On June 4th, 2021, a leopard took away a four-year-old girl from the lawns of her house and later mauled her to death in a nearby nursery. The little girl’s body was found after two days in a nursery, barely a few hundred metres away from her house, in Ompora locality of Central Kashmir’s Budgam town. The incident left the entire wildlife department of Kashmir shaken.
Four-year-old victim Adha was playing in the lawns of her home when the leopard took her away. Her family was totally unaware of the incident. Some wildlife officials said that the leopard had in fact come to get ‘pet rabbits’ but “took the little girl mistakenly.”
The challenge to catch the man-eater leopard kept the entire wildlife department on toes for at least a week. It was only after wildlife officials, along with the officials from the Forest department and also the army set up cages, used drones and spent nights in camps that the leopard could be caught alive.
Just three months after the Ompora incident, an eight-year-old boy was mauled to death by a leopard in Soibugh area, in the same district of Budgam. “People had heard the cries and after following the blood trail, they managed to retrieve the boy from the clutches of the leopard. He was taken to a hospital where doctors declared him dead,” said Range Officer (Wildlife) Sajid Farooq.
Till 2005, reports of man-animal conflict would rarely pour in. But over the past 15 years, as per the data prepared by the wildlife department of Kashmir, wild animals have easily gained entry into residential areas of Kashmir’s major towns that include Pulwama, Shopian, Budgam, Ganderbal and Srinagar.
In a region where over 40000 lives have been lost to strife and conflict over the past more than three decades, the man-animal conflict has now only added to the challenge of the J&K administration manifold.
What the numbers say
15-year-data prepared by the wildlife department of Kashmir suggests that incidents of deaths and injuries in man-animal conflict came to light in the year 2006, when 18 people were mauled to death and 134 were injured in various districts of Kashmir. 2011-12 saw as many as 28 deaths and 315 injuries.
DATA ON DEATHS AND INJURIES (LAST 5 YEARS)
2017: 8 deaths; 120 injured
2018: 6 deaths; 83 injured
2019: 11 deaths; 85 injured
2020: 5 deaths; 87 injured
2021: 9 deaths; 57 injured
Regional Wildlife Warden Kashmir, Rashid Naqash said that even though the wildlife department nas managed to bring down the fatalities and injuries but the growing concern for it is “increased movement of wild animals like leopards and black bears into residential areas.”
However, he also added, “Our awareness campaigns have started to bear fruit as people are maintaining calm and calling our teams for help. Our first choice is to tranquilise the animal and take him to a wildlife sanctuary to provide him a natural habitat.” There is a huge national park for animals at the Dachigam area in Srinagar district.
Rashid also said that figures over the last one year suggest that out of 1650 cases involving man-animal conflict in Kashmir’s residential areas, 1050 cases were successfully resolved by offering safe corridors for the animals towards their natural habitat.
“50 animals were killed by mobs in various places including Srinagar district. To prevent the killing of animals, we have set up 22 control rooms for acting swiftly. This will help save both animals and humans,” he said.
Why animals stray into human habitats
Chief Wildlife Warden J&K Suresh Kumar Gupta said that in Kashmir, four animals are found to be primarily involved in conflicts with the humans: leopard, black bear, snake and monkey. “Snake and monkey-related incidents are mostly reported in the Jammu region, while leopard and black bear-related conflicts are more common in the Kashmir region,” he said. “Conflict has increased due to the expansion of human population in areas close to forest and wildlife sanctuaries.”
Senior Scientist and Head of Wildlife Science Division at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Science (SKAUST)-Kashmir, Khursheed Ahmed said that there are many reasons for man-animal conflict, especially those involving leopards and black bears. “These animals have come out of their natural habitat. This is called habitat shifting. They have adapted to live in human-dominated landscapes because of the easy food availability in these places,” he said.
Khursheed added that while there is no scientific evidence to prove that their population has increased, some facts (anecdotal) may give the impression that the population of leopards and black bears has gone up, leading to more frequent man-animal conflict.
According to him, conversion of paddy lands into orchards is also one of the main reasons that black bears are getting attracted into residential areas. “Fruit is a major attraction for black bears especially in autumn. The bears want to eat as much fruit as possible before going into hibernation,” he said, adding that “bears become voracious fruit eaters in autumn.” “This is the main reason why such man-animal conflict incidents take place in autumn,” he said.
About the decrease in deaths and injuries, he said that incidents have increased. “There is a lot of awareness compared to the past few years. The wildlife department has set up control rooms now to deal with the entry of wild animals into residential areas,” he said.
Wildlife Warden for Kashmir Wetlands and Man-Animal Conflict Expert, lfshan Dewan told Citizen Matters that there has been a change in the behaviour of wild animals especially leopards due to non-availability of food in their natural habitat. “Easy availability of food, shelter in human spaces and fast urbanization are the primary reasons for the entry of wild animals into residential areas,” she said. Ifshan said that throwing out food waste consisting of rice, poultry and other items is also attracting wild animals into human spaces.
“One more reason behind why leopards are entering residential areas is that many people keep pets at their homes like rabbits, dogs, chicken etc., which attract the animals,” she said. She urged parents not to allow their children to go wandering out of their homes in the early morning or late evening hours.
According to Warden Suresh Kumar Gupta several dos and don’ts have been issued for citizens. “We have urged people to always stick together in groups if they venture out to areas close to forests, and avoid entering forest areas along with sticks and lights,” he said.
The Chief Wildlife Warden also said that lack of manpower makes it difficult to reach the spots on time in many places where wild animals make their entry. “To address this issue, we have set up joint control rooms with the Forest department in districts and zones. This has been done because of the fact that we have only 600 people as our staff across the entire breadth of J&K,” he said, adding that the department is mulling recruitment of 150 more people in the months ahead in a bid to increase manpower.
He also said that waste food disposal remains a challenge, as people don’t follow guidelines and directions of Municipal Committees and Municipal Corporations; they continue to throw food waste outside their homes instead of in dustbins. “Waste food attracts dogs and then leopards and black bears etc,” he said. Preventing untoward incidents involving animal attacks would thus also call for more responsible citizen behaviour.