When the wilderness strikes back

In 2007, an alleged bear poacher Makhan Khan of Gassu village in Kashmir and his fellow hunters tried to drive a black bear into a prepared pit after using sticks and torches but the animal fought back and dragged Khan in the same pit that was dug to trap it. Khan survived but received multiple injuries in the body. Photo: Reuters

ON 8 OCTOBER last year, when Meer Ahmad Khan, 55, a forest guard, crossed the perimeter of Nadurbagh forests in Ganderbal district (23 km east of Srinagar) along with four other guards, he heard a rustle among the trees, followed by an eerie sound that sent them running in different directions. A female bear, which was dropping berries from a treetop for its two cubs below, had spotted them. That is when Khan found himself facing the 68-kg black bear that stood on its hind legs.

“My body went numb at the very sight of the enormous figure,” Khan remembers. The bear mauled his left leg up to the upper thigh. Khan can never forget the sound of teeth sinking into his limb before the bear and its cubs walked away.

Khan, who now walks on crutches, comes from Baba Wayl village of the Pashtun- speaking Gutibagh tehsil in Ganderbal district. Immediately after it gets dark, the village bears a deserted look. That has become a norm for many years now, to avoid attacks by bears and leopards.

Last month, a bear strayed from the nearby pine forests into Zakura, on the outskirts of Srinagar, and attacked Javed Ahmad Mir, clawing his face and mauling his shoulders. Javed had fired from his licensed gun at the animal resting in a cowshed. “He found the tables turned on him when the bear fought back,” says one eyewitness. “The wildlife authorities could tranquilise the bear only after it had walked away from Javed.”

While the Asiatic black bears have been on a rampage in south Kashmir, there have been several incidents of attacks by leopards in north Kashmir and border areas. On 4 September last year, four-year-old Sumaiya Bashir of Vilgam village in north Kashmir’s Handwara district was dragged by a leopard to the nearby forests. Her partially- eaten body was found by rescue teams later. This was the third such incident in 10 days in Handwara.

“This man-animal conflict is not going to die down soon,” warns Mohammad Mansoor Mir, Chief Wildlife Biologist at the Department of Wildlife Protection in Srinagar. Mir says conversion of paddy fields into fruit orchards, forest encroachment, fragmentation of animal habitat and blocking of corridors are among the factors pushing the wild animals into human habitations.

Mir suggests confrontation with bears can be avoided if people travel in groups in sensitive areas, shout loudly and carry sticks.

“But in case you are face to face with a bear and there is no escape route, try to wave your clothes, open your arms, shout loudly and try to appear as a bigger object. It becomes a psychological battle. But still there is no guarantee that the animal will not attack,” he says.

Mir had been attacked by a black bear almost 10 years ago in Srinagar’s Dachigam National Park. There was a fence on one side of the road where he was walking, and a stream on the other.

“I held my ground, removed my upper garment and waved it in the air. First, the bear did what is known as a ‘bluff-charge’. It circled around me for a while before giving me a body slam. I was thrown to the stream edge. Luckily, it lost interest and wandered away.”

The recorded forest area (20,230 sq km) covers nearly 54 percent of the total area of Jammu & Kashmir, but 40 percent of the area earlier classified as “thick forests” has slipped into the category of “open forests” in the past few decades, according to the J&K Forest Policy, 2010. Almost 35,000 acres have been lost to forest fires, while 2.37 lakh acres have been encroached upon by villagers. According to another estimate, around 1 lakh cubic feet of pine timber is smuggled out of the state every year, which means that nearly 10,000 adult coniferous trees are felled illegally. This puts enormous pressure on the movement and feeding habits of wild animals.

Some decisions of the state government too have added to the problem. For instance, the Farooq Abdullah government in 1998-99 turned a portion of Srinagar’s Salim Ali National Park on the foothills of Zabarwan Forest Range into the Royal Spring Golf Course. Nearly 4,000 pine trees were cut down. Another portion, which used to be the breeding ground for the Hangul (critically endangered Royal Kashmiri Stag) before 1997, was turned into the Police Golf Course. A 90-acre tulip garden, which was set up a few years ago, also blocks a corridor through which wild animals used to move from one part of the forest to another.

“We have built it (Royal Spring Golf Course), so it cannot be undone,” said Chief Minister Omar Abdullah at a press conference in Gulmarg recently. When asked that the golf course was built even when there was an ongoing case against it in the Supreme Court, Abdullah replied: “So what? Let the case go on.”

MANY VICTIMS of bear and leopard attacks land up at the plastic surgery department of the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) in Srinagar. Terming Khan’s case (whose left leg was mauled) “rare and astounding”, Dr Tahir Saleem of the department says, “Almost 90 percent of the victims who come to us have face, head and neck injuries. A bear rarely attacks the legs. Khan was quite fortunate.” In Javed’s case (whose face was mutilated), he says, “A face mauled by a bear cannot be restored fully despite the best of reconstructive surgery.”

Wildlife officials say the number of bears and leopards has greatly increased in the state since hunting was banned in 1970. And following the outbreak of armed rebellion in the late 1980s, no one risked venturing deep into the forests for fear of being caught in the crossfire between militants and the troops.

In the 1990s, the authorities disarmed the locals of hunting rifles. Moreover, the Line of Control (LOC) fence that passes through some of the dense forests also restricts the movement of wild animals, and is seen as fragmenting their habitat.

Regional Wildlife Warden (Kashmir) Manzoor Ahmad Tak told TEHELKA that nearly 500 incidents of man-animal conflict, resulting in around 35 deaths on an average, are reported from across the state every year. More than 80 percent of the cases are from the Kashmir Valley, mostly involving the Asiatic black bear. “There are more bears and leopards now, but only a proper census, which we are going to conduct soon, can establish the actual rise in their numbers,” he adds.

However, there are also cases of bears and leopards getting killed in this battle for existence in their last bastions. “It’s an even battle. Almost 35 animals lose their lives every year when people kill them or when the department eliminates a lifethreatening animal,” says Tak.

Recently, in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district, a bear barely escaped death after villagers, enraged over the killing of nearly two dozen people by wild animals, tried to set it on fire. The bear had attacked a household in Mohammadpora village before climbing atop a walnut tree when villagers armed with fire-torches gathered around it. The bear was injured, but managed to safely run back into the nearby forest.

Though the wildlife protection department offers ex-gratia payment of Rs 1 lakh to the next of kin of people killed by wild animals and Rs 33,000 to the injured, the personnel find it difficult to respond in time when incidents of man-animal conflict take place.

The severely understaffed department has only 236 guards across 16,000 sq km of forests in the Kashmir Valley, and none of them carry arms. For each of the 10 districts in the Valley, the department has only three tranquilising guns and one or two rescue vans. Department insiders say most of the personnel are on the verge of retirement, and there has been no new recruitment in the past few years.

Tak, however, is hopeful that the department will get more funds and manpower in the coming years. Currently, he says, the department has brought down the number of man-animal confrontations through its awareness programmes in the sensitive zones, “but wherever the interests clash, no amount of awareness will work”. As the injured forest guard Khan puts it, the female bear that attacked him had surely acted in self-defence, but it would be scary for him to face a bear ever again without a licensed gun.



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