Srinagar: On a Friday morning last September, Ghulam Nabi Bhat left his home in Theed to buy trout from a fish-farm near Dachigam National Park. Walking through the paddy fields on the outskirts of Srinagar, the 52-year-old reached the rear gates of the park, where he was confronted by a female black bear and two cubs.
Bhat froze – but the bear, seeing a threat to her cubs, attacked. It mauled him with across his nose and eyes, damaging his optic nerves. After the bear left him for dead, Bhat lay there for hours, bleeding and unconscious.
At home, his wife grew anxious and eventually called the neighbours, who set out in groups to search for Bhat. They found him in the field where the bear had left him. He spent the next two months at a tertiary-care hospital, the Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, being treated for facial injuries.
Since then Bhat has been confined to his home, largely immobile and unable to talk comfortably. He has lost his modest livelihood as a contractual employee in the J&K Power Development Department. He never recovered his eyesight.
Missing fruits of growth
In the year 2014-2015, newspapers reported, human-wildlife conflict claimed 14 lives in Jammu & Kashmir, and 221 people were injured by wild animals. In 2008-2009, according to the Wildlife Protection Department, 25 people were killed and 342 people were injured by bears, a figure which rose to 40 killed and 562 injured by 2011-2012.
In February this year, a 14-year-old boy was injured by a wild animal in Tulli village of Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir. Last year, in the Tangmarg area of Baramulla district in north Kashmir, at least eight people were injured in bear attacks. Official figures quoted in local newspapers said that in 2015, at least 21 people were injured in bear and leopard attacks in Tangmarg and nearby areas alone.
Another serious concern is the threat to livestock. Last week, over a dozen sheep were killed in two separate leopard attacks in Budgam and Pulwama.
A 2015 study by researchers from Department of Zoology, University of Kashmir concluded that human-animal conflict in the region is “an outcome of the growing space crisis” which has resulted from the “diminishing area of the forests, and increasing human population in its periphery, combined with human interference within the natural habitat of wild animals and shortage of food and water in this region.”
As Kashmir’s forests are converted into orchards, croplands and settlements, there is a reduction in the prey and food-base available to wild predators.
Chaturbuj Behra, a regional wildlife warden says changing land-use patterns in Kashmir are the main reason for attacks on humans and livestock. “The land where people used to sow rice is now being increasingly used for apple cultivation,” said Behra, adding that apple orchards near forest areas can be an attraction for wild animals. “People who own these orchards often inform us about wild-animal activity in their areas.”
Dr. Khurshid Ahmad of the Centre for Wildlife Sciences, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, points out lacunae in the state forest policy: Most of the trees planted over the years have been the Kikar species, rather than fruit-bearing trees which help to meet the nutritional needs of large mammals.
“Then there is overall lack of awareness among people,” he said. “Recently some residents captured a musk deer from a forest area in north Kashmir, fearing it might harm them.”
Mohammad Shafi Bacha, a former research officer in the State Wildlife Protection Department, also stressed the government needs to regularly plant fruit-bearing species inside forest cover in order to contain wild animals like black bears to their natural habitats.
Bacha pointed to another worrying factor. “The glaciers are dying and perennial rivulets have become seasonal while seasonal rivulets are fast disappearing across the valley,” he said.
Experts believe that mountain ecosystems like the Kashmir valley are especially susceptible to climate change. “But till date still very little research has been done on it,” said Aijaz Ahmad Qureshi, of Kashmir University’s Department of Zoology, adding that there’s a need for better monitoring of wildlife populations in general.
Fewer hands, more claws
Two years ago, 45-year-old Sarah Bhat, a resident of Batapora in Srinagar, was attacked by a bear while she was cutting grass in her orchard. The bear inflicted severe injuries on her skull, tearing the lower lid of her right eye, and also injured her right arm.
More than a year later, and after multiple corrective surgeries, Sarah is still unable to do most household chores. Traumatised by the attack, even loud noises frighten her. “I cannot touch hot objects, neither can I cook,” she said. “Tears often come out from my eyes during daytime, and at night my eyes turn dry.”
Behra, the wildlife warden, points to the paucity of funds to deal with the issue. The bulk of funds come from the state government, for procuring cages and tranquilisers to catch straying wild animals. “Central government funding is not reliable,” he said. “We have often approached the centre for financial help but the flow of funds is not continuous.”
Still, Behra claimed, the number of human-animal conflict causalities has reduced by 50% this year due to “awareness created by the department in areas that are prone to bear attacks and infiltration of other wild animals in residential areas.” The department has been asking mosques to use their public reach to spread awareness, he said. ‘This has proved to be a useful mechanism.”
Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based out of Srinagar, Kashmir.