On a cloudy Monday morning of 15 March, 55-year-old Abdul Samad had left his home in search of manual work. The only earning member of a family of five, Samad was attacked by a leopard just as he had stepped out the door.
Samad’s screams as he was being mauled by the wild animal alerted his neighbours in the Damhal Hanjipora village in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district. The villagers gathered in large numbers and chased the leopard away.
But the leopard had grievously injured Samad who lay in a pool of blood. The locals took Samad to a nearby hospital from where he was referred to the Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Srinagar city, more than sixty kilometers away.
Samad died the next day. His death is the latest casualty of the conflict between humans and animals in Damhal Hanjipora. Before him, two other local residents were injured in a leopard attack in the village.
Peripheral villages across Kashmir report frequent encounters with wild animals, mainly bears and leopards, especially during the cold seasons. But human-animal conflict is less talked about and continues to consume lives as human activity remains unchecked.
In the past fourteen years, as per wildlife officials, more than 200 humans have been killed on the edges of ever-expanding human settlements that encroach upon wild animals’ natural habitat. At least 2,574 humans have been injured in confrontations.
In February, residents of Waderbala bordering the forests in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district panicked as a bear wandered into the village. The bear eventually attacked a couple identified as Raja Begum and her husband Abdul Rashid Mir. The duo, however, survived.
In the Handwara area of the district, a wild animal wandered into human settlement for the fourth time on 16 March. Elsewhere in the district, wild animals have caused economic losses to humans by killing at least two dozen sheep in separate incidents in four villages.
A momentary spike in the number of instances during the spring, wildlife officials say, could be attributed to black bears coming out of hibernation and the non-availability of fruits and nuts — their most preferred food.
Last year, residents of Srinagar’s congested Bagh-e-Mahtab were confined to their homes for days as a leopard was on the prowl, surprising many. Similar instances have been reported from other parts of Srinagar city as well.
As more such incidents are reported, Rashid Naqash, Regional Wildlife Warden Kashmir, said that the conflict has been simmering but the press has only recently begun to take note. “Now probably incidents of the interface get media coverage that makes us believe this is the new thing,” he said.
Naqash said that there was no evident spike in the number of human-animal conflict but near forests, people must desist from venturing out during the morning and evening times, when wild animals are out in search of food.
The singular cause of the rise in human-animal conflict is animals faced with diminishing habitat and resultant scarcity of food wandering into human settlements in search of food. But animals were also “intelligent”, said Naqash, and preferred to find food in villages where food is easily available. Animals identify orchards close to forests and keep returning to those for easily available and high nutrition food.
The wildlife department provides financial assistance up to ₹3,00,000 in case of death and between ₹15,000 to ₹3,00,000 depending on the nature of the injuries sustained by humans in confrontations with wild animals.
So far, an official said, the department has disbursed at least ₹2,98,25,000 to families where a member was killed by wild animals and about ₹5,83,44,000 to those injured since 2006, as per official data.
Unlike other nations where human-animal conflict is frequent but the casualties are minimal owing to the knowledge of wildlife management, Naqash said, the lack of awareness in Kashmir had resulted in a high toll. For instance, he suggested that household waste be disposed of in dustbins and the bins be cleared regularly so that animals aren’t attracted.
Some officials of the Wildlife Protection Force, however, rue the lack of availability of proper equipment and personnel to deal with the “frequent presence” of wild animals in residential areas. Naqash, however, refused the claim.
The wildlife department has kept twenty-two rescue teams on standby. These teams coordinate with the local Police Control Rooms which inform them of the presence of wild animals in residential areas, said Naqash.
The wildlife department also engaged local laborers on a need basis, he said, and added: “We have taken up the issue of appointment of regular manpower with the government and are hopeful that the necessary action will be taken soon.”
But the best mechanism to deal with wild animals wandering into human habitations, Naqash said, is to “keep an open corridor for them to leave.” He added: “Animals don’t have an offensive biological mechanism by nature. In ninety per cent of the human-wild interface, there is no chance of loss.”