Unprecedented rush of pilgrims and severe weather conditions during the first fortnight of the Amarnath yatra have taken a heavy toll on horses and mules too.
The state animal husbandry department has registered 126 deaths of horses and mules up to July 26. Whereas according to pony owners, the unregistered deaths of the ponies have crossed the 1000 mark.
"Most pony deaths were witnessed up to July 15. While 90% were accidental deaths because the tracks were slippery in the first week of the yatra. Later, unprecedented rush took a toll," said Dr Mohi-ud-Din Bhat, posted at the Chandanwari camp 16 km ahead of Pahalgam base camp, 95kms south of Srinagar.
Thirty-nine deaths have occurred at the glacier site of Sheshnag, 28 km away from the base camp. "90% deaths were a result of cardiac arrest due to lack of oxygen and 10% were accidental," said Dr Bhat.
Most pilgrims avail the services of ponies to avoid trekking by foot. At least 10,516 ponies are registered with the board. However, hundreds more were put into service by locals due to heavy rush this year to make some money.
The heavy rush of around six lakh pilgrims in just 30 days, however, has left dozens of ponies crippled.
"We attended many ponies that suffered injuries by razor wires placed by security forces on tracks. Once a horse is lame, it is of no use. 90% of the ponies injured while carrying pilgrims were disabled for life," said Dr Bhat.
Pony owner Ghulam Muhammad Saad lost a hybrid mule on July 18 at Sheshnag. "It was too cold this year. Tracks were covered with snow. My mule slipped into the deep gorge," said Saad.
According to the animal husbandry department, a horse costs between Rs.30, 000-50, 000, while as hybrid mule, because of stamina and vigour cost, costs around Rs. 60,000.
"The shine board only pays Rs.25, 000 in case of accidental deaths as compensation. The amount is too small given the loss," said Jabbar Malik, who lost a horse in an accident.
In case a pony dies of dehydration, exertion or cardiac arrest, the shrine board does not entertain such cases for compensation.
Veterinary doctors are asking the shrine board to invoke the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act against owners who overstress the animals, leading to such number of deaths.
"Animals are not given proper food at times and forced to take pilgrims for days together," said Bhat.
On the Baltal route in north Kashmir, where ponies are made to trek 14kms on a very narrow and treacherous track, around 35 registered ponies died in the first fortnight of the yatra.
"The deaths have come down because the rush has receded for the past one week," said Dr Ishtiyaq Ghani, posted at Baltal in Sonamarg, the non-traditional route to the cave shrine located at 13,000 feet high.