Wildlife rescue operations in Kashmir face an uphill battle with rising human-wildife conflict

Dr. Mohsin Ali Gazi (incharge veterinary officer) along with staff treating a leopard in Kashmir: Image- Arranged from Dr Mohsin Ali Gazi

Dr. Mohsin Ali Gazi (incharge veterinary officer) along with staff treating a leopard in Kashmir: Image- Arranged from Dr Mohsin Ali Gazi

  • There are regular reports of wild bears and leopards in Kashmir, venturing out of forests in search of food, resulting in encounters with humans and their livestock. Some of these culminate in fatal attacks.
  • Some of the main reasons for these interactions, say experts, are increasing spread of human settlements, habitat fragmentation and increasing stray dogs that are easy prey for leopards that venture out of forests in search of food.
  • There have also been changes in Kashmir’s agriculture pattern, such as the conversion of paddy fields into horticulture. In the orchards for horticulture, wild bears find enough food and leopards have places to hide.

In February this year, Shabir Ahmad (name changed on request), who works with the Kashmir wildlife department received a call from a colleague alerting him about a leopard’s presence in a residential area of Central Kashmir. Along with his colleagues, he swiftly moved into action to capture the animal. Arriving at the location, the team saw a large crowd throwing stones at the leopard, making the situation worse. Despite the challenging circumstances, after over six hours, the team successfully captured the animal. Two employees, however, sustained severe injuries.

“Each time we respond to such situations, injuries are almost inevitable. We lack essential protective gear such as helmets and hand shields. Managing the hostile crowd adds another layer of difficulty. Often, the local people provoke the animals, which in turn hinders our efforts, resulting in injuries to both our team members and sometimes bystanders,” Ahmad lamented.

For Ahmad and his fellow wildlife department employees in Kashmir, rescuing animals has become a routine responsibility fraught with challenges.

Leopard rescues need scientific and safety support

Earlier this month in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, a wildlife official was seen attempting to control and capture a leopard using only a stick. The leopard managed to overpower the official and attacked him, biting and injuring him. Local residents and his colleagues intervened, welding sticks to fend off the leopard, allowing wildlife officials to ultimately tranquilize and capture it.

Similarly, during another rescue operation in South Kashmir’s Shopian, a leopard was being tranquilized when suddenly, bystanders began pelting stones and creating noise, seemingly finding it entertaining. This led to the injury of four people.

In March, a leopard killed two children in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district, following which the “man-eater” animal was shot dead.

Over the years, there has been an increase in such incidents, resulting in casualties. According to the Department of Wildlife Protection Jammu & Kashmir estimates, 264 human deaths were caused by wild animals in Kashmir over approximately 18 years from 2006 to March 2024, with 3,164 people having sustained injuries. The data reveals an upward trend over the past five years. During 2020-21, there were five human deaths, which doubled to 10 in 2021-22, and then to 14 and 16 in the subsequent two years. Similarly, the number of injuries rose from 87 to 89 between 2020-21 and 2021-22. Then it went down to 65 in 2022-23 and sharply increased to 181 in 2023-24.

Dachigam National Park, which is known for housing wild animals in Kashmir: Photo by Mudassir Kuloo/Mongabay
Dachigam National Park in Kashmir is home to several wild animals. Photo by Mudassir Kuloo.

Almost every day, there are reports of bears and leopards venturing out of the forests in search of food, resulting in encounters with humans and their livestock that frequently culminate in attacks. The Department of Wildlife Protection has issued several advisories in this regard asking people to take preventive measures.

However, the wildlife officials that are responsible for rescue operations are in need of protective equipment such as shields, chest plates, helmets, shin guards and calf guards for safety during these operations.

Factors influencing human-animal conflict in Kashmir

Pradeep Chandra Wahule, who recently assumed the role of Regional Wildlife Warden, Kashmir, shared various factors contributing to the rise in human-wildlife conflicts in the region. “The main reasons include the increase in human population settlements, habitat fragmentation and the growing population of dogs, which become easy prey for leopards. Additionally, there is a behavioural shift where leopards tend to breed near human settlements,” he stated.

He acknowledged the increasing incidents of human-animal conflict, noting that the department receives distress calls on a daily basis. “Based on the situation, animals are either captured, tranquilized, or released back into the wild. Unfortunately, some incidents result in injury or death to both humans and animals,” he told Mongabay India.

Zaffar Rais Mir, a wildlife expert who has done extensive research on human-leopard conflict in the Kashmir Himalayas, emphasised the correlation between human encroachment on natural habitats and the escalation of human-wildlife conflicts. Talking to Mongabay India, he explained that such conflicts frequently stem from habitat fragmentation and degradation, precipitating heightened interactions between humans and wildlife as they compete for limited resources (food, space, or water).

“Leopards, known for their remarkable adaptability, thrive across diverse human-modified habitats and inhabit the peripheries of human settlements, increasing the likelihood of encounters with humans. When confronted with scarcity of prey within forests, leopards venture closer to human dwellings to prey upon accessible targets such as livestock or dogs. In doing so, the frequency of human encounters escalates dramatically, amplifying the risk of attacks on humans. Similarly, the situation echoes in Kashmir, where the scarcity of prey in forests remains pronounced,” said Mir, who is currently serving as a wildlife expert at the National Centre for Wildlife in Saudi Arabia.

