Tien Shan Brown Bear
It was an interesting experience, the complex is high in the mountains on the Suusamyr plain and the accommodation is made out of converted shipping containers. That may not sound particularly appealing but, in fact, they had done quite a good job and the “rooms” were surprisingly comfortable. There were some other buildings, but one of the other striking features was the collection of statues that were placed around the site.
Near the car park, for example, offering a great photo opportunity was a gigantic representation of a Kookor, the strange shaped leather bottle that is traditionally used to transport Kumyz. Another one near the car park was a bit more idiosyncratic; a crocodile – at least I presume it was a crocodile and not an alligator. Although it also provided a great photo opportunity it seemed somewhat out of place as we don’t have anything like that here in Kyrgyzstan.
It led to a few wry comments about this being the only place in Kyrgyzstan where you could come face to face with such wildlife. As we went into the dining room we came across another statue in the series … this one of a brown bear, and one of the other visitors turned to me and said that here was another animal that was out of place.
As he was local, (well, from neighbouring Uzbekistan), I took great pleasure in pointing out that he was wrong. Although you rarely come across them, we have bears in Kyrgyzstan … and there is even a breed of bear that is known as the Tien Shan Brown Bear.
Bears are large, heavy mammals that can grow to over 2 meters tall and weigh anything from 100 to 200 kilograms. A lot of their bodyweight, (as much as 25% or 35%), is fat, which they accumulate during the summer in order to sustain themselves during the winter hibernation.
In Asia they normally have brown fur, but the Tien Shan bear tends to be smaller and sport a lightly lighter shade of brown than most Asian bears and the upper part may be lighter than the under parts of the body. Some of the young have a white collar. Some of the bears in Kyrgyzstan also have a yellow spots on the neck and chest.
Their tails are small and almost invisible, and they have short round ears. Their feet are “full” with five toes and long white claws.
Males tend to be bigger than females.
Although they are basically nocturnal animals, they are also active during the daytime.
Bears are normally vegetarians, eating berries such as dogrose, honeysuckle, raspberry, currants and barberry; bulbs and the green parts of plants … even rhubarb leaves which are poisonous for human beings … but they have been known to eat insects and carrion and some small animals such as marmots … sometimes even digging into the burrows.
There aren’t many of them, perhaps just 800 to 1000 in Kyrgyzstan, and it is feared that the number is decreasing. There used to be a lot more … apparently several hundred could be encountered in the Semirechaya region at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries.
They are shy animals and are sometimes described as “good natured” (or even “cowardly” or “lazy”). In general numbers are greater in regions remote from human settlement. They normally run away from encounters with humans – even nursing mothers have been known to run off without protecting their cubs and, apparently, there hasn’t been any reports of bears attacking humans for many years – but a wounded bear can, of course, be very dangerous.
They tend to spread throughout the country. They are found in various types of landscape, although typically inhabiting high mountain areas, (up to about 2000 meters, although some have been found to inhabit sites up to 3500 meters asl).
They can be found in the walnut groves of Southern Kyrgyzstan as well as in the Central Tien Shan of the Naryn region and the mountains around Lake Issyk Kul. Although the have been seen in more open landscapes, they need shelter.
Before the first heavy snows, (in October or November), the bear goes into hibernation, building a den in the higher reaches of the alpine forests, normally amongst cliffs, for example, using holes, caves or other natural shelters such as a boar’s lair. They normally emerge from hibernation once more in February or March.
The mating season occurs during May and June and during the midwinter, females give birth to one or two, (and occasionally three or four), very small cubs, weighing just 500 grams.
In the spring, immediately after leaving their dens, the bears often spread out along the mountain ridges and disperse into the lower forests where they quickly uncover fresh green shoots. In summer, (depending on the type and timing and availability of emerging herbaceous plants), they migrate up to the edge of the forest into the subalpine and alpine zones. At the end of the summer, and in autumn, (when the berries, apples and other fruits ripen – they will even climb trees in order to get at the fruit), they concentrate on the lower slopes where these are to be found.
Although they appear to be “lumbering bumpkins”, they can be remarkably swift, even outrunning a cantering horse. They are also excellent rock climbers when the need arises.
The Ursus Actos is listed in the Red Data Book and are protected species.
There is a project, for example, aimed at the protection and improvement of bear’s habitat in the Chatkal Range of Western Djalal Abad oblast, by enlarging the areas where it forages; planting grass seeds and wild growing species of fruit trees and bushes, (for example: pear, apple, hawthorn and walnut), and the creation of voluntary ranger patrols. The patrols are necessary because poaching is one of the main causes of the reduction of numbers, killing bears for meat, fat, liver and skin. Apparently a bear carcass can be worth as much as USD500 and it is said that “the mass poaching of the brown bear in Kyrgyzstan has even affected its natural habits … Bears are so harassed that in winter they rarely hibernate in the same spot twice.”