JAMMU, India (Thomas Reuters Foundation) - Panicked monkeys jump off an orange tree and disappear fast as angry children pelt them with stones and shout abuse. Crackers are let off in the distance, and more kids rush out to a nearby field, dotted with scarecrows, to stop wild animals destroying crops.
For a few years now, the small farmers of Pouni block, an area surrounded by green hills and mountains in Jammu and Kashmir’s Reasi district, have faced an unusual threat from hungry wildlife whose forest habitats are in decline.
The animals are harming crops, livestock and even people here in India's far north. In many villages, almost entire crops have been damaged on a yearly basis, threatening to bring food insecurity for small farmers living in and around traditional forest areas.
“The monkeys don’t spare any crop in our fields,” said Bal Krishan Arya, a resident of Kheralair village in Pouni block, pointing to the devoured shoots of his wheat plants. “They have destroyed my orange orchard, not leaving a single fruit on any tree."
“There used to be dense forest on the higher reaches of the hills, but in the past few decades, the forest canopy has become patchy,” said Arya. The nearby Bayard forests were well known for their thick bamboo bushes but in the recent past, they have thinned out dramatically. Other trees have suffered too, shrinking the area’s natural vegetation.
Arya blames “reckless tree-felling” due to development activities undertaken by the state - mainly road building and expansion of human settlements - as well as local people’s dependence on wood for fuel and other purposes.
Rajeev Tiwari, a project coordinator for afforestation in the Jammu and Kashmir Forest Department, said that since 1991, the region has lost 11,750 hectares of forest land to road construction alone. Other development programmes have also reduced forest cover, he said, adding that his department has been trying to rectify some of the damage over the last four years.
OVER 250 VILLAGES AFFECTED
Small farmer Arya said water sources like springs and small streams are also vanishing, “leading to grim and difficult summers”. All these factors are pushing wild animals into villages close to the dwindling forests, where they scavenge for food and water, he explained.
Shama Devi, another villager, said she used to give vegetables from her fields to relatives and neighbours. “But for the past few years, the monkeys haven’t let anything grow,” she said. She has now stopped cultivating vegetables, and must buy them from the market.
Local farmers said that, even before the wild animal menace, they faced shortages of grain and other farm produce. But the raids have worsened the situation, leaving families dependent on state-subsidised food rations.
Last year, the agriculture minister of Jammu and Kashmir, G.H. Mir, told the State Legislative Assembly that major crops, including maize, wheat, rice and vegetables, are being damaged by monkeys on 15,596 hectares of agricultural land in more than 250 villages in Jammu, Kathua, Udhampur and Reasi districts each year.
The hungry animals are also causing substantial losses in the horticulture sector, especially to fruit crops including mango, guava, pear, grapes, citrus fruits, lychee, peach, plum and apricot, on an area of 68,384 hectares, he said.
The Jammu and Kashmir agriculture department is encouraging affected farmers to try alternative crops like turmeric, ginger, okara and marigold. It is also planning to plant fruit trees on the forest edges to increase food and shelter for monkeys and other animals so they do not venture onto farm fields.
However, these measures have yet to show results. In frustration, local people have been calling for the sterilisation of monkeys and issuance of gun licenses.
In Doda, Kishtwar, Ramban and some areas of Rajouri and Poonch districts, black bears and wild pigs have also been damaging crops. And incidences of leopards attacking humans and livestock are frequently reported in the media.
Since herbivorous animals have descended to the lower slopes, their predators have followed them. In mid-March a leopard was killed by police in Reasi district near the Shiv Khori temple cave after it attacked and injured four people.
In response, the state government has proposed setting up control rooms to act promptly on alerts of wild animals showing up in human habitations.
The Forest Department and the Department of Soil Conservation have launched a programme to revive traditional ponds in forest areas, as well as constructing new ponds and stone dams to hold mountain run-off water that recharges springs. The Department of Social Forestry is also trying to revive degraded forests and wasteland.
But villagers allege that these efforts are being thwarted by mismanagement of funds, leading to poor quality work on the ground. They feel such schemes should be implemented with greater transparency and an obligation to demonstrate results.
Chunni Ram, a resident of Chowki Chaura in Jammu district, a village that is threatened by monkeys and wild pigs from surrounding forests, said the government constructed dozens of ponds on deforested land and set up enclosures to protect new plantations a few years ago.
“But within a few months, the enclosures turned into barren land and the ponds disappeared as shoddy material was used,” he said. “After completing the work, the government officials never bothered to take stock of the situation. Their objective was to spend (the) funds for personal gain and not for forest conservation.”
Many affected residents believe government departments should work with local elected village councils, known as panchayats, to restore forests. Forests should be fenced off and monitored for illegal felling and intensive plantation, they argue.
More wild fruit trees that provide food for animals should be planted in the forests, besides local trees such as Sheesham, Bargad and Peepal, which are facing extinction but have a longer life span. And water harvesting should be stepped up, which would help revive forest resources, they say.
The Jammu and Kashmir State Forest Policy of 2011 noted that destruction and disturbances of wildlife habitats are the main reason for man-animal conflict. It promised to focus on conservation of habitats and wildlife management outside protected areas, as well as promoting cooperation between government departments and greater public awareness.
“The problem is not as intense as it is being projected by the villagers,” A.K. Singh, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. There is, however, a “considerable increase” in the number of animals in all protected areas, mainly due to a strict ban on hunting, he conceded.
According to Singh, from March 2012 to March 2013, wild animals killed 17 people and injured 300 across Jammu and Kashmir. In the year since, as many as 33 deaths have been reported and more than 300 have been injured in animal attacks.
“The mushroom growth of human settlements in and around forests is leading to shrinking animal habitat. It has directly affected the food chain of wild animals. Consequently, the struggle of wild animals for food, water and space has escalated beyond forest areas,” he said.
A study by an expert committee headed by Singh submitted a report on the problem to the state government a few months ago, proposing a Rs. 83 crore ($14 million) project to tackle it. But this has yet to be approved.
Meanwhile, farmers like Arya have no choice but to find their own ways of coping with the growing crop damage and safety menace from wild animals.
Ashutosh Sharma is a journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir, India.