In the first week of January, not many residents of Zangli Kasheera village in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district dared to move out of their houses. The year’s first snowfall had forced a leopard out of the nearby forests. It ranged the village in search of food, eating whatever came its way.

“Between January 5 and 8, the leopard killed eight horses in the village and mauled the cattle of some villagers,” said Ghulam Mohiuddin Mir, Kupwara block officer of the Wildlife Protection Department. “The area also houses office-cum-residences of various forest department officials and the leopard had made it really difficult for their staff to move freely.”

Mir added: “We installed a cage near Zangli and observed its movement for days.” Their efforts bore fruit on January 11. Drawn by bait, the leopard stepped into the open cage, and the door behind it slid down.

“It is common in the winter for wild animals to make their way towards human settlements in search of food,” Mir explained. “Therefore, the potential for man-animal conflict is huge. Whenever we get any information about the presence of an animal in an area, we install a cage there.”

By January 15, the department had trapped two leopards in Kupwara district. More than half-a-dozen cages are still installed across the district, with officials at the Dragmulla wildlife control room monitoring the situation. The snow has made the exercise even more difficult. “Often we have to carry cages on our shoulders when the roads are closed,” Mir said.

The other conflict

As the snow brings animals into inhabited areas, wildlife officials are on edge. Since 2006, the state’s Wildlife Protection Department has documented 228 human fatalities and 3,350 injuries related to the man-animal conflict in Kashmir region alone.

“Human and wildlife conflict is not a new phenomenon and certainly not new to Kashmir,” said Rashid Yahya Naqash, regional wildlife warden, Kashmir. “Historically, this phenomenon has been going on for centuries. It has been going on ever since the competition for space and food between humans and wild animals escalated.”

But it was from 2006 that the state government started taking measures to address the problem. It started proper documentation and study of wildlife behaviour, especially when animals came in contact with humans. It began to focus on capacity building to deal with these encounters, training staff and acquiring advanced equipment, said wildlife protection officials. It also formulated a compensation scheme for the families of those killed or injured by wild animals. The relatives of those killed get Rs 3 lakh while those with injuries are given Rs 1 lakh. The state also pays for the treatment of minor injuries up to Rs 15,000.

“The compensation element has really helped us in building the inventory of records about the man-animal conflict since all the affected people try to get their loss or injury recorded now,” said a wildlife official.

An Asiatic black bear is confronted by a local villager, who was with a group of men hunting the bear, near the village of Gasoo on the outskirts of Srinagar in November 2007. (Photo credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail).

Shrinking buffer zones

It is not only snowfall that is responsible for pushing animals out of their natural habitat. Wildlife experts and officials are of the opinion that change in land use patterns, a shift towards horticulture, deforestation, developmental projects near forested foothills, security establishments in fragile areas and other human encroachments have led to the increased presence of wild animals in inhabited areas.

Forests cover around 20% 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.

According to Naqash, these areas saw little conflict. “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,” he said.

One of the main reasons for animals foraying into human settlements, Naqash said, was the thinning of buffer zones between the foothills of the forest and human settlements. “Earlier, agriculture practices near these areas meant plantation of paddy,” said Naqash. “Now, the farmer has shifted to horticulture, like fruits. The buffer between forests and communities has vanished. Now, an animal is getting food readily near the forest fringe and it does not have to make much effort for it. One of the most attractive pursuits for a black bear is fallen rotten fruit lying in orchards. Since it is of no use for a farmer, he does not take care of it.”

Kashmiri villagers beat a black bear that had caused panic in the Zakoora area, on the outskirts of Srinagar, in Kashmir, on December 3, 2012. (Photo credit: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP).

Living with humans

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 were mainly involved in causing several forms of conflict,” the study found. “During [the] summer and autumn, bears are on [the] prowl owing to availability of fruit and crop in adjoining localities of forests and protected areas. The leopard attacks have been reported round the year.”

Another study by the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences on the nature of human casualties between 2005 and 2016 observed that 76% of injuries were caused by mauling by bears, while leopards were responsible for 6% of the cases. The study said 2% of the injuries were due to red fox and 1% were caused by monkeys. In 14% of the cases, the identity of the animal could not be established. Published in 2017, the study found that leopard attacks were more lethal, with a mortality rate of 50%.

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,” said Naqash. “This is clearly visible in the hibernation behaviour of the bear. Hibernation is a condition to avoid 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.”

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,” said Mir. “It is a combination of factors which is responsible for this situation we are in today.”

Lack of manpower

According to wildlife officials, human casualties have dipped in the last few years. “The number of recorded incidents of animals in human habitations has grown over the years. However, the human damage has seen a significant dip in last four-five years,” Naqash said. “This indicates that our responsive mechanism is quick and efficient. People need to understand that we cannot stop man-animal conflict but what we can do is prevent it.”

Official records say that from 2014 to November 2018, 49 people were killed in the Kashmir region in the man-animal conflict. During this period, the region also recorded 828 injuries. From 2006-’10, there were 103 deaths and 1,276 injuries.

The 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. “There are only 30 people in Kupwara to deal with the problem of roaming wild animals,” said Mohammad Maqbool Baba, a wildlife warden in North Kashmir. “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?”

Baba added: “We have state-of-the-art technology and equipment but what is the use of it when there are no men to use them?”

Currently, the wildlife protection department in Kashmir has 300-350 personnel, including non-permanent employees. “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,” said Naqash. “We have drafted a proposal about the requirement of manpower in the department.”

Normalising violence

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.

According to Manzoor Hussain, from the department of sociology in Kashmir University, this has helped in normalising violence against animals. “Generally, there is an element of adventure and thrill attached to the sharing of such content online,” he said. “When children and young minds watch these videos, they will be unable to realise the value and significance of animals in the ecosystem.”

But Naqash felt the problem was endemic to the subcontinent and not unique to Kashmir.

The other 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,” said Baba, the North Kashmir wildlife warden. “What we often lack during our operations to rescue or catch an animal is the coordination with various government departments. People need to understand that we are professionals and there is way to deal with situation. The disturbance caused by them carries a high potential to harm the animal or a human being.”