- A newly published study is the first to offer clear photographic evidence of the presence of Tibetan brown bears in Nepal.
- The camera-trap images were taken in 2013, but the study around them was only recently published because researcher Madhu Chetri was busy with other studies on snow leopards.
- For Chetri, the photos put to rest folklore he heard from villagers 20 years earlier about a Yeti-like creature prowling Nepal’s Himalayan region.
- Other studies have also shown, through genetic analysis, that hair and other samples attributed to the Yeti come from bears.
KATHMANDU — Since time immemorial it has inspired the legend of the Yeti. Said to be massive, ferocious and voracious — especially for horse flesh — it’s a creature you hope never to encounter, nomadic families in Nepal’s Mustang region told conservation researcher Madhu Chetri 20 years ago.
It was 2002, and Chetri had been posted in the region by the National Trust of Nature Conservation (NTNC), a semi-governmental body. Residents showed him hair samples and footprints they said belonged to the Mithe, this Yeti-like creature.
“When showing me the footprints, they told me that the animal doesn’t have heels,” Chetri tells Mongabay. “They told me that the heels went missing after the horse of Guru Padmasambhava, the Buddhist master who traveled across Tibet, stepped on the heels of a sleeping Mithe.”
During the following summer, villagers showed him pits, some of them more than 2 meters (7 feet) deep — dug, they said, by the creature in search of its favorite food, the Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana).
“It was in September 2007 when I was in the Damodar Kunda area in Mustang that I first saw the animal with my own eyes,” Chetri says. “I used a scope and mounted a camera on it to record its movement.”
He instantly recognized the animal as a brown bear (Ursus arctos). “I also saw that it had a yellowish scarf-like ‘collar’ around its neck, similar to the Tibetan brown bear [Ursus arctos pruinosus],” he says.
Although brown bears are thought to roam high-altitude areas of Nepal, they’ve never been studied in detail in the country. There are at least 10 known existing subspecies of brown bear, including the Tibetan, Himalayan (U. a. isabellinus), European (U. a. arctos) and East Siberian (U. a. collaris) brown bears.
The Himalayan brown bear’s presence has been confirmed in India, and the Tibetan brown bear’s in Tibet, but no one knows with certainty which of these subspecies — or perhaps an entirely different one — resides in between, in Nepal.
“When we prepared the field guide for mammals of Nepal, we had no idea what the brown bear looked like and what its size was relative to other bears,” says Hem Sagar Baral, co-author of the book Wild Mammals of Nepal (2008) and the 2011 “red list” of threatened mammals in Nepal. The brown bear, he adds, “had never been documented by scientists.”
The list, which drew from the work by researchers such as Chetri, estimated the brown bear population in the country at just 20 individuals, making it a critically endangered species in Nepal. It identified threats from poaching, conflict with humans, habitat loss due to the expansion of human settlements, overgrazing, loss of prey, and inbreeding. It added that while brown bears are known to occur in neighboring China, it’s not clear whether they travel across the border. And due to the persistent threats, the list said, the bears may not reestablish themselves in Nepal after they’ve gone locally extinct.
Flashback to 2007 and Damodar Kunda, where Chetri had finally spotted what he believed was a Tibetan brown bear and trained his camera on it. The lighting was poor, however, and the bear couldn’t be identified with any certainty from the resulting video.
“I did publish a short article in the NTNC newsletter stating that a brown bear had been spotted in Mustang, but couldn’t get a journal article because the camera images were not up to the mark,” Chetri says.
In 2008, while posted in Manaslu, home to the world’s eighth-highest peak, Chetri discovered footprints again. But it would be years before he would get another chance to catch the animal on camera.
In 2013, Chetri, who had by then started his Ph.D. work on snow leopards (Panthera uncia), installed camera traps around a site where locals said they’d spotted a bear.
“I kept the camera on the selected site for around 35 days and managed to get a few shots of the animal,” he says. This time, he thought, the photos showed conclusively that the Mithe — the Yeti of lore — was none other than the Tibetan brown bear.
He then prepared a journal article and submitted it for review. But as he was busy with his Ph.D. on snow leopards, the paper lingered in review.
A year earlier, in 2012, officials had rolled out a brown bear conservation action plan for Nepal. The plan cited unpublished research to make the case that the Tibetan brown bear was present in Nepal. A study published in 2017 made the same claim. It received more attention, though, for tracing genetic evidence gleaned from bone, tooth, skin, hair and fecal samples — previously attributed to the Yeti — to bears: Tibetan, Himalayan and/or Asian black bears (Ursus thibetanus).
Other camera trap images also continued to highlight the presence of Tibetan brown bears in different parts of Nepal.
“The importance of my recently published study is that it presents the first camera trap images of the Tibetan brown bear in Nepal,” Chetri says.
Naresh Kusi, a researcher who works in Nepal’s trans-Himalayan region, says the study is important as brown bears, although very common elsewhere, are extremely rare in Nepal. This means that finding them and studying them is a major challenge.
“In 2017, when it was sighted in the Kanchenjunga area, people believed it was a wild boar,” he says.
Chetri says he’s happy to have finally resolved the enigma about Mithe that he first encountered 20 years ago.
“Identifying the species and subspecies of animals found in the country is the first step towards its conservation, and that first step has been taken for the Tibetan brown bear in Nepal,” he says.
“However, we are yet to find out if their cousins, the Himalayan brown bears, the ones without the yellow scarf, and found in northwestern India, are also present in Nepal,” he adds.
Banner image: Pits, some of them more than 2 meters (7 feet) deep — dug by the bears. Image courtesy of Madhu Chetri.
Chetri, M. (2022). First camera-trap confirmation of Tibetan Brown Bear Ursus Arctos Pruinosus Blyth, 1854 (Mammalia: Carnivora: Ursidae) with a review of its distribution and status in Nepal. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 14(9), 21797-21804. doi:10.11609/jott.7797.14.9 .21797-21804
Jnawali, S. R., Baral, H. S., Lee, S., Acharya, K. P., Upadhyay, G. P., Pandey, M., … Amin, R. (compilers) (2011). The Status of Nepal Mammals: The National Red List Series, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Kathmandu, Nepal. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalredlist.org/files/2015/10/The-Status-of-Nepals-Mammals-Red-List-compressed.pdf
Lan, T., Gill, S., Bellemain, E., Bischof, R., Nawaz, M. A., & Lindqvist, C. (2017). Evolutionary history of enigmatic bears in the Tibetan Plateau–Himalaya region and the identity of the yeti. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284(1868), 20171804. doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.1804
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