Srinagar, Jun 30 : On June 3, a 4-year-old Ada Shakil was playing in the lawn of her house at Ompora village in Budgam district when a leopard dragged her away.
Her mutilated body was recovered in the forest nursery about one kilometre from her house the next day. The attack was a grim reminder of the deteriorating relationships between humans and animals in J&K that resulted in fatal consequences.
Earlier in October 2018, a nine-month-old Aiman Jan was mauled to death by a leopard at her home in the same way when she was sleeping in the kitchen of her home at Daramdora village of Shopian.
As per officials the reason for the rapid rise of tension between humans and animals is the paucity of living space and fragmentation of wildlife zones.
According to the world park congress (2003) conflict occurs when wildlife’s requirements overlap with those of the human population. The destruction of their habitat due to human activities complex the wild animals to human settlements in search of food and water leading to conflict.
According to wildlife experts, in Kashmir human population is increasing rapidly. Forest cover has either decreased or declined in quality due to habitat degradation and transforming agricultural fields into apple orchards, especially in forest areas are more adept to attract wild animals.
“We have observed that in 80 percent of the cases if the animal attack on humans, bears are involved. They do not eat human flesh, but attack to defend themselves. The danger of conflict can substantially reduced if humans do not do things that incite animals to attack,” they said.
Experts say poor knowledge of animal behaviour has also been a major cause of conflict.
The resolution of the problem can be alleviated if people who live near forest areas are made aware of the behavioural pattern of animals. Giving awareness to the villagers will help in peaceful coexistence between humans and wildlife.
Experts say the growing danger of wild animals will continue to haunt people in Kashmir for as long as there is the unchecked growth of the population of stray dogs, which feed on kitchen wastes, particularly meat, chicken.
Mudasir Ahmad, a wildlife expert says that wildlife animals cannot be kept out of urban or semi-urban areas till there is the presence of a huge number of stray dogs. He said that dogs are the biggest reason for the presence of leopards near human habitations.
“Dogs are the first and foremost prey for leopards,” he said.
He said that what has happened during the last 20 years is that people have started consuming more meat. This generates more kitchen waste of meat and not only the dog population feeds on it but it also invites wild animals to live in the surroundings.
He said man-animal conflict in Kashmir has risen in recent years, he said that the trend has been so for two decades now, but more cases are being reported these days.
“The wild leopard has almost become an urban leopard. Earlier there used to be a gap between forests and human habitations, which we call habitat fragmentation,” he said
Before 20 years, there was barren land and animals did not cross it. That barren land is now filled with fruit orchards, and these give wild animals a protected cover, similar to what they were getting in forests,” he further added.
According to official records, 196 people have been killed and 2,325 injured since 2011 in attacks by wild animals in J &K.
Another wildlife expert said that wildlife habitations are not being maintained as much for animals as for forests. The priority, he said, is being given to trees but not to bushes and other cover for the animals.
“When we grow simple forests and at the same time there is a dense cover of orchards, where would wildlife prefer to go? Obviously, the orchards, because there they have an abundance of food and the finest cover. To tackle the situation we have to maintain wildlife habitations and avoid fruit growing around these habitations,” the expert said.
He added that in Ompora, the government took a piece of land for nursery purposes and as years passed, this nursery turned into a forest, full of bushes. “Once the leopard enters it, it will not come out of it, since its prey, the dog is there and it occasionally attacks humans,” the wildlife expert said.
“There are similar Ompora-like cases in other parts where karevas were turned into forests and forests into habitations or army camps,”
“Vast paddy fields have been converted into mostly apple orchards. New neighborhoods have popped up around wetlands and forest areas. Deforestation and climate change have added to woes,” he added.
Forests covers around 20 percent of the geographical area of Jammu and Kashmir. More than half of the Kashmir Valley is forested. The state has a protected area network of 15,912 sq km, with five national parks, 14 wildlife sanctuaries and 35 conservation reserves.
Officials believe that most of the man-animal conflict takes place outside protected area networks like orchards, human settlements, forest area where deforestation and encroachments have taken place.
A group of four researchers at the department of zoology in Kashmir University studied human mortalities and injuries due to wild animals between 2010 and 2012.
“The leopard and Asiatic black bear was mainly involved in causing several forms of conflict,” the study found.
Another study by the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences on the nature of human casualties between 2005 and 2016 observed that 76 percent of injuries were caused by mauling by bears, while leopards were responsible for 6 percent of the cases. The study said 2 percent of the injuries were due to red fox and 1 percent were caused by monkeys. In 14 percent of the cases, the identity of the animal could not be established.
Officials of the wildlife protection department have noticed changing patterns in animal behaviour, often dictated by the availability of food. “In our study of the behaviour of a black bear, we have realised that bear has become socialised to the conditions outside its habitat,” officials said.
This is clearly visible in the hibernation behaviour of the bear. Hibernation is a condition to avoid the most unfavourable conditions like food scarcity. But with food readily available, the hibernation period of bears has decreased. Now, the black bear is active in snow as well, they said.
The political conflict in the region has also had an effect on animal behaviour. In Kupwara, for instance, wildlife officials say the presence of Army camps, and trash around them have attracted wild animals. “The fencing of Line of Control has also impacted the migration of animals,” It is a combination of factors which is responsible for this situation we are in today.” officials added.
The wildlife department has 22 control rooms that are on call 24 hours across the 10 districts of the Valley. But for decades the department has been hampered by the lack of manpower. For example: “There are only 30 people in Kupwara to deal with the problem of roaming wild animals. Out of them, only 10 are permanent and 20 are casual labourers who are paid a pittance. Why will they risk their lives in vulnerable situations?” officials on condition of anonymity said.
Currently, the wildlife protection department in Kashmir has 300-350 personnel, including non-permanent employees, they said.
“In a region where an area of 2,000 sq km is notified as protected land, we ideally need around 1,200-1,300 staff members on the ground, “We have drafted a proposal about the requirement of manpower in the department, they added.
Public attitudes have also contributed to the man-animal conflict in Kashmir. In recent years, videos and pictures of animal attacks as well as of mobs chasing down animals or beating them to death have emerged on social media, Suhail Ahmad another wildlife expert said.
The main problem wildlife officials face is local residents taking matters into their own hands. “It is a huge challenge to control the crowd and manage the animal at the same time,” he said.
What we often lack during our operations to rescue or catch an animal is coordination with various government departments. “People need to understand that we are professionals and there is a way to deal with situations,” he added.
He said that at many places animals attack when they were chased away by the people.
“People must avoid such things and immediately contact wild life department in case of emergency,” he added.
“Care must be taken when away from home. As it has been found that most of the attacks by wild animals occur during the evening or early morning hours. People must avoid leaving homes during these periods of the day. If it is necessary they can move in groups as wild animals usually avoid people in groups,” Suhail said.
“Children must not be allowed to move out of their homes alone as wild animals prefer to attack children,” he said—(KNO)