Where the wild things go: Nainital's furry visitors give cause for concern
How would you react when told, upon checking into a hotel, that you may get some wild visitors - a bear that could just amble in or a leopard prowling outside your room?
This is a hot topic of discussion and jokes for locals in Nainital these days. While sighting wildlife on the periphery of this lake town is common, having such visitors in the heart of the town has become a cause of concern.
In the last 20 days alone, in two separate incidents, a bear tried to break a hotel window and a leopard entered the bathroom of a young couple holidaying in the town.
Honeymoon turned nightmare
Sumit Rathor and Shivani, newlyweds from Meerut, had come to Nainital along with a few other family members and were staying at a hotel in Tallital area of the town. While the couple was asleep, a one-and-half-year-old leopard entered their room after breaking through the window at around 4.45 am.
The wild cat had apparently sought refuge in the hotel room after being chased by wild dogs. The leopard reportedly sauntered up till the bed and the scared couple pulled the blanket over their heads. It then went in to the bathroom and Sumit quickly shut the door.
He then informed the hotel staff which in turn called the police and the authorities from the local zoo to capture the animal. A crowd of onlookers had also gathered by that time. The efforts to catch the leopard proved futile - after three hours in the bathroom, the wild cat managed to break the glass covering the ventilator and fled.
Bear in mind
On 10 July, the town woke up to the news that a Himalayan black bear had been seen swimming in the lake before it fled into Ayarpata forest. Locals say that the bear had first tried to enter a hotel by breaking a window pane. It hurt its paw in the process and was then chased by a pack of dogs, forcing it to jump into the lake.
It is assumed that the bear had ventured into Nainital from the adjoining Ladia forest.
While incidents of leopards in the hills and elephants in the Terai area of Uttarakhand entering residential areas are common, sighting a bear in a town came as a big surprise. Attacks by bears and leopards are common in the rural areas of the hilly areas of the state. While there are almost daily reports of leopards attacking the children and the aged, the reports of bears coming into conflict with the humans in the higher reaches are also common.
Measures to protect tourists
But the issue has become a cause of concern in Nainital which is a prominent tourist destination.
"We have been telling the visitors not to venture towards the periphery of the town in the evenings and early mornings. After these two incidents, we are asking the hotel owners to get grills installed outside the windows and ventilators," said local hotelier Kamal Jagati who is a prominent functionary of the Nainital Hotel Association.
Jagati told Catch, "We are also asking them to replace the reflector glasses from the windows. It is on looking at its reflection in the glass that the animals often attack it and get hurt."
A few months ago, locals had also frequently seen a leopard on the road leading to Dev Singh Bisht College.
Vinod Pande, a retired official of Uttarakhand Forest Corporation and a keen observer of local flora and fauna, looks at things on a broader canvas. His conviction is that the whole narrative of jungle needs to be redefined afresh. "We need to go back to the pre-Chipko agitation and also far back. At that time the jungle was sen as something dark and dangerous. The wild animals were perceived to be a great threat. Cutting of trees and killing of these 'dangerous' animals were encouraged. The importance of the jungle was never known or understood."
He told Catch, "It is a misnomer that Chipko movement was just about saving trees. It was an outcome of the understanding of the common folk that their economy depended on the jungle and it had been largely disturbed. I believe that the whole message of Chipko movement has been wrongly disseminated. The jungle does not only mean trees. It means the forest ecology as a whole defined by interdependence of plants and animals."
He points out that leopard has a fringe forest habitat. It gathers its food both from inside the forest and also from the human habitation close by. "In the name of development, we have seen a massive road network being developed without bothering about its impact. It is sheer desperation and their inability to comprehend he changes that is now driving the animals towards the heart of towns and villages," Pande said.
Talking about the areas adjoining Nainital, he said, "Weeds have taken over the forest land in a big way. To a newcomer they present an image of greenery from a distance. A weed commonly known as Mexican Devil is now spread over kilometres in the forests adjoining the Kunjkharak area on the backside of the town. We were recently told by villagers in the area that their crops are now being destroyed by barking deer and goral which was unheard of earlier. Hence there is a dire need to work on the theory of learn, unlearn and relearn in case of the forests and come up with a new narrative."
Till that happens, more incidents of wild cats and bears turning up in the residential areas of towns and villages cannot be ruled out.