Massive deforestation, construction of roads and infrastructure projects are leading to the loss of habitat for leopards in Kashmir and tigers in Vidarbha. This is leading to these big cats entering human spaces and causing increasing conflict with humans. If the government is really sincere in protecting both man and animal, it must stop the further destruction of forest areas and diverting forest land for developmental projects. Massive afforestation programmes should be launched in these areas to allow both to live in peace, writes RAJA MUZAFFAR BHAT.
EOPARDS are known for their shy and secretive behaviour. They mostly live a solitary life, are nocturnal and spend their nights hunting instead of sleeping. However, in the last several years, their behaviour has changed.
Leopards, which in the past would be found in the mountains and forests of Kashmir, are now not only being seen in villages outside the forests but in urban areas as well, especially in Srinagar’s outskirts.
This is also the case with tigers in Vidarbha region in Maharashtra as they are under stress as their landscapes shrink day by day mainly due to mega infrastructure projects. On the other hand, the population of tigers is increasing.
Kashmir’s leopards would hardly eat dogs but now attack them. The reason is massive deforestation, construction of roads and laying of huge transmission lines. That is also why they are coming into villages, towns and city outskirts. Their natural habitat has been encroached, especially in Pir Panjaal mountains under the garb of development.
For laying the 440 double circuits Jallandhar-Samba Amargrah transmission line in 2017-18, more than 45,000 trees were axed in the Pir Panjaal forests.
This huge transmission line passes through 340 square km of the Herpora wildlife reserve in Shopian district. This has disturbed the local wildlife, including the Himalayan brown bear and black bear, musk deer, leopard, Tibetan wolf, Himalayan palm civet and the critically endangered Pir Panjal Markhor. The massive deforestation is also responsible for the migration of leopards from higher altitudes to low lying areas in Pulwama and Budgam.
For the last 10 years, leopards were frequently seen around Srinagar International Airport, located in Budgam district. Leopard attacks increased in other areas of Budgam. Domestic animals (cattle and sheep), residents and children have victims.
In May 2012, at least 23 sheep were killed and a dozen injured in Bagh e Buchroo village of Budgam district, just 1 km from Srinagar airport runway. The attack was carried out by three leopards, locals reported.
After the attack, they kept killing dogs, cattle and other animals around the airport. On the intervening night of May 17 and 18 this year, ten sheep were killed in a leopard attack in Khaipora village of Khansahib tehsil of Budgam. The door of a cattle shed was broken into, nine sheep were killed within and one was taken away.
Recently a four-year-old girl, Adha Skakeel, was mauled by a leopard near Ompora housing colony in Budgam. She was playing on the lawns of her house on the evening of June 5th this year when a leopard jumped from the boundary wall and snatched her away. A massive search operation was launched. After more than an hour, some local residents found the girl’s necklace and slippers in the nearby forest. The next day, her mutilated body was found.
After this incident, locals, especially women, protested against the authorities, especially the wildlife department. After a few days, two leopards were caught in two villages of Budgam—Loolipora Chadoora and Khodpora Khansahib. In addition, some more leopards were spotted at two different places–Watkaloo Charar-i-Sharief and Hufroo Budgam. Budgam district, especially the airport area, has become a hotspot of leopards in the last 10 years.
The leopard that mauled Adha to death was captured alive on June 15th after 11 days of a massive manhunt by the Wildlife Department. The animal was trapped by the wildlife department in Budgam town which is a mere two kilometers away from where Adha was killed.
As per data of the department of wildlife, 224 people were killed and 2,829 injured between 2006 to March 2021 by wild animals (leopards and bears) in Kashmir Valley.
The Srinagar airport area is an elevated place locally called Karewa or Wodder. Until the early 1990s, the Karewa land around the airport was mostly barren. Except for almond trees, there was no other vegetation around this vast area of around 50 square kilometers.
In the early 1990s, the government started massive plantations in some villages located near the airport, particularly in Wathoora, Kralpora, Rangreth, Gogo and other areas. The plantation has become so thick that the entire Karewa Damodar area around Srinagar airport looks like a forest. As there is less movement of people here due to the security cover around the area, leopards have found a new habitat here and attack villages and housing colonies.
The social forestry department was created in J&K to extend the tree cover outside forests on wastelands, roadsides and canal banks. The aim was to reduce pressure on natural forests for the supply of forest produce and rehabilitation of degraded forests so as to optimise their productivity and restore their potential to provide goods and services on a sustainable basis. Nobody imagined a time would come when wild animals like leopards would make this their home.
A map prepared by the wildlife department shows leopard hotspots within 10 square kilometres from the centre of Srinagar airport. These leopards are well adapted to urban and semi-urban human spaces.
Regional Wildlife Warden Kashmir Raashid Naqash told The Leaflet that in natural landscapes or habitats, leopards assume a territory of 30-40 square kilometers in order to ensure the availability of enough prey and females for mating.
This keeps a natural check on the population and the density of animals per square kilometre is quite low.
Naqash said: “One animal per 5-10 square kilometre is an ideal number, but in human spaces, this territory is too small to attain adequate prey base cover and females to mate. Therefore, breeding doesn’t remain in check. In some villages in Budgam or areas near Srinagar airport, the density of leopards is one per square kilometre, which is very high.”
Tigers from Vidharbha
Unlike the leopards of Kashmir, the tiger population, according to the 2020 tiger census (also called the All India Tiger Estimation Survey), has considerably increased in India.
In the 2010 census, the tiger population was estimated to be 1,706 and this rose to 2,226 in 2014. This number has touched almost 3,000 in the 2020 tiger census.
The increase in tiger population is related to the massive crackdown on poachers and forest conservation programmes adopted by several states such as Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. Pertinently, the number was much less in the 2006 tiger census –1,411 only.
There are many non-protected areas where there is a good population of tigers and the census isn’t done in those areas. Thus, the population of tigers in India is much higher than what was estimated in the 2014 census. Wildlife authorities have given clear warnings of more attacks on human beings by tigers.
The increased population of tigers and mega infrastructure projects in Nagpur, Bhandara, Gadchiroli and Gondia districts is shrinking the habitat of tigers in the Vidarbha area of Maharashtra.
This is leading to tigers entering human spaces and leading to increasing conflict.
In the last 10 years, more than 350 people were killed in tiger attacks in Vidarbha area alone. As per data available with the Wildlife Protection Society of India, in the past five years, 17 tigers and 18 leopards were killed as they got electrocuted after entering human areas. In some cases, poachers are said to be using electric current to kill the tigers.
The man-animal conflict is increasing with the increase of the wildlife population. If the government is really sincere in protecting both, it must stop the further destruction of forest areas and diverting forest land for developmental projects. Massive afforestation programmes should be launched in all those areas where there has been deforestation in the last few decades.
(Raja Muzaffar Bhat is a Srinagar-based activist, columnist, and independent researcher. He is an Acumen India Fellow. The views expressed are personal.)