In Depth

‘Beast in bush’ is no longer an ‘urban myth’ in Kashmir

At a time when uptown city pocket dwellers are claiming a beast sighting in their neighbourhood, the man-wild conflict which earlier devoured a five-year-old Kashmiri girl is only growing menacing in the valley.

Before trepidation came a pixelated picture of a leopard prowling in Srinagar’s posh residential colony. The shot of the ‘ready to pounce’ beast taken from a balcony was followed by a rattling roaring, enough to end the sleep of residents. The sense of fear is such that a compulsive indoor activity is being practiced as wildlife watch and the warden is trying to get the wild catch.

But as the beast remains at large and makes its roaring presence felt every now and then, many people feel that the wild infiltrations have made the growing man-wild conflict in Kashmir quite urban in nature.

Before shocking Kashmir by snatching a five-year-old Ompora girl, leopards had surfaced in Srinagar’s Bagh-e-Mehtab area early this year and given a hard time to the locals and the wildlife department. In the hilly terrains of the city, the black bear was even spotted running parallel with the early-morning joggers.

“These surged wild sightings in urban pockets are unnerving,” says Showkat Mir, an activist based in Srinagar. “It’s playing exactly like a movie plot where these animals are now intruding the urban pockets with a vengeful huff after humans messed up their habitats by building homes there.”

Besides habitat loss, experts attribute these growing wild attacks to search for food, climate change and deforestation.

Deconstructing the urban moves, a six-year-old survey lays bare the very dynamics of these cases.

In 2015, the wildlife department conducted a survey in Budgam district from Rangreth airport to Humhama area covering over 750 villages.

“We found that many villages including Ompora where recently a minor was mauled to death by a leopard have densely populated orchards in and around the peripheries of the forest which attract animals to come out of their dens,” a senior wildlife officer said.

“We also found that there’re no proper roads for wildlife range officers to travel via vehicle and vigil the forest area. This is only becoming a practical hitch in the watch and warden process.”

Over the years, he said, the wildlife department has taken many initiatives to implant fruits and berries inside the dense forests so that particularly the black bears don’t come out.

“Having said that, the wildlife doesn’t live in a particular periphery and it’s impossible to bind an animal. All a wildlife department can do is to rush the spot and put a cage or inject tranquillizer.”

Whether or not this explains the current man-wild conflict, especially in the urban pockets of the valley, at least 67 people have already lost their lives in these wild encounters, leaving 940 others injured in the last 5 years in Kashmir.

Experts say 80 per cent of these man-wild conflicts happen with Himalayan black bears and leopards.

According to Samina Charoo, food is the main reason why these wild animals are now coming towards urban pockets.

“Different animals eat different food,” Samina, a research officer in Kashmir’s wildlife department, said.

“For example, carnivorous leopard eats Himalayan Grey Langoor and the omnivore Himalayan black bear [also called Asiatic black bear whose tribe is densely populated in Kashmir forests] eat berries, fruits, wild walnuts from the Oaktree and small animals.”

Due to habitat fragmentation, climate change and deforestation, the wilderness heritage has reduced over time, the wildlife official said.

“The richness our animals want in the forests is not there anymore. Moreover, human intervention has added challenges to it. Since orchardists never dump the rotten fruits properly, a strong smell attracts these animals towards the human habitat. In new incidents, we’re surprised to see brown bears coming down to urban pockets from very high altitudes now.”

However, the wild animals, Samina added, don’t attack humans till they feel a threat.

“For example, common leopard is a shy animal and it doesn’t come out so usually. I can tell this from my personal experience. Sometimes before, when I saw a leopard in the forest, it fled away before making eye contact. Their prey species is declining so they are turning towards domestic prey like dogs.”

Psychologically, said a wildlife expert officer, Kashmir is a sad society which “enjoys troubling” an animal and is now facing a backlash.

“A few months ago,” he said, “I was on my duty in Bagh-e-Mehtab area of Srinagar when a black bear was spotted in the area. Thousands of people were chasing him with stones. The bear got so angry that even the tranquillizer didn’t work on him. He was uncontrollable.”

People need to understand that a wild animal is a friend of the forests and not an enemy, the official added.

“When a black bear finds food on the upper branches of the trees, it breaks its fragile branches creating a pathway for the light to penetrate towards the lower growth of the forests. They’re there for a reason.”

In the backdrop of these growing urban incursions, experts suggest that human behaviour must change towards nature and wildlife.

“The other day, a man from Harwan called and told me that some Hanguls have eaten his haakh. I told him how can we stop Hanguls from eating his food. He shouldn’t have grown crops near the forests in the first place. But sadly, people are not ready to accept that they’ve barged into the wild habitat.”

In the last 15 years, experts say, human habitation has shifted towards the upper belt disturbing the entire habitat of wild species.

“When I was a range officer in Dachigam belt, a group of 8 dogs, like a pack of wolves, used to eat at least four Himalayan grey Langoors daily, thus diminishing the prey for other carnivorous animals,” said Suhail Wagay, Wildlife Technical Warden J&K.

“We do have protected areas for wildlife in J&K like sanctuaries but the area is so huge that interventions become inevitable and there’s no proper fencing.”

Also, due to climate change, as Kashmir is now witnessing snowfall in May, animals struggle for food and find orchards on a nearby belt and approach it swiftly.

“This perhaps explains why we’re witnessing these growing man-wild conflicts in urban pockets today.”


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