of human contact and therefore very seldom observed. In contrast, the Himalayan Black Bear has a distinctive ‘V’ shaped white chest mark, inhabits temperate forests below 4000 m, and comes in frequent contact with humans often resulting in conflict.

The Tibetan brown bear also known as the Tibetan blue bear is one of the rarest subspecies of bears in the world, and is rarely sighted in the wild. It is uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions of the Tibetan Plateau. Until now, there were only a few confirmed records from Nepal, Bhutan, and the Tibetan plateau. Consequently, it has been accorded the highest protection status under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 by listing it under Schedule-I. It is also listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as a protected species.

This record underscores the ecological richness and diversity of the Sikkim region, where even now major wildlife discoveries are being made. The presence of the Tibetan Brown Bear adds a new dimension to the rich tapestry of the region’s ecological diversity. Believed to be a previously undocumented population, this discovery has ignited excitement among researchers and nature lovers alike.

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