Outcry as wild boars reappear in Kashmir after decades

Residents and scientists are baffled by sightings of the animals, which have caused havoc by raiding fields and apple orchards.

A group of livestock herders who often stumble into herds of wild boars while grazing sheep in northern Kashmir
A group of livestock herders who often stumble onto packs of wild boars while grazing sheep in the northern parts of Indian-administered Kashmir [Jehangir Ali/Al Jazeera]

Bandipora, Indian-administered Kashmir – One bright afternoon this month, a Kashmiri wildlife official set off a firecracker to chase away a pack of wild boars marching menacingly in the direction of a thriving paddy plantation in the Hajin area of Indian-administered Kashmir’s Bandipora district, 40km (25 miles) northwest of region’s main city, Srinagar.

In the melee that broke out, a boar was separated from the herd and burst through a makeshift fence surrounding a vegetable garden where Sharifa Begum, 48, a farmer’s wife, was preparing beds to grow beans and potatoes.

Begum had never seen a wild boar. The sight of the fur-coated, angry, black animal petrified the mother of four. Before she could move to safety, the boar head-butted her in the abdomen, knocking her down on the ground before disappearing into the dense bushes behind her.

“I initially assumed it was a small buffalo,” Begum recalled at her home, pulling up her shirt to show the red-and-blue bruises just above her pelvis, “But it had small horns on the nose that ripped the shirt and bruised my abdomen.”

Sharifa Begum showing the aftermath of the attack by wild boar which crashed into her family’s vegetable garden recently
Begum shows her wounds after a wild boar attacked her in her vegetable garden [Jehangir Ali/Al Jazeera]

Experts say the Indian wild boar was introduced in the Himalayan region of Kashmir by Maharaja Gulab Singh, a Dogra military general in the former Sikh empire who purchased the region from the colonial British rulers under the Treaty of Amritsar in 1846.

Walter Roper Lawrence, a British officer who served the empire, wrote in his 1895 book, The Valley of Kashmir, that wild boar meat is a “great delicacy for the Dogras and Sikhs”.

The region’s last Dogra ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, emptied 10 villages in Dachigam, a dense forest on the outskirts of Srinagar, and turned it into an exclusive hunting reserve.

The wild boar was one of the many prizes up for grabs for the hunters, most of whom were Hari Singh’s guests. But with the end of Dogra rule in 1947 when the subcontinent gained independence from Britain, Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region, was divided between India and Pakistan, and the wild boar population started dwindling.

Islam forbids Muslims from consuming pork. Many Kashmiri Muslims believe their religious sensibilities are offended merely by the sight of a pig.

The wild species is also treated as a pest because boars damage crops, transmit diseases to livestock, destroy ground cover and compete with native fauna.

A wild boar walks inside Pobitora wildlife sanctuary on the outskirts of Gauhati, India
A wild boar seen at the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in India’s northeastern state of Assam [File: Anupam Nath/AP]

By 1984, not even one official sighting of the wild boar in the valley was reported.

“After the Dogra rule, the wild pig was recognised as an invasive species in Kashmir, and thus, no steps were taken to conserve it,” noted a 2017 study in the Journal of Threatened Taxa, a peer-reviewed conservation publication.

Baffling reappearance

But in 2013, wildlife scientists and researchers were baffled by the sighting of wild boars in Dachigam, now a national park, after a gap of 29 years.

Khursheed Ahmad, a wildlife scientist in Kashmir who was part of the team that made the discovery, recommended in a 2013 paper that the animal “needs to be eradicated or its population controlled”.

“It will be interesting to find out where these individuals have come from,” says the paper, which appeared in the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society.

A year later, another team of wildlife researchers crossed paths with a wild boar in the northern part of Indian-administered Kashmir. In this case, researchers believed the animal had crossed the Line of Control, the de facto border with Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where the wild boar population has increased in recent years.

India has not carried out any census on wild boars in the part of Kashmir it governs, but the number is believed to be in the hundreds, if not thousands.

“The sightings were restricted to forested areas, but the animal is now frequently venturing closer to human landscapes, especially in northern Kashmir, where we are getting frequent reports of damage to standing crops,” Rashid Yahya Naqash, the region’s wildlife warden, told Al Jazeera.