Human encroachments into leopard habitats

Dr. Mohsin Ali Gazi, a veterinary officer at the Department of Wildlife Protection J&K stated that an incident of wild animals approaching residential areas should not always be labelled as ‘man-animal conflict’; instead, it can be termed as ‘man-animal interaction’ unless there are injuries to humans or damage to crops.

He also pointed out that climatic changes, alterations in land use patterns and construction in forests or nearby areas contribute to human-animal conflict. “Wild animals also have their families and populations, but humans encroach upon their habitats. Buffer zones are necessary, and we often rescue wild animals from unexpected places like cities in Kashmir,” he explained.

Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, an environmentalist, also attributes the rising human-animal conflict to the disturbance of forests. “Tourism contributes seven percent to Kashmir’s economy. Our economy is largely dependent on horticulture and agriculture. However, we have irresponsible tourism in Kashmir. There is easy access for people to go even into protected areas. People have easy access to go trekking in forests.”

He highlighted the unnecessary construction of roads in many areas. “We see in some villages, 10 roads have been constructed when only one is necessary. Additionally, some people burn bushes and trees for coal, thus leading to the disturbance of forests,” he explained.

He also noted changes in Kashmir’s agriculture pattern, such as the conversion of paddy fields into horticulture. “In orchards, bears find enough food and leopards have places to hide.”

According to official figures provided to Mongabay India, the area under paddy cultivation decreased from 1,62,309 hectares in 2012-2013 to 1,34,067 hectares in 2021-2022. The area under horticulture cultivation was 82,486 hectares in 1975 which went up to 3,30,956 hectares in 2021.

 People turning their paddy fields into orchards in Kashmir. Photo by Mudassir Kuloo/Mongabay
There has been a change in agricultural pattern in Kashmir with paddy fields turning to orchards. Photo by Mudassir Kuloo.

How can the wildlife department be better equipped?

Rasool claimed that the wildlife department was not taking scientific measures to tackle the growing incidents of human-animal conflict. “We need a solution on how to manage the conflict. Our wildlife department should learn from our Gujjar community, who manage conflicts with animals without fatalities,” he concluded.

Read more: Loss of forest cover in Kashmir is pitting a protected animal against the world’s costliest spice

When asked about deficiencies within the department to address the situation, Wahule, the Regional Wildlife Warden said that the department has implemented various measures to mitigate these conflicts.

“We operate 24×7 control rooms, possess necessary equipment for tranquilizing and capturing animals, and conduct awareness campaigns to educate the public. Furthermore, long-term measures such as habitat restoration through plantation are underway to reduce leopard habitat fragmentation. We are committed to handling the situation in a scientific manner and are enhancing the skills of our field staff by bringing in external experts. The wildlife department regularly upgrades equipment related to man-animal conflict and ensures that conflict resolution teams are adequately equipped with protective gear,” he informed Mongabay-India.

Asked what needs to be done to tackle the situation, Mir stated that while completely ending human-animal conflict may not be possible, it can be mitigated so that the damage is avoided.

He stressed the importance of a comprehensive approach to understanding the root cause of such conflict. “More studies need to be conducted to understand the dynamics of human-wildlife conflict in Kashmir. Land conversion needs to be avoided where farmers are converting paddy fields into orchards which give safe shelter to wild animals. An integrated approach is needed to address the issue. Some of the essential measures include implementing community-based carnivore conflict mitigation measures, raising awareness of locals about the behaviour of leopards, establishing buffer zones between residential areas and wildlife habitats, encouraging the use of non-lethal approaches such as use of wildlife deterrents, formation of village response teams in conflict hotspots, controlling the population of stray animals and encouraging proper waste disposal,” he said.

A view of a forest in Kashmir. Photo by Mudassir Kuloo/mongabay
A view of a forest in Kashmir. Photo by Mudassir Kuloo.

Mir says that the department lacks state-of-the-art equipment and safety gear crucial for addressing human-wildlife conflict situations effectively. “The capacity of the staff must be augmented, and there is a need to establish rapid response teams comprised of well-trained and equipped personnel capable of swiftly addressing any emergent situation,” he said.

Dr. Gazi stressed the importance of raising awareness among people about wild animals. “We should not provoke or attack animals. It is crucial to avoid letting children and elderly people venture outside, especially near forests during dawn and dusk. Proper waste management is essential to prevent attracting dogs, which are easy prey for leopards. Additionally, abandoned plots and properties should be monitored as potential hiding places for animals. Installing CCTV cameras and ensuring streetlights function properly are also necessary,” he outlined.

Furthermore, he mentioned some shortcomings in the wildlife department that need attention. “There is a dearth of manpower. I have submitted a detailed report to the government highlighting our deficiencies,” he added.

Regarding a recent incident in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district where a leopard was beaten by people, he mentioned, “The leopard suffered spinal injury and mental trauma. We provided the animal with the best possible treatment.”

He appealed to the public to allow wildlife officials to perform their duties when rescuing animals. “There have been incidents where our staff was attacked by people. Dealing with both the animal and the crowd becomes challenging. When animals become agitated by the crowd, anaesthesia may not work effectively,” he concluded.


Banner image: Dr. Mohsin Ali Gazi (incharge veterinary officer) along with staff treating a leopard in Kashmir. Photo courtesy Dr. Mohsin Ali Gazi.

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