Two weeks back, a picture of a smiling four-year-old girl in a maroon sweatshirt with a rabbit in her lap surfaced on social media platforms alerting residents about her dramatic disappearance.
Soon it becomes known that little Ada Mir was attacked by a leopard when she was playing on the lawn of her house in Ompora locality in the central Kashmir’s Budgam district. The wild animal carried her swiftly hundreds of metres away from the house. Shocked family members, neighbours joined the wildlife men and police to scout around the new residential colony in the night to trace her. Early morning the searches led them to a bushy spot of a nearby nursery; it was here that Ada’s body, in parts, was fetched.
The incident filled the residents with shock and grief as much with rage and contempt for authorities. Angry residents said the leopard was on the prowl for literally last two years but the wildlife department was lax to take action when they flagged the issue. However, even in their intense sorrow, Ada’s parents kept cool and requested the wildlife men to avert such lethal animal attacks. They pleaded with social media users to erase videos of Ada especially those when her body was found.
Ada’s tragic killing has once again brought the spotlight on the higher incidences of man-animal conflict in the last ten years in Kashmir, a crisis that has been perpetually raised in the past and where the intervention of authorities has not been successful.
Animals attacking the man and vice versa has seen a sharp spike in the last 10 years. Residents in Kashmir have been spotting Himalayan black bears and leopards regularly not only in the forests but neo-colonies which have sprung in big cities and towns. The colonies have come up next to forests and secluded zones. There have been frequent instances in the last few years when leopards and bears have sneaked into residential sending people into a tizzy. Wild cats have picked up pets, poultry, sheep and goat and bears gorged on fruit and beehives with ease.
The last few weeks witnessed dozens of cases when animals have come in contact with humans inflicting severe injuries on each other.
An adult bear was seen walking by the roadside in Harwan locality of Srinagar, a leopard was lazing around in Beerwah village in Budgam district a few days back. Some leopard and bear cubs were rescued and released in the woods.
Rashiq Naqash, Regional Wildlife warden for Kashmir told News 18 that the number of bears and leopards have grown significantly in the last few years. "Because there is ample and safe space for them to breed, their population has multiplied hugely. It is an unnatural growth," he admitted.
Satellite images have shown there are no open spaces between forests and orchards now and the animals wander there without any check. “If you compare the images captured 50 years ago with those of today, you will see massive settlements have come up next to the forests and once open spaces There is no buffer between a forest and orchards. And no safe corridor for wild animals to come and go," he said.
"In fact, they merge at many places. You cannot really tell which is what. Orchards end in forests. One cannot rule out encroachments," said an official, refusing to come on record.
Naqash attributes higher incidents of animal attacks to the shrinking of the habitat of the wildlife. “Because of the horticulture boost in last 40 years, people have grown orchards profusely near the forest ranges. Bears, in particular, get attracted to the fruit and come in conflict with the man," he said.
He said bad trash management and unchecked dog population — considered favourite food for wild cats — is linked to increasing leopard attacks in cities and towns. Moreover, significant poultry and sheep rearing units near households too lure the wild animals.
Data available with Jammu and Kashmir wildlife department reveals as many as 228 persons have been killed and 2850 injured in the last 15 years. In the last four years alone, 32 persons were killed and 498 injured.
The retaliatory attacks by the man on animals are more lethal and result in fatalities. Figures suggest around 50 animals — 21 bears and leopards each — have been killed in the last one year alone.
Videos of violent mobs delivering lathi blows and throwing stones on wild animals surface regularly on social media. One such video where a bear has dragged down a tall tree in South Kashmir and killed by a mob raised a question, ‘who is a bigger beast," on micro-blogging sites.
"The wounds sustained in bear and leopard attacks are very serious. In many cases, there is permanent disfigurement of the body parts, especially the face and neck areas, in these attacks," Dr Umar Nazir, Wildlife veterinarian told News 18. “Not just the physical injuries, the psychological scars remain with the victim for a long time," he said.
Nazir said the attacks carried out by mobs on animals are more lethal. “I have done a lot of post-mortems of animals and it is 10 out of 10 times that the poor animals get killed," he said.
“On an average, we see one to two cases of such attack every month."
Dr Zaffar Rais Mir, Assistant Professor at the Central University of Kashmir, has been working extensively on leopards, their habitat and behaviour for the last 10 years. He too agrees that converting vast paddy lands to a more remunerative apple orchard provides a safe cover to the leopards to hide in the day and attack by evening.
"Wild cats shy away from humans but at dusk, they come out in search of food. But if a man comes accidentally in his way, he attacks instantly."
Because people have started to rear sheep, poultry, they target such places as it is easy to prey on them than roam in jungles where the prey-base has reduced drastically," he said.
He pointed out little Ada got killed because the leopard found an easy target rather than roaming for days for food.
“I examined the nursery at Ompora extensively. The leopard had found a safe cover in the shrubs. And because there is a poultry unit, pet dogs and rabbits raised in the neighbourhood, the leopard must have been encouraged."
Mir said the availability of fruits in the habitations lures the bears. “Fruit growers often chance upon bears while working in orchards and pick injuries," said Mir who earned his PhD on studying leopard behaviour and ecology in Kashmir.
During his research, Mir used radio collars to study the behaviour of four leopards inside the Dachigam national park for several years. He found out that there wasn’t enough food in the upper reaches and so the leopards moved in the residential areas of Harwan, Nishat to Buchwara in the lower fringes near the residential areas.
“In Kashmir, the leopards mark their territory which is twice as big in area as compared to other regions," he said. “On an average, a leopard holds a territory of 30 square kilometres but in Kashmir, it is active in 60 square kilometres signifying the wild cats have to strive harder to find food in forests," said Mir.
It is quite often that the animal enters populated areas for food and that is when the man-animal conflicts come into play, he added.
A leopard, he said, is comfortable lifting animals weighing up to 25 kg for food. “Because we don’t have sambhars or chitals in the habitat, the food availability in jungles is less,” he added. Though there is the presence of Hangul, Kashmiri stag, and Ibex in jungles, they are too heavy to be lifted but their fawns are vulnerable to attacks.
To avoid contact
An eye on increased incidences of man-animal conflict has prompted the wildlife department to issue a do’s and don’ts list for people to avoid animal attacks.
First, it has asked people not to send out children and women in open especially during the dawn and dusk hours. The animals, Mir says, are hyperactive during this time.
Wildlife men have advised people to erect a tall fence around farms rearing livestock, poultry, and pets. A tin fence with bells or noise devices can effectively put out the wild cats and bears. The area should be lit up and alarm systems installed in case there is a breach. People should avoid littering as it attracts dogs, a favourite food for leopards.
The department has operationalised 22 control rooms under five wildlife wardens to process and react to alerts of animals attacks. “We intervene whenever we get an SOS," said Naqash.
The wildlife department has adequate tranquiliser equipment for the physical and chemical restrain of wild animals. “We have compiled a good data for the last 15 years and are mulling to award a study to a reputed wildlife organisation which will recommend a small-term, mid-term and long-term strategy to contain the man-animal conflict.
“The study will identify the hotspots of such attacks and give a prediction model based on season, food and spaces and recommend as to what can be done on a long-term basis," he said.
He said the department gives Rs 3 lakh as ex-gratia in case a person is killed in an animal attack and between Rs 15,000 to Rs 3 lakh depending on the severity of the injuries.