What I learned about bears, from a dentist and engineer
Squatting — I was never very good at it. I think I’m too tall or something.
But this morning I had no choice, I had to master it. Because this morning I have giardia, and I’m a looooong way from the nearest toilet.
Just four little sticks straddle the opening of the pit latrine underneath me, sticks for me to carefully place my big feet on and hope to God that they hold my 230 pound body. One slip and it’s all over.
I am not a happy camper.
Which is weird, because I had worked very hard to get here: 16,000 feet above sea level in the Himalayas.
The view from my latrine at 6 a.m. was like no other: wild, rolling hills, blanketed in green grasses that stretch forever. This is the Deosai Plateau, surrounded by peaks of the Karakorum Himalaya, home to K2 — the second highest mountain in the world — on the edge of Kashmir.
In Urdu, the Pakistani people call this plateau “Land of the Giants." I felt right at home, teetering over my hole in the ground.
It was 1994, I’m 25 years old, and I’m the only non-Pakistani member of a swat team of bear experts here to find one of the rarest bears in the world, the Himalayan brown bear.
I’d begged and borrowed my way here after meeting the two lead bear biologists from Pakistan at a bear research conference in Alaska. They’d captured my imagination talking about these bears that called northern Pakistan their home.
And here I was a year later, after five days of traveling from my home in England, in the Pakistani Himalayas working on their project!
It’s a big day. The two bear biologists and the 10-man team is gathering at our basecamp to kick things off. It's like the formal start to our research project, several months of trying to find bears and put them on the map to protect them.
Today was the first day in a summer of learning for me with these smart biologists, to learn about one of the most isolated populations of high elevation bears anywhere on earth.
My dream gig.
But I felt like I was on death’s door (with the diarrhea and altitude sickness).
I limped into the mess tent and sat on the floor with the other guys, cross-legged in a circle, quite ceremoniously. I remember the smell inside the tent was intoxicating: curried beans and roti, the local bread.
Anis, the bear biologist I’d met in Alaska and one of the two bosses, was first to speak.
“So Chris: Tell us all about bears” he says .
Weird, I thought. It must be a test. They’re figuring out what I know. So maybe I’ll start with broad brush strokes.
“Well," I summoned my energy to impress them, "bears, are carnivores."
“Wait a minute!” Anis says. “Bears are carnivores?!”
“Yes, bears are carnivores. You know that — you’re a bear biologist."
“Oh no no no,” he says. “I’m a dentist."
“A dentist?!" I said.
“Yes, I’m a dentist, not a bear biologist”.
I felt my jaw drop — literally drop. And I looked over to the other boss, Vaqar, hoping, just hoping he was the bear biologist here.
“And Vaqar here," Anis says.
Yessss, I’m thinking.
“Is a chemical engineer."
“A chemical engineer?!" I said.
I didn’t know what to say. In my weakened state I almost began to cry.
What have I done? I’ve traveled halfway around the world to learn about Himalayan brown bears— from a dentist and a chemical engineer.
Then Anis said, "We are here to save these bears."
It was that that landed him on the stage at the bear conference a year earlier. He was one of the very few people who knew anything about these mysterious bears.
I was in shock, but also in awe.
Early the next morning I woke up to the sound of one of the team members, Rasheed, singing the Islamic call to prayer. It was beautiful. I poked my head out of my tent to watch. I’d never seen this before and it moved me so much.
I remember feeling quite delirious, like I was in another world, and not sure what I’d got myself into.
As the pounding in my head and the race to the latrine subsided each day, I discovered I was with a team of very special people.
In the coming days I got to know all my team mates, especially Rasheed, a tiny man with a giant beard, mischievous and always laughing, and Haleem, who was like a larger-than-life Pakistani cowboy, rallying us all with his enthusiasm.
"Come on Chris!!” he would constantly shout.
Anis and Vaqar had brought us all together. It turns out bears were quite new to all of them and my little bear research experience up til then in Spain and Canada was, well, very useful to them in ways I never imagined before I came here.
We began to learn — together, a motley crew on a mission for these bears in the middle of nowhere.
Best guesses put the bear population estimate on the Deosai Plateau at just 19. And they’d taken secrecy to a whole new level. These bears needed help.
Haleem told me that Anis and Vaqar’s dream was to create a national park to protect this handful of rare bears. And they wouldn’t stop until it happened.
But we found no bears, until one day we walked to the top of a hill next to camp to take a last look down the valley before turning in. And as we scanned the distance with our binoculars, not expecting to see a thing, a bear appeared on the slope below us — close enough for us to see with the naked eye!
I remember the first gasp from one of the guys and then another bear — a cub!
Anis grabbed my shoulders tight and just hugs me. He's laughing, hugging me hard. We all hugged.
This was a huge turning point. The place just seemed to burst to life with possibilities after that. We would hike for miles, crossing rivers and mountain passes, getting lost in the fog, and even chased down by nomadic herdsmen one day, but it didn’t matter, because we were starting to see bears.
The dream of protecting them really united us.
We went on to see several bears over the next few weeks, documenting their every move, the things they were eating, the places they were spending time.
And it worked. A year later Anis and Vaqar made sure of it.
This "land of the giants" became a protected place for bears forever. It was designated Deosai National Park, a place where 19 bears have now grown to 72.
And a place where my young mind learned lessons that have lasted me a lifetime — but not about bears, but about people and the human spirit.
That summer I learned more than I ever saw coming from my new friends in Pakistan. I learned that it's not always about PhDs and protocol, but passion and being bold enough to do brave things.
I also learned that anything is possible, from a dentist and a chemical engineer who love bears.
This story by Chris Morgan comes from a special event hosted by KUOW. On Friday, October 14 we gathered to enjoy "Stories from The Wild" with eight stories presented in front of a live audience at Seattle's McCaw Hall.