Changing Habitat & Food Habits

Leopards & Bears now roam around Srinagar & its outskirts; a wake up call !
Representational Picture
Representational PicturePixabay

Recently the Presentation Convent School Srinagar had to issue an advisory to close down the school on September 12th 2022 after a small video clip of a bear and her cub roaming in Jawahar Nagar, Raj Bagh area went viral on social media. The video has created a lot of chaos among the Srinagar residents in general and people of Rajbagh, Jawahar Nagar and adjoining localities in particular as it is for the first time in recent history that wild animals have been found roaming in this area. After almost 2 days chase by the officials of Wildlife Department, cops from Rajbagh police station assisted by CRPF officials, the bear and her cub were rescued around 3 AM on September 12th from Lal Mandi area.

Earlier the same bear had attacked a 40 year old private security guard in Lal Mandi area. The injured, Fayaz Ahmad Bhat, is a resident of Habba Kadal Srinagar, working as a security guard in a private school around Jawahar Nagar. Fayaz was severely injured as the wild animal attacked his face and upper limbs. He was shifted to SMHS hospital Srinagar for treatment. After almost 2 weeks, the condition of Fayaz is said to be stable now. The Srinagar Police in a tweet had asked people living in Rajbagh, Jawahar Nagar and Lal Mandi to stay indoors until the bear and her cub were caught. After the wild animal was trapped alongwith the cub from Lal Mandi area, the wildlife officials sent them to Dachigam national park where they were set free deep inside the forest. Wildlife officials say that left over food material in the garbage bins is luring the wild animals and many of them come down from Zabarwan Hills or Shankaracharaya mountain to eat the same.

New Habitat

The Himalayan Leopards are known for their shy and secretive behaviour. They live a solitary life, are nocturnal and spend their nights hunting instead of sleeping. However, in the last several years, their behaviour has changed especially in Kashmir valley. These wild animals would be found only in the alpine mountains and forests of Kashmir, but from last more than a decade they are now  seen in villages outside the demarcated forests. Ironically they have made the outskirts of Srinagar their new habitat especially around the Budgam districts surrounding Srinagar airport area. Last year a leopard created panic in Baghi Mehtab area of Srinagar when it was seen jumping from one boundary wall to another around a housing colony. The said colony is located mere 6 kms from Srinagar city centre. It was presumed that the leopard had come down from the Humhama area near the airport as more than a dozen leopards are believed to have made their habitat around Karewa Damodar area which is an elevated, plateau-like area locally called Wodder. This is spread approximately over a 25 square kilometre area. Srinagar international airport is also located in the same area.

For the last 10 to 12 years, leopards were frequently seen around different locations of Karewa Damodar. In fact the entire Karewa is fenced by Defence Estates Department and Airport Authority of India, but still there are many locations where we find thick forest like patches. These are the areas that were developed by the Department of Social Forestry and J&K Forest Department during the last 30 to 35 years. The areas around Humhama, Ompora, Kralpora, Wathoora, Rangreth areas are like a thick jungle which has become a habitat for several leopards.

More than a year back 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 last year when a leopard jumped from the boundary wall and snatched her away. A massive search operation was launched by the wildlife and police. 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 in a nearby newly grown forest.

Leopards can be seen roaming freely in villages/residential colonies located just outside Srinagar airport. Only two weeks back a leopard with two cubs was seen in Banhar Wathoora village. The leopard had taken away some puppies from the village. For 3 days the leopard would roam around the village and the video had gone viral on social media as well. This author who lives around the same area had informed Regional Wildlife Warden Rashid Naqash who sent a team of officials. They installed a trap but the wild animal could not be trapped even as the cage was kept in the area for several days. The leopards don’t attack humans, except when they are hungry. And during that time also they will only attack small children, but when it comes to bears they attack even adult men and women.

Bear in Rajbagh

When we see old pictures of Shankaracharya hill (Sulieman Taing) we don’t see any vegetation around it. Even in the old Bollywood movies of 1960s or 70s which have been shot around the Dal Lake, we can see the Shankar Acharaya hill looking completely barren with no vegetation. From the late 1980’s the Urban Forestry Division started planting Kail trees around this hill and now we can see a thick jungle around this hill from at least three sides i.e., North, South and East. Around 2014 when I had gone to attend a spring festival at Almond Villa orchard, a property owned by Dr Karan Singh’s family. I had a long interaction with Jyotsna Singh who is the daughter of Dr Karan Singh and she told me that there is a good vegetation and growth of forest around Shankaracharya hill and Bears come down from the said hill to eat cherries in her orchard. This was around 8 years back. I believe by now the population of bears has increased a lot around this hill. I believe the Bear and her cub that were seen in Rajbagh might have come towards this locality from the Shankaracharaya hill via Gupkar road and then entered the Rajbagh area through Abdullah bridge. As explained above the food habits of these wild animals have changed and they come down to eat left over food in municipality trash bins. In Karewa Damodar (Airport side), only leopards are seen in that area and there is no evidence that any bear has been even spotted in that area. This makes it clear that the said bear had entered Rajbagh via Gupkar road, and it is presumed that both the mother and the cub had come from either Shankaracharaya hill or nearby Zabarwan forests.

Conclusion

The wildlife officials and local residents living near Srinagar airport area have confirmed that leopards who live in Karewa Damodar (airport area) or other Karewas of Budgam kill and eat dogs. This is their main diet and every night they go out to kill dogs in the surrounding villages or residential colonies. As there is enough dog population in Kashmir which is in fact increasing day by day on a very large scale, the leopards from alpine forests come down to villages and get settled around secluded areas or thick man made forests around Karewas. Similarly the afforestation that has taken place in Srinagar and its surrounding areas like Shankaracharya hill or Zabarwan hills, plus the growth of stone fruit trees around Zabarwan foothills has given rise to bear population as well. The leftover food material around Srinagar city near the garbage collection points is also attracting bears. In fact some sanitation workers whom I know told me some years back that several bears would come down and eat leftover food in Gulmarg near the waste management plant. Some decades back the leopards would hardly eat dogs or bears would not prefer to eat leftover food of humans, but now things have completely changed. Not only has the habitat of these wild animals changed even their the food habits have changed considerably.

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow. He is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement and Anant Fellow for Climate Action.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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