Kashmiri farmers tying grass, remnants of clothes and polythene sheets around the stem of apple trees to protect them from wild boars
Kashmiri farmers tie grass, cloth and plastic around the trunks of apple trees to protect them from wild boars [Jehangir Ali/Al Jazeera]

In recent weeks, wild boars have inflicted misery on the farmers of Hajin, a cluster of two dozen villages whose residents depend solely on their fields and orchards to feed their families.

Locals told Al Jazeera the animals have damaged paddy farms, plundered vegetable gardens and destroyed apple trees, posing a grave challenge to their livelihoods.

Hajin is located in the middle of sprawling farm fields and thick apple orchards along the banks of Jhelum River before it flows into Pakistan. Prosperity seems to be taking time to reach this corner of the world. Public infrastructure, such as roads and sewer systems, are either nonexistent or crumbling. Most men are farmers, and the women raise children, take care of household chores and some, like Begum, also grow vegetables.

‘Our children will die of hunger’

In the Bon Mohalla locality, a herd of boars is believed to have ventured into an apple orchard last week and ripped the bark from a few apple trees.

“We have to visit our orchards multiple times now to ensure everything is all right,” farmer Rameez Ahmad said. “Why can’t the government catch these animals and send them back to where they came from?”

In the middle of the farming season, villagers are spending restless days and nights filled with anxiety.

“If one plantation of paddy saplings is damaged, it means a loss of hundreds of kilogrammes of rice,” Ghulam Mohammad Parray, another farmer in Hajin, told Al Jazeera. “We are poor people. Our children will die of hunger.”

A school in Hajin at closing time. Wild boars have sparked a wave of panic across northern Kashmir.
Wild boars have sparked a wave of panic across northern Kashmir because they are seen as a threat to the livelihoods of farmers and their families, like these schoolchildren [Jehangir Ali/Al Jazeera]

Anguished villagers approached local officials, but the officers said they could only chase the animals away, not kill them.

Hajin is known for being the birthplace of Ikhwan, a dreaded state-backed militia that unleashed horror on the Kashmiris at the peak of a rebellion against Indian rule in the late 1990s.

“If the government doesn’t act, we will be forced to take the matter into our own hands,” Parray said. “Give us guns, and we will take care. We know how to deal with it.”

But a recent amendment to India’s wildlife laws, which became applicable to Indian-administered Kashmir after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped the region of its partial autonomy, has made it virtually impossible for the local government to do something about the wild boars without the federal government’s approval.

India also does not calculate the losses caused to agriculture by human-animal conflict.

A new study by the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Sciences in Kashmir, a government-run institution, found that the presence of wild boars has significantly impacted the vegetation and ground cover in riverine and woodland habitats of Dachigam National Park.

“In areas with high wild boar densities, their rooting behaviour can cause a reduction of up to 80 to 90 per cent in herbaceous cover and even led to the local extinction of plant species,” the study said while urging the government to “minimise their detrimental effects on agriculture and native ecosystems”.

“Being a prolific breeder, wild boars can become alternate prey for leopard, but its presence is also detrimental for Hangul, a critically endangered species of red deers, with which it is in direct competition for food and habitat,” Ahmad, who heads the Division of Wildlife Sciences at the university, told Al Jazeera.

Global warming links?

Experts also believe the animal’s revival in the Himalayan region, which has warmed more rapidly than the rest of the world, could be linked to global warming.

“A detailed study is required to shed light on how climate change has impacted the revival of wild boars in Kashmir,” wildlife official Intisar Suhail said.

Meanwhile, at her home in Hajin, Begum has taken a step back from attending to her household chores.

Although the frail-looking woman is full of gratitude for getting a “new life”, her run-in with the wild boar has left her full of fear.

It has been three days since the attack, but she has yet to return to her vegetable garden. She said the images of the encounter continue to flicker through her mind.

“I will not go there for the time being, not in the least when I am alone,” she told Al Jazeera. “I will not put my life at risk, even if we have to go hungry.”

Source: Al Jazeera