Leopards snatching children as Kashmir man-wild conflict worsens

At least 12 dead in recent months, and most victims of leopard attacks in the Himalayan region are young children.

Kashmir man-animal conflict
Haleema Begum shows a picture of her six-year-old daughter who was killed by a leopard near their home in Baramulla, Indian-administered Kashmir [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

Uri, Indian-administered Kashmir – Parveena Ganai, 45, remembers the day a leopard killed her 14-year-old son Shahid Ahmad, his body later found in pieces near their village of Turkaanjan in Indian-administered Kashmir’s remote Baramulla district.

It was a bright Sunday morning on June 12 – a school holiday for the teenager. He got a haircut, took shower, ironed his school uniform and organised his books for the next day.

In the afternoon, he and his younger brother took his family’s cows to graze in the nearby forest. Shahid Ahmad never came back.

“This was routine work for them. As soon as they reached the forest, a leopard took him away in his jaws. His brother is shocked and still remembers Shahid’s last scream,” Ganai told Al Jazeera at her home perched on a hill in the village some 100km (62 miles) away from the Himalayan region’s main city of Srinagar.

Shakir Ahmad, who was with his elder brother at the time, says he saw Shahid in the leopard’s mouth, screaming, as he stood there frozen.

“Fear overwhelmed me. I thought the leopard will kill me too,” the 12-year-old told Al Jazeera. “I thought if I am killed, our family will not even find our bones. I came running home.”

Ganai said Shakir has been in distress since the killing of his brother.

Child victims

When the villagers came to know about the incident, hundreds of them rushed to the forest to locate the teenager’s body and were soon joined by wildlife and police officials.

“We started in the afternoon and searched for the body till 2am,” Ganai said.

At dawn, Shahid’s mauled body was located under the bushes.

“His head was separated from his body. They were at two different places. One arm was missing, maybe he had tried to resist with his hand. It was devastating to search for the body parts,” Ganai said, sobbing.

“We never heard of or witnessed such incidents here before. If we had any idea, we would have never let our children go with the cows,” she said.

Kashmir man-animal conflict
Shahid’s family outside their home in Turkanjan village, Baramulla [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

Two days later, 5km (3.2 miles) away, a six-year-old girl was taken by a leopard as the family was walking in the village.

“It happened right in front of my eyes and in a matter of seconds,” the girl’s mother Haleema Begum told Al Jazeera at their house in Batangi village.

After an hour-long search, the girl’s body was located by the villagers in a forest three kilometres (two miles) away. “At the end, I was just praying for her body so that I could have a grave to visit,” Haleema said.

The third child killed in the same district that week was 12-year-old Amir Muneer, a resident of Cholan Kalsi Ghati village.

Most of the victims of leopard attacks in the Himalayan region are young children who are often caught unawares and unable to defend themselves.

On July 6, four-year-old Mehraz Azad was dragged from his uncle’s courtyard by a leopard half a mile into the woods in Rajwar village in the northern Kupwara district.

The boy was found by villagers within 30 minutes, but he was badly injured with deep cuts to his face and body. He died in hospital later.

In the same district’s Monabal Haril village, another four-year-old boy, Saqib-din-badana, died after he was attacked by a leopard on July 31.

This month, a toddler was attacked by a leopard on August 8 when he stepped out of his home in Wagoora village. Though rescued quickly, his injuries proved fatal.

Kashmir man-animal conflict
Ganai displaying a picture of her 14-year-old son Shahid Ahmad [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

Human-wildlife conflict

The local administration started keeping records of human-wildlife conflicts in 2006. Since then, at least 230 people have died and 2,800 have been wounded, according to government figures.

In 2021-2022 alone, 12 people were killed and 31 wounded in the valley, sparking panic and angry demonstrations by residents.

Government figures reveal that forests in Indian-administered Kashmir have decreased by at least 420 sq km (162 sq miles) between 2015 and 2019 due to infrastructure projects, timber smuggling, and rising demand for housing.

As a result, more wild animals are seen in areas with human habitations, leading to a deadly conflict that studies say is increasing “at an alarming rate”. Experts have warned against human settlements encroaching on animal habitats.

Kashmir man-animal conflict
Teenager Shahid Ahmad’s family displays his belongings [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

In addition to leopards, Kashmiri villagers say black bears are coming out of the protected forest areas into residential areas.

While the authorities have set up emergency control rooms, there have also been instances where locals have taken matters into their own hands and fought the animals with the intent to kill them.

Last year, a report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said the conflict between humans and wild animals is one of the main threats to the long-term survival of some of the world’s most important species.

It said India will be the most affected by the human-wildlife conflict “because it had the world’s second-largest human population as well as large populations of tigers, Asian elephants, one-horned rhinos, and Asiatic lions and other species”.

In a place like Indian-administered Kashmir with mostly hilly areas surrounded by forests, the fears of a worsening human-wildlife conflict are leaving people in villages sleepless.

“Earlier, there used to be a buffer zone between the forests and the human habitation but now all that has vanished,” Rashid Yahya Naqash, the region’s wildlife warden, told Al Jazeera.

Naqash said one of the reasons for the rise in human-wildlife conflicts is “poor urbanisation planning which does not take care of the fragile surrounding ecology”.

“In the last 40 years especially, human settlements have taken place near forests and this is the repercussion of it.”

Source: Al Jazeera