Fenced in, Kashmir's leopards, bears stalk village|Richard_F|richard@cfz.org.uk|11/25/06 at 12:25:13|richard_f|xx|0||Fenced in, Kashmir's leopards, bears stalk villages

Ashok Pahalwan
Thu Nov 23, 1:33 PM ET

JAMMU, India (Reuters) - A fence along India's disputed border with Pakistan designed to keep out militants is curbing the movement of wild bears and leopards which are now wandering into villages and killing people, officials say.

The animals were until recently able to roam through forests in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir.

But they are unable to penetrate a heavily defended barrier built by India from 2003 to stem guerrilla activity linked to a separatist revolt.

Officials say while the fence has cut the numbers of militants crossing into Indian territory and of shootouts with soldiers, Kashmiris living in isolated hamlets now face an altogether different threat.

"Fencing is one of the reasons that has restricted the trans-border movement of wild animals in the border areas of the state," Qazi Mohammed Afzal, Kashmir's environment minister, told Reuters.

"If people stand divided due to the fence, then so do animals."

Indian and Pakistani troops halted shelling across the frontier three years ago as part of peace moves. A three-meter (10-feet) high fence along the 742-km (460-mile) Line of Control, a de facto border which divides Kashmir, soon followed.

More than a dozen people have been killed so far this year by wild animals -- five in the past month alone -- and scores of others have been injured, wildlife officials say.

At the weekend, a man was dragged from his mud house in Baramulla district by a leopard as he slept and a woman was mauled by a black bear in the Kupwara region.

Leopard and Himalayan black bear populations have increased after a ban on hunting was enforced in Kashmir in 1970, and the loss of pine forests had already increased contact between animals and people.

India now has 8,000 leopards but the number living in Kashmir is uncertain as no wildlife census has been carried out since the revolt began in late 1989. No data was available for black bears, wildlife groups said.

Authorities are now planning to set up control rooms and distribute leaflets urging people living near forests to take precautions to prevent more casualties.

Police say at least six bears and leopards have been killed by villagers and authorities in the last ten months after attacking local people.