In Kashmir's shrinking space for animals, leopards take turf war to humans

Baramulla: The terrifying images of a 12-year-old girl being mercilessly mauled to death by a leopard in the steep wooded forests of Batang...

Baramulla: The terrifying images of a 12-year-old girl being mercilessly mauled to death by a leopard in the steep wooded forests of Batangi Boniyar still give the residents of this small and helpless village shivers.

Rutba Manzoor had gone to graze the livestock with her mother in a nearby woodland on the morning of 14 June but had returned home dead. Rutba's village experienced a cloud of sorrow as soon as word of her death spread.

People offering funeral prayers near the coffin of a 12-year-old girl Rutba Manzoor who was killed by a leopard in her village on 14 June 2022. Image courtesy Mohammad Abu Bakar

A leopard pounced on Rutba and dragged her off toward bushes. Rutba's mother Haleema and her younger daughter made an effort to pursue the leopard. The animal, however, vanished into the thick woodland. Locals worked hard to find the girl, who was later discovered dead.

"In the morning she took a bath and combed her hair like a bride but I was not aware my little bride is going forever," said Haleema with tears rolling down her cheeks. "My daughter was very dear to me. I have lost the diamond that used to give shine to my whole family. She was the apple of my eye."

In Kashmir, where there are already problems with daily killings, encounters, and unemployment, the man-animal conflict is causing fresh worries.

In the past year, 1,658 conflicts were reported. Since April of last year, there were about 300 instances of wild animals that have gotten into residential areas being caught in cages and nets. In 53 instances, mob retaliated by killing the animals.

The body of 13-year-old Shahid Ahmad from Boniyar's Trikanjan hamlet was discovered in the woods a few days ago. Shahid had taken his cattle into the woods to graze when he became a victim of a wild animal attack.

A day before, Muneer Ah, another native, was also slain by animals.

"Back-to-back killings are giving us sleepless nights. The fear of wild animals has disturbed and disrupted our lives. We are poor people. If we don't work for a day, we won't be able to eat anything. The administration should take some steps to ensure our safety," said social activist, M Aslam Shiekh from Boniyar Baramulla.

The man-animal conflict in Kashmir has resulted in about 200 fatalities and more than 2,000 injuries since 2011, according to official statistics. At least 17 people have died and 141 have been injured in such fights up until June of this year.

Five minors were victims of the man-animal conflict in Kashmir last year.

Adha Mudasir, 4, was mauled to death by a leopard on 4 June, 2021 in Budgam. Maria Shabir Bhat, 6, was killed by a leopard on 12 July 2021, in Kashmir's Ganderbal district.

"Leopard behaviour has to be understood because they are intelligent animals. Leopards are adept ambush hunters. Kids can't fight back and won't be able to put up a fight. Therefore, under that situation, the animal favours attacking children.," Said Aaliya Mir, project manager of Wildlife SOS, Jammu and Kashmir.

Hunters during a chase to find the leopard in Bonier Baramulla forests. Image courtesy Mohammad Abu Bakar

Experts contend that the recent decline in the habitat for wild animals in Kashmir is largely due to climate change, deforestation, and land-use patterns. Another reason why wild animals are migrating toward human habitation is the presence of security forces in woods and wildlife sanctuaries in border areas.

"Because of the rising need for space among residents and the increasing interaction and competition between humans and wildlife for resources, there may be an increase in human-wildlife conflict," said Aliya mir.

"Security forces have fringed the place around their camps and garrison and because of that these wild animals are losing the habitat compelling them to move towards populated areas," she said.

Nazir Ahmad, a Boniyar resident and shooter for the wildlife department who has been hunting in the woods for several days, thinks that individuals who live near forests lack the necessary knowledge of animals. People must be aware of how delicate certain operations are. Maneater leopards can be quite dangerous.

"Children were advised not to enter forests alone after the first killing, but the people disregarded the warning, leading to a second tragedy," said Nazir Ahmed.

"Whenever we locate the leopard, people come out of their homes barefoot, that brings difficulties in our operations," he said.

Nazir is a skilled shooter who has participated in numerous operations where they have successfully captured a variety of wild animals in the past. But given the size of the woodlands, this operation for Nazir seems a little challenging.

"For the last ten days we have been on our toes. We were in Trikanjan where the boy was killed. Once the news of the killing of a girl became viral we shifted our base to this area. This is a forest area. It's very difficult but we are still trying our best" he said.

"Our department has been working tirelessly for the last couple of days to catch the leopard. The innocent children killed by these leopard attacks are our own. I request people to cooperate instead of playing the blame game," said Mohd Maqbool, wildlife warden, North Kashmir.

An increase in man-animal conflict is posing problems for many nations. National wildlife conservation policies are addressing this problem by implementing comprehensive management strategies.

According to a recent report by the Standing Committee on Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change, which is chaired by Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh, the body's Parliamentary Panel suggested addressing human-animal conflict and recommended that the environment ministry establish an advisory body of experts to address the rising instances of man-animal conflict. Despite plans to address this serious issue, there isn't any clear evidence of implementation on the ground.

Unsatisfied with the efforts of the government in averting the dangers posed by wild animals, Aslam, a social activist ruefully remarked, “If authorities cannot prevent such occurrences, they should push us into the habitat of wild animals instead.”

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