Sunday, April 08, 2007

India's Kashmir valley has spate of leopard attacks


People of the Kashmir valley are increasingly vulnerable to attacks by wild animals. The state wildlife department doesn't know what to do

Peerzada Arshad Hamid

Anew threat is making life in the Kashmir valley unsafe — the one posed by wild animals. Instances of wild animals venturing into human habitats are on the rise and children are increasingly becoming vulnerable to their attacks. Within the span of a week last month, four children were mauled to death by a leopard in Anantnag district.

Ghulam Hassan Mir of Halkha village, lost his daughter a month ago. "On the night of January 13, my wife and daughter Rayeesa went out to lock the cowshed. Fifteen minutes later, my wife came in and asked about Rayeesa. When we couldn't find her in and around the house, we raised an alarm. Our neighbours joined us in the search but it was futile. The next day, locals found the mauled head and clothes of my daughter in the nearby forest."

Unable to provide any respite, the state government has announced a cash reward of Rs 10,000 to anyone who can provide information or trap the leopard alive. Agencies like the wildlife department, the Forest Protection Force, the police and the Army were put on alert. However the leopard has not been captured as yet.

Panic and insecurity prevail in Chettergul, Panchalthan, Shangus, Halkha and Utrsoo villages, where the leopard killed the children. Unable to tackle the menace posed by wild animals, wildlife officials are facing the wrath of the people. The government has banned nocturnal processions in these villages.

On November 18, 2006, a bear was burnt to death in the Tral area of Pulwama district. The matter was hushed up until a private television channel aired footage of the incident a month later. According to villagers, the bear entered the locality and picked up a child in the night. But it was chased and the child freed. The bear was trapped in a cowshed. When it tried to escape in the morning, the villagers beat it up and set it ablaze. The locals say that wildlife officials filmed the whole incident.

Last year, wild animals killed 12 and injured many more. Wildlife experts say many factors are responsible for the man-animal conflict. They are critical of the government's policy which allows the killing of wild animals in human habitats. They see it as a lazy substitute for developing an effective strategy.

Urbanisation and dwindling forestland are the main culprits. "People have massively encroached on the forest land, denuded it ruthlessly and started farming there. This has resulted in the vanishing of buffer zones, a barrier between the core zone of wild animals and the human habitations," says Shah Murtaza, a wildlife expert.

Officials in the wildlife department also blame the occupation of forests by the Army. "For the last 17 years, Army troops have been settling in the forests to fight the insurgency. Wild dogs which feed on leftovers hang around Army camps. Sometimes, while chasing these dogs, leopards enter human habitations," said a senior official in the wildlife department.

The entire stretch from Zabarwan to Tral in Pulwama is highly militarised. The forests in south Kashmir like Khunder and Pahalgam also have Army camps. Troops fence their camps with barbed wire and experts point out that this hampers the free movement of wild animals. "When wild animals encounter obstacles inside the forest, they will naturally try to move towards human habitations," says Faisul Yaseen, an environmental journalist.

Another important factor is the increase in the number of wild animals in the past two decades. This is due to the ban on hunting in the Valley. "Organised poaching has come down substantially. As everyone knows, it is fatal to go hunting in forests with a gun: either you will be killed by the militants or by the Army," says a forest official in Lidder range.

Nisar Ahmad Kichloo, chief wildlife warden admitted to Tehelka that the department is ill equipped to handle the problem. He says it has mooted a proposal for a census of wild animals to ascertain whether their numbers have indeed gone up. Upgrading the communication network, setting up control rooms and animal rescue centres are other necessary measures, Kichloo says.

"Requisition for latest equipment and mobile vans are also in our demand list. I hope the ministry approves the proposal. Then, we will be able to plan an effective strategy to minimise the man-animal conflict," he says. filename=Ne140407Valley_in.asp

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