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Why drones are tracking wildlife in Kashmir

Land-use changes and steady encroachment by humans are fuelling human-wildlife conflict in Kashmir

Almost 90% of human-wildlife conflict occurs outside protected areas.
Almost 90% of human-wildlife conflict occurs outside protected areas. (iStockphoto)

In July, a four-year-old girl in a car was grabbed and killed by a leopard in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal area. In June, another four-year-old girl had been mauled to death by a leopard in Budgam district. As fears of wild animals, particularly leopards and bears, straying into inhabited areas rise, wildlife officials in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) are worried.

Like other parts of the country, a mix of policies has contributed to this situation, from changes in land-use pattern to deforestation, habitat fragmentation and a shift towards horticulture, with dense nurseries being set up adjacent to urban habitats. Animals find their natural prey base dwindling and omnivores have to move out of their usual habitats in search of food. Kashmir, one forest official points out, has an additional element of friction: the presence of army and paramilitary camps and patrols, sometimes inside forests.

Conservationists are so worried that since last year the J&K authorities have begun using drones to monitor the movement of animals. The department of wildlife protection is even pushing for an increase in the number of food-bearing plants of local pear and apple species in protected areas. They hope such “habitat enrichment” will help check the number of animals, particularly the black bear, foraging for food outside their usual habitats. They are well aware, however, that this would need to be accompanied by landscape interventions outside these areas to reduce the chances of conflict.

The numbers

Almost 90% of human-wildlife conflict occurs outside protected areas, in and around the adjacent villages. From 2006 to August this year, 230 people had been killed and 2,860 injured in such conflicts in the Kashmir region. Children make for easy targets. The worst years have been 2011-12 and 2013-14: Each saw 28 deaths. These years also saw the highest number of injuries: 315 in 2011-12 and 333 in 2013-14. Since last year, the wildlife department has also rescued more than 6,000 animals, mainly leopards and bears close to habitation, and tried to relocate them to forest areas in the Union territory.

Suresh Kumar Gupta, J&K’s chief wildlife warden, says they have set up 42 control rooms and procured three drones to monitor the situation. “We are roping in the state forest research institute to raise fruit-bearing species like wild apple, pears, etc. for the wild animals in forest areas. ...its impact will be there in the coming years.” Gupta says they are also planning to establish 10 model joint control rooms where forest protection and wildlife staff will work together.

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All this, however, is firefighting. It is policies across the board that need to change—and there seem to be no signs of this happening. Khursheed Ahmad, scientist and head of wildlife sciences, faculty of forestry, at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir, says the increase in human population has led to encroachments into wildlife habitats and forest buffer areas.

Orchards, he says, have intruded into areas adjacent to forests, wastelands and pastures that have been inhabited historically by large animals such as leopards, black and brown bears. Paddy fields too have made way for orchards that gradually and steadily extend to the fringes of forests, tempting bears and other animals out of their habitats. It’s estimated that over 80% of the bear attacks take place during the fruiting season, from September-December. Worse, the dense nurseries adjacent to urban areas have “created ideal habitats for leopards, for example, to breed prolifically”, says Ahmad.

These changes have become so pervasive that they have even begun to influence the distribution of animal populations. Intesar Suhail, a wildlife warden in southern Kashmir, echoes Ahmad. “Paddy cultivation, which occupied our landscape seasonally for a shorter duration, has given way to permanent orchards. Besides, a lot of these orchards have come up very close to our natural forests. In fact, our orchards begin where our forests end and there is no longer a buffer between the two, as there used to be earlier,” the warden says. He notes that orchards, besides having dense tree cover, have ground vegetation in the form of grass (cultivated and used as fodder) that provides good cover for wild animals.

“We have fruits growing and ripening in almost every season, starting from early summer (cherry, apricot) through mid- and late summer (plum, peach) and right up to late autumn (varieties of apple and pear). When quality fruit is available in abundance next door, why should an omnivore like the black bear trouble himself in searching for food in the forest?” he says. He even points to the growing population of dogs, easy prey and preferred food for leopards, as among the factors responsible for the human-wildlife conflict in Kashmir.

Suhail says the forests outside the protected areas have seen “large-scale deterioration”, leading to the loss of forest undergrowth. “This undergrowth (different from the ground vegetation in orchards) also supports the natural prey of larger wild carnivores like the leopard and the absence of such cover depletes the natural prey base and compels the animals to come out of the forests to hunt,” he explains.

Zaffar Rais Mir, an assistant professor in the department of animal sciences (zoology) at the Central University of Kashmir, has been researching human-leopard conflict for a decade. “The Budgam incident...is a good example of habitat fragmentation. If we see it at a landscape level, there are forest patches which are separated by human habitations, and when animals try to pass from one patch to another in search of food, encounters with humans become inevitable,” he says.

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Mir studied 31 leopard attacks recorded from 2007-13 around Dachigam, a protected area which is home to the Dachigam National Park, some 22km from Srinagar: 38% of these were fatal. Children comprised the majority of victims. “The seasonality of the attacks showed that most of the attacks on humans took place in the summer season, when human activities inside and around the fringe areas of the forests are high,” he notes.

Not every solution attempted proves workable. Since last year, leopards straying into city areas have been captured and translocated from conflict sites to core forest areas alien to them. Mir says the entire process of capture, handling, transportation and release into a new landscape occupied by other animals of the same species is stressful. This is particularly true for territorial animals like leopards.

“Studies have reported that after translocation to a new landscape, the wild animals try to return to their original territory even if it is hundreds of kilometres away and this movement through human-dominated landscapes also increases the chances of conflict with humans manifold,” he says. Translocation can also make the animal more aggressive, he adds.

“If we encroach upon and destroy someone’s home, we can’t blame him if he roams around the same place, and, in that process, harms the encroacher knowingly or unknowingly,” argues Mir. “Animal behaviour has not changed,” he notes. Human behaviour has—and continues to do so. Conflict, then, seems inevitable.

Majid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist.

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