Srinagar, Feb 3 (IANS) An explosion in the population of Himalayan porcupine threatens to wreak havoc on the saffron and vegetable crops and fruit trees in Kashmir Valley. Long-time residents say they have no memory of the animal; its sighting is a new phenomenon.
Wildlife experts and researchers, however, hold that the animal, a rodent, is a native of the area. Its shrinking habitat and human interference in forest areas have caused the porcupines to move to human habitations. Porcupines have a taste for tuber crops like potatoes and also feed on vegetable crops, fruit trees and even the expensive and famous saffron crop.
"This animal is not new to Kashmir. I have seen references to it in old monograms. During the last few years, there has however been an increase in its numbers," said Abu Manzar, a scientist at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) here.
"Porcupines are fond of tuber crops like potatoes, saffron corms (the swollen underground stem that some plants have to survive harsh conditions like winter snow) cabbages, fruit barks etc. Local saffron growers complain that the porcupine population is a serious threat to their crop," he added.
Pits dug by the animals, known for their burrowing habit, are seen at a number of places in vegetable farms and orchards, and local attribute the extensive damage to their crops to these "armoured" rodents.
"The animal often debarks fruit trees, destroying them. Villagers who live in foothills are more likely to suffer the vagaries of these animals," Manzar told IANS.
He explained that although there are reports of farmers complaining, the exact extent of the damage caused by this particular rodent has still not been quantified.
"When that is done, measures could be taken for population management of the animal," Manzar said.
And it's not just human beings and their plants that have complaints.
Many watchdogs in the countryside have been injured by porcupine quills in violent encounters. "They have this powerful defence mechanism, extremely sharp and effective quills, which are raised when the animal is alarmed. The quills serve as natural armour," Rouf Ahmad Zargar, wildlife warden, north Kashmir, told IANS.
"The quills are so powerful, there are reports of a porcupine killing a tiger," Zargar added.
At present, porcupines are listed in Schedule 4 of the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act, 2002. Wildlife expert Rashid Naqash said that if there is official acceptance that the population of porcupines has reached menacing levels, the animals could be categorised as "vermin".
"Legally speaking, a vermin is an animal that can be shot without legal permission, since it poses a threat to human life or crops," Naqash explained.
He said that a committee of experts has been constituted by the state government to assess the threat posed to the saffron crop by porcupines.
Villagers in many rural areas claim that they have never seen the animal in past years. Its nocturnal rambling into orchards and vegetable farms now poses a threat to livelihood.
"We have never seen this animal in the past. I have also been going to highland pastures with my flock of sheep, but there too I don't remember seeing porcupine," said 67-year-old Abdul Rehman, of north Kashmir's Ganderbal district, from where recent porcupine encounters were reported.
Local people in a north Kashmir village said a porcupine recently damaged the eye of a child and, despite specialist care, vision could not be restored.
(Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)