Bear Battles

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As the conflict between the wildlife and the human beings is getting frequent at huge costs, nobody is looking at the personnel of the Wildlife department who lack the training and the protective gear to fight the crisis, reports Umar Mukhtar

In September 2010, the wildlife unit Dachigam got a call: ‘a bear was roaming in Batapora, Srinagar’. Nazir Ahmad at that point in time was mounting the dense slopes of the Dachigam National Park. On a routine round, he descended the slopes quickly.

Nazir is passionate about wildlife photography. He left his camera and picked up the tranquiliser gun. A team of ten people left Batapora for rescue. A 1000-strong mob had cornered the wild black bear inside a tin shed.

Once Nazir and the team reached the spot, people hurled the choicest abuses on them for getting late. They had anger. The bear had critically injured some people there.

Nazir pacified the angry mob and took a position. He was at a stone’s throw from the shed. By then, the mob started pelting stones on the shed. Somebody hit the door of the shed with a big log. The door got opened. A black roaring bear was there.

Nazir dotted on the bear quickly but, in a jiffy, Nazir found him in front of him. There was chaos, people were running. Nazir was laying hypnotised in front of a bear. The bear attacked him. Part of experience and wit helped Nazir save his face from getting disfigured. He lifted his left arm and covered his face with it. “I had heard that bear attacks the face of a person at first,” Nazir said. “So I covered it with my arm.”

The bear attacked his arm and tore it apart. His colleagues used sticks and shoed the bear away. The bear left Nazir in a pool of blood and ran away towards the fields. Wild animals become more aggressive when they do not have their own natural habitat.

There was no protective gear that Nazir was wearing, no helmet, no special uniform, and no bodyguards. In fact, none among them was wearing anything. They were as plain as the common people. Confronting a wild animal without body protection! Bizarre.

The wildlife department employees do not get such equipment. They purchase the gear to survive unhurt during such encounters. Nazir pulls his trousers up and shows a long boot, ‘even this, we bring from our own pocket.’

What makes the department so unprofessional and its employees so vulnerable to such attacks is a concern that every employee had in his mind.

“We have to deal with different types of wild animal. So we are vulnerable all the time. Bear attacks the face and leopard attacks the neck mostly, so we are always at risk,” Nazir said. Being without the body protection makes it riskier.

Since 2006, Kashmir has reported 194 deaths and 2480 injuries in man-wildlife conflicts. Most of the injuries make people disable for rest of their lives. Usually, bears and leopards play the villains in this game.

Nazir underwent several surgeries during month-long hospitalisation. “My arm was stitched, I had around 300 stitches on it.” He hides his disfigured arm under his sleeves.

Eight years after, Nazir has not recovered fully. He cannot make his left arm work much as it aches most of the time. Against the hospital bill of Rs 100,000, the department gave Nazir around Rs 30000. Nazir still continues to climb the altitudes and click the wild.

Waseem Ahmad, 33, is working in the wildlife department as a casual labour for the last 10 years. His face is disfigured with burn marks all over. He looks much older than his age, rough hands and rugged physic narrates his hardworking nature of the job.

Waseem mans the high altitudes, goes to rescue operations, and extinguishes the wildfires in dense forests.

Nazir Ahmad shows injury marks on his arm due to bear attack.

Back in 2012, a wildfire had emerged in the Zabarvan forests. Waseem along with other mates mostly all casual labours set on the mission to extinguish the fires. After trekking for about one hour they reached the spot. Smoke was emanating from inside the forest, making it difficult for them to go near. Waseem was leading from the front. He braved all the challenges and started his job.

“Extinguishing fire on the steep slopes of a hill and in dense forests is not so easy, it is risky. We do not know whether we will come back or not,” said Waseem. “Every time I climb the mountains, I go up with new clothes and come down with torn clothes.”

Waseem gets Rs 2200 wages, a month. “We do not get it monthly, sometimes they give our salaries after six months and sometimes even after eight-nine months.”

What motivates Waseem to work on meagre wages is the compulsions. Waseem has two kids and voluntaries for every risky job in the hope that someday he will get a permanent place in the department.

Extinguishing the fire without any equipment and body protection is definitely not less than a stunt.

A gush of flame came out of the bushes where Waseem tried to douse the fire. He fell there, unconscious. The other members dragged him out of the place and tore apart his burning clothes. Waseem was saved but his face got burnt. Later when he regained his senses and he finds out his burnt face, he cried.

“While dealing with the wildlife there is a strong possibility of getting infected, injured or disfigured. There should be at least any mechanism which will help us in performing our duties professionally,” Nazir said. “Till now we are managing this all in a traditional way.”

There are 1400 daily wagers working for Rs 1500, a month. Some of them have survived serious situation but the department has no records.

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