It’s a scorching day in June and Mohammad Mudasir Bhat, the person in charge of the Wildlife Control Room in Kashmir’s retail department, is searching the dense apple orchards for a black bear. A team of trained rescuers, armed with stun guns, accompany him. The black bear attacked four people in the area in one day.
On June 24, around 4:50 a.m., Ghulam Hassan Wani, 54, from Tahab village in southern Kashmir, was attacked by the bear while returning from prayer. “The incident happened right away and I didn’t have time to call for help. I fell unconscious,” Wani said, adding that he went home as soon as he regained consciousness and was taken to a nearby hospital.
Over the next few hours, three other men from Tahab were attacked by the bear. People are now afraid to leave their homes, and villagers believe the area is witnessing the first instances of human-animal conflict in nearly 40 years. “The last time a bear was seen in this village was in 1978,” Wani told Mongabay-India.
Over the past decade, Kashmir has witnessed several human-animal conflicts, some of which have resulted in deaths. According to data from the Nature Department of Jammu and Kashmir, the pattern of human-animal conflict and deaths has been uneven over the years (from 2011 to 2020).
However, the residents report a different story – they claim to have witnessed more animals entering their living spaces, leading to more interaction and conflict. Similar stories have surfaced from various parts of Kashmir as the appearances of wild animals in populated areas have become more frequent.
Forest land degradation reduces the natural food or prey base available to wild animals, forcing them to leave their natural territory to hunt. This is not a conflict, but a danger we have created for ourselves.
Mehreen Khaleel, Founder, Wildlife Research Conservation Foundation
A statement from the Department of Wildlife Protection Kashmir that Mongabay had access to on July 7 reads: “The two most pressing human-animal conflict situations plaguing human space in the Kashmir region involve black bears and leopards. While conflict is not a new phenomenon in the world, including in Jammu and Kashmir, it has certainly escalated greatly in recent years.”
According to their data, 234 people lost their lives and 2,918 were injured in human-animal conflicts between 2006 and March 2022.
In the past three months, there have been 895 incidents in the region of Kashmir where people have had negative interactions with wildlife. Bhat, a conservationist, has participated in more than 200 rescue operations so far. “Our teams have to spend days and nights in the orchards to make sure people are safe while saving wildlife,” he says.
Rashid Naqash, Regional Wildlife Warden for Kashmir, says habitat fragmentation, a shift in land use patterns and poor waste management mechanisms are some of the factors responsible for the increase in attacks. “Kashmir has witnessed massive changes in forest cover in recent years,” he says.
Buffer zones have disappeared and become open and rice fields have been transformed into orchards or human settlements. When the boundaries between human habitation and jungles shrink, such conflicts will inevitably occur.”
Naqash also adds that human interference in the natural habitat of wild animals has forced them to make certain behavioral changes. “They have adapted to the changing environment and have become accustomed to roaming outside their territory in search of food.
The deaths of five minors between the ages of five and 15 in various incidents in Kashmir from June 11 to July 6 is the latest in a series of human-animal conflicts. On June 14, the body of a 12-year-old girl was found in a forest in the Baramulla district of northern Kashmir after being attacked by a leopard outside her home. She was the third minor to be attacked by the leopard in the same area, after which the administration ordered the hunting of the animal under subsection 1(a) of section 11 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
Naqash adds that the government is offering an ex-gratia exemption of up to Rs. 300,000 (Rs. 3 lakh) in case of death or permanent disability of the victim. In other cases, the amount varies between Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 300,000, depending on the nature and extent of the injury. “Since 2006, we have provided an amount of approximately Rs. 100 million (Rs. 10 crores) to the victims,” he says.
Psychological impact on victims
In 2012, Asadullah Khan, a resident of Marhama village, was attacked by a bear, partially paralyzing his face and causing him to stutter. Khan was hospitalized for four months where two major facial surgeries were performed after his face was disfigured. “The structure of my nose was damaged. I thought I would never recognize myself,” he says.
A decade later, though, it’s not the scars that haunt him, but the emotional toll he takes on a daily basis. “I’ve lost confidence and I’m afraid every time I get out,” he says, adding that he has not received any compensation from the authorities, but there was a man who paid Rs. 29,000 for his treatment.
Another family from Shar Shali village had a harrowing experience in May this year. Shameema and her three children were visiting a park near the foothills of Wasturwan – a dense forest located in the middle Himalayas in Pampore in southern Kashmir – when they were attacked by a black bear.
The attack caused critical injuries to Shameema’s skull and lacerated her face and shoulder. When her son tried to help, he slipped and injured his back, and her two daughters began to cry for help. Shameema says she remembers the attack.
The family claims they asked an employee of the wildlife department about the possible presence of wildlife in the area, and only then decided to proceed. “Nobody came to help us,” says Seerat, Shameema’s youngest daughter. “It wasn’t until after we called our father home that we were driven to a hospital.”
Seerat says her mother is having a hard time coping with the mental trauma left behind by the attack. The family has appealed for compensation from the Wildlife Department, but says the documentation process is time-consuming. “It took several visits to different institutions to get the paperwork done. The department must ensure that the procedure runs smoothly,” the family added.
Wild animals that are the victims
Not only humans, but also wild animals are the recipients of these conflicts. In June, a wild bear died of an electric shock after climbing a utility pole in Srinagar. In 2020, a mob of people in the Kulgam district killed a leopard after it attacked some children in the area. A case of ‘poaching’ was later filed against the unknown persons.
According to official data compiled by the Jammu and Kashmir Department of Wildlife Protection regarding wildlife deaths, from 2011 to 2020, 44 leopards died naturally or in retaliation, while four others were killed after official clearance. The deaths of nine leopard cubs and four leopard cats were also recorded during the period. The same data puts the number of black bears, bear cubs and brown bears killed at 141, 12 and seven, respectively.
Mehreen Khaleel, a primatologist and founder of the Wildlife Research Conservation Foundation (WRCF), a Kashmir NGO, says several videos have been shared of people chasing, beating and pelting rocks in defense of these attacks.
“Forest land encroachments reduce the natural food or prey base available to wild animals, forcing them to leave their natural territory to hunt. This is not a conflict, but a danger we have created for ourselves,” she concludes.
This story is published with permission from Mongabay.com.