Himachal Pradesh,  Nature

Sharing Land and Life with Wild Bears

An apple farmer from Pekhri village in Tirthan Valley recounts his family’s encounters with wild bears – at a time when their crops were all they had

Story by: Pratap Chauhan

Hear an audio snippet of this story

Back in the 1970s, when I was 8 or 9 years old, I vividly remember one night in my village Pekhri. My father had asked a few of his friends to help collect the apricot kernel when they were ripe for plucking. It was the month of Bhadra (roughly August – September in the Hindu calendar) and they set out to the oil mill nearby to extract oil out of the kernel.

Pekhri village. Photo: Pratap Chauhan

By the time he came home, the sun was about to set. That night, after having his dinner, he ventured out into the fields to guard our crops from wild animals. We had built a temporary wooden shed to sleep out in the open. And we had to be very careful and alert to stop wild animals from climbing into the shed! All night, we would keep a fire going since animals tend to avoid the fire.

The wooden shed to guard crops at night. Photo: Pratap Chauhan

As darkness fell, my father lit his mashal (stick with a fire burning at the top) and marched off to the shelter on the upper end of the field. But as soon as he reached, he heard the unmistakeable sound of a bear eating the maize!

He began yelling at the bear to chase it away. But instead of leaving, the bear began approaching my father, following his voice. The entire field was fenced, so the only exit was on the opposite end of the field, in the direction of the bear!

maize field
Maize fields. Photo by Waldemar Brandt

Scared for his life, my father ran through the rows of maize. By then, it had begun raining and as he ran, the light in his torch went off. Everything went pitch dark! He picked up a stone and flung it into the darkness without much hope. But suddenly he heard a roar, which got deeper and deeper. The stone had definitely hit the bear.

My mother heard the noise first and we all rushed out together. She urged my father not to shout but stay silent instead. She suggested that we make noises to distract the bear’s attention from him. Luckily my mother’s plan was successful! Soon, my father reached home safely. Meanwhile, the bear had crossed the village from the other side and disappeared into the forests.

The Himalayan bear. Photo: Himalayan Ecotourism

The next morning, my cousin came to visit us from Shrikot village. Just when we thought the drama of the night had died down, he began telling us about a bear he and his friends had encountered on the way in the dense forests of Shrikot.

“Mama ji! I saw a bear who looked up at the sky and rubbed his eyes and cried!” he told us excitedly. He claimed that the bear didn’t even notice the presence of a human being nearby. My father was sure it was the same bear he encountered the previous night. The stone he threw in the dark might have hit the bear in the eye.

Back then, Pekhri was a small, beautiful mountain village in the Tirthan Valley, home to 80-90 families, surrounded by barren, rocky land on one side and deep forests on the other. It was a habitat for numerous wild animals.

Pekhri, surrounded by barren hills on one side and forests on the other. Photo: Himalayan Ecotourism

We grew food for our sustenance, but money was always a challenge. People had to venture far away to find labour work. Instead of one good plot of land, we had several plots scattered all around the mountain.

Many years after my father’s narrow escape from the bear, we had a three-day village festival around the same time in the month of Ashad. Like before, we would sleep out in the open to keep wild animals away. But since the festival was extremely noisy, wild animals stayed away during that time. On the first day of the festival, I remember my mother asking my father, “Will you be guarding the crops tonight?”

“I don’t think so,” he replied confidently, “Let it be.”  The same conversation was repeated on the second day. I suppose my father just wanted to relax and enjoy the festivities with his friends.

Finally, on the third night, he went to the fields and was shocked to see that there was nothing left. A bear had been paying our fields a visit every night! There was very little maize left for us. Resigned to his fate, with no anger or malice, he said, “that’s life.” We must survive with what we get.

The traditional houses of Pekhri. Photo: Himalayan Ecotourism

Around the 1980s, people in Pekhri began to grow apples. These days, the maize crop has reduced significantly, and apple has become our main cash crop. Wild animals are still around, they still enter our village, but they can’t climb trees so they don’t destroy the apples much. The forest line is also much higher these days, with much of the forests cut for firewood and to build homes, so there are fewer bears around. If people go into the forests, the chance of encountering a bear is very high though.

Now that I’m about 56 years old, I can look back and say that sharing our land with hungry wild bears was not easy. But as my father said, that was life.

Hear an audio snippet of this story

Meet the storyteller

Pratap Singh Chauhan

Pratap Singh Chauhan grew up in Pekhri village in Himachal Pradesh and spent most of his life there. Despite being a good student, he had to give up his studies in secondary school due to family responsibilities. His dream of becoming an engineer or an army officer remained unfulfilled. Finally, he turned to apple farming to earn his livelihood. He is now 56 years old.

Himalayan Ecotourism
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Himalayan Ecotourism is a social enterprise offering experiential tours and treks in Tirthan Valley, near the Great Himalayan National Park. They believe in sustainable development by promoting conservation and empowering locals, especially women.

One Comment

  • Divya

    This had me on the edge. The bear roaring and then crying looking at the sky, really felt bad. Equally felt bad for the entire crop eaten away, leaving nothing for the family survival. We are meant to coexist, so a win for one, loss for another at different times. That’s life.

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