Valley of fear: Rising leopard attacks in Kashmir’s Baramulla have children holed up at home

Baramulla (J&K), Sep 14 (IANS/ 101Reporters) Rutba Manzoor (12) was playing cheerfully in the garden outside her house when a leopard pounced upon her and dragged her into the forest. Her mother and sister could do nothing but scream violently.

“We are still in trauma. We cannot forget her face and mutilated body. It haunts us all the time. The scenes of recovering her half-eaten body will always remain as a scar in our lives,” Ishfaq Ahmad, Rutba’s grief-stricken brother, told 101Reporters.

Rutba, the daughter of Manzoor Ahmad from Bernate village in Uri tehsil of Baramulla district, was mauled to death on June 14. Her mangled body could be recovered from the nearby forest, only after an intensive search lasting for hours.

In the majority of cases involving wild animal attacks, children and adolescents are the targets. It has a long-lasting impact on other young minds. Still shaken by the incident, Rutba’s classmate Zehra (14) shared: “I cannot get her out of my mind. She was always so cheerful. Now, every time I go to school, there is this lingering fear of a leopard pouncing upon me. I cannot think of going to school without my parents. I was unable to sleep well for days after my friend’s death. Rutba still comes in my dreams.”

Human-animal conflicts in Kashmir have resulted in hundreds of fatalities in the past few years. Data accessed by 101Reporters revealed that from 2006 to 2022, 234 people lost their lives and 2,918 received injuries in animal attacks. The number of deaths has particularly gone up between 2011 and 2020. In 2018, eight persons were mauled to death, while it was 11 the following year. The next two years saw five and nine deaths, respectively. So far this year, 12 deaths have been recorded.

Year Injuries

2016-17 127

2017-18 120

2018-19 83

2019-20 85

2020-21 87

2021-22 89

A thriving population

“Leopards are agile and intelligent beings. They camouflage themselves among the bushes and wait for the opportune time to strike. By experience, they have sensed that unattended children are the most vulnerable,” Shafiq Ahmed Handoo, Regional Wildlife Warden, Kashmir, told 101Reporters.

Like Rutba, Sameer Ahmed (13) of Kalsi Chullan was dragged into the woods on his way back home from the playground. “I was at home, waiting for my son to arrive. Sameer was only 40 m away, so I decided to go inside thinking he would follow. But that did not happen for the next 15 minutes,” his father Muneer Ahmed recalled.

“My daughter repeatedly called out to him, but there was no response. So I went to look for him in the neighbourhood, only to find his mauled body. I pray what happened to my son should not happen to other children,” Ahmed said, bursting into tears.

According to published data, forests cover over 20 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s total land area. There are 35 conservation reserves, 14 wildlife sanctuaries and five national parks within the state’s 15,912 sq km network of protected areas. Of late, the wildlife department is concerned about the increased straying of wolves, leopards, tigers, black bears and monkeys into residential areas of Kashmir.

According to conservationist Aliya Mir, an increase in the population of black bear and leopard has led to man-animal conflicts.

“The transformation of rice fields into orchards with apples and other trees have provided wild animals with safe hiding spots. Now, it is easier for them to find resting places close to populated areas, though without any human interference,” Mir explained.

With the fear of attacks on the rise, the wildlife department has established control centres in several places to ensure timely response and, if possible, prevent such cases. “We are witnessing an increased movement of wild animals even in township areas. Therefore, we have intensified our awareness campaigns. People do call us for help when they notice a wild animal in their area. Yet, the attacks continue,” said Shafiq Handoo.

Isolating kids at home

“His desperate cries still echo in my mind,” said Abdul Jabbar Ganai of Kalsan Boniyar in Baramulla district, whose son Shahid Ahmad Ganai (14) fell prey to a leopard while feeding cattle. “My other son was present there when Shahid was attacked, but we were all helpless. The leopard dragged him up to 4 km. Later, when we pinpointed the spot, we found only his torn body,” narrated the distraught father.

Traumatised by the repeated attacks on children, panicky residents are resorting to extreme measures. “We don’t feel safe. The authorities are not doing anything to capture the man-eaters. We do not want to send our kids anywhere, not even to school. We have isolated them at home,” a local resident told 101Reporters on condition of anonymity.

Muzammil (10), a resident of Kreeri, Baramulla, does not want to go to school or even play outside in the garden. “I fear the leopard will eat me. I want to remain inside with my mumma. I want to study online, as we did before. I do not even think of playing outside my home without my mumma. Whenever I hear any noise from outside at night, or even during the day, my heart stops,” said Muzammil (10), who is paranoid after watching social media videos of leopard attacks.

About the psychological impact of such attacks on children, clinical psychologist Wasim Kakroo said, “If parents isolate their children at home, this will affect their overall development. Children have already spent the last few years at home due to COVID-19, and if we do this again, their mental health can be impacted.”

Kakroo suggested that children should play under their parents’ supervision. “It is tough on parents… The situation is equally traumatic for a child whose friend or neighbour died in an animal attack. Children who witness such incidents should immediately get help from mental health professionals as it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder,” he warned.

(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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