Most of us know at least one fictional bear, like Winnie the Pooh, or Baloo from Jungle Book who introduces young Mowgli to the simple joys of life. Yet, few of us know of the real, living ursine species in our country. India has four bear species: sloth bear, sun bear, Himalayan brown bear, and Asiatic black bear. This last species, also called the moon bear, Himalayan black bear, and Ursus thibetanus, is in focus here. Asiatic black bears prefer cool weather and are found in the mountainous regions in “southern Asia, Korea, north-eastern China, the Russian far east, and limited parts of Japan,” according to WWF India.
They spend their summer days climbing trees, sleeping, foraging for food, and grooming. As winter approaches, their lifestyle changes, depending on the altitude they inhabit. “In the high mountains, where it snows heavily and food is rare, Asiatic black bears go into hibernation in rocky dens, natural caves, and hollows of trees,” explains Dr Sambandam, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India who has written numerous papers on the ecology of the species. “But in parts of the northeast, such as Meghalaya, they do not hibernate at all, because winter temperatures are not that hostile, and food is available.” Some bear populations practice seasonal migrations, moving to lower altitudes in the winter, and spending the summer months in the higher reaches.
Those bears that do hibernate, are also changing their lifestyle. Recent studies indicate that Asiatic black bears are hibernating for shorter periods of time (as little as 50 days) due to erratic weather patterns caused by climate change. “Anecdotal information suggests that the bears used to hibernate for around 3-4 months, from mid-December and to mid-March,” says Dr Sambandam. “but they are now hibernating for shorter durations of time due to scanty rainfall.” This in turn, affects breeding patterns, interactions with human populations, even the vitality of the habitat.