Wild bears have become a menace to villagers in northern Jammu and Kashmir as three people were killed and dozens wounded by the beasts in the last fortnight.
A bear entered Saidpora village near here while a wedding was in progress Saturday. It injured a woman, got into a house and took refuge in the attic. Hundreds of villagers hooted until the bear left the residential area and disappeared into the orchards around the village.
A woman in Kondabal village, around 27 km from here, was also attacked by a wild bear. Badly mauled, the woman succumbed to injuries at a hospital.
In Handwara district, a bear snatched a child from his father's lap last week when he had gone out in the dark. The child's body was recovered the next morning from a nearby field.
More than three-dozen villagers have reportedly been wounded by bears in the districts of Kupwara, Baramulla and Srinagar.
Under wildlife protection laws, killing a bear is punishable with imprisonment and fine.
"People are living in mortal fear of these beasts who are entering populated places as food has become scarce in forests," said a wildlife department official.
The population of bears and other wild animals seems to have increased in the last two decades since poaching and hunting has stopped in Kashmir due to the ongoing separatist violence.
"The wildlife protection department is unable to help the locals when these wild animals descend on populated areas. The department should have constituted special teams to tranquillise these animals and relocate them into their natural habitats," said Shabir Ahmad, a resident of Haripora village, 27 km from here.
"The police often come to the rescue of the people when these wild bears show up. The police have little option other than shooting them down to protect lives and property," he said.
Ahmad said bears visit his apple orchard regularly at night. "They have destroyed many of my apple trees as they peel off the delicate epidermis of these trees."
All villagers can do is use hooters and beat canisters to scare the bears away during the night. Parents lock their houses after dark to prevent children from venturing out.
"It is a highly risky situation. Children are after all children. They do not understand the dangers around. The situation becomes worse during power cuts. I have been hearing a bear howl outside my home for the last one week," said Qasim Khatana of Gund village, 54 km from here.
Bears are known to hibernate during the winter months but despite the cold beginning to set in, there are reports of the animal still on the prowl.