Even with the hangul on the brink of extinction, the Kashmir government and forest department continue to fumble over effective conservation plans.
Srinagar: In Kashmir’s Dachigam National Park, the royal stag hangul is nearing extinction. In 2015, a census by the state wildlife department showed that its population had whittled down to less than 200; 187 to be precise. A rattled government had promised to rework methods for hangul conservation. But two years later, in March this year, when wildlife employees, researchers and volunteers trekked the sprawling park for three consecutive days to look for signs to indicate a turnaround in the hangul population, there was little to cheer about.
“Once the data collected is analysed fully, only then can we talk about the outcome of the census,” wildlife warden Tahir Shawl told The Wire.
However another senior official, who was part of the census programme, was more direct in his response. “Don’t expect any miracle to happen this time. The tragedy is that we are not ready to accept, even today, that the animal could vanish in next decade or so,” he said.
Known for its magnificent antlers, which can have 11 to 16 points, the hangul is the only surviving Asiatic sub-species of the European red deer family. It is also the state animal of Jammu and Kashmir.
According to official records, the deer population was around 3,000 and was distributed widely around the mountains of Kashmir at the beginning of the 20th century. But today, it is struggling to survive in the Dachigam sanctuary, spread over 141 square km. The state government has little to boast as far as conservation efforts are concerned.
Conservation efforts were dealt a massive blow when the state government allowed sheep breeding farms to be set up within the park, eating into about 100 hectares of park area.
“Over the years, the sheep didn’t only prove to be a disturbance but there are ample scientific studies indicating considerable parasitic prevalence in hangul which are mainly attributed to habitat fragmentation and biotic interference, especially host density, owing to presence of sheep in habitat range of Hangul,” said the wildlife official, adding that some studies have indicated that deadly, infectious zoonotic diseases may have been transmitted from the sheep to the hangul.
In his book titled Management Plan, Dachigam National Park, regional wildlife warden Rashid Naqash writes that the hangul population decreased from 3,000 in the 1940s to a little over 200 by 1969. On the other hand, the sheep were introduced in the park in 1961 and their population increased from 20 to some 3,000 during the same period. The introduction of sheep created a potential competitor and a persistent source of disturbance for the hangul since both animals have similar grazing preferences.
Despite the threat, it took the government more than 12 years to implement a 2005 cabinet decision that had called for the sheep to be relocated from Dachigam.
Too little too late?
The hangul population was spread across the Bandipora district in north Kashmir, through Srinagar, eastwards to Anantnag in the south of the Valley. Besides that, a significant population could be found in Kishtwar district in Jammu.
“There was a constant genetic flow across these areas and contiguous habitats permitted movement of males across the Valleys, but this movement got hampered and has resulted in Hangul populations becoming locally scarce or even extinct,” Naqash argued.
The hangul’s ability to move freely was obstructed by security forces fencing and occupying high altitude meadows from the 1990s onwards. That is why wildlife experts are apprehensive – while relocating the sheep farms are a welcome step, it may be too late to save the hangul.
The decline in the hangul population, over the decades, is also attributed to poaching and human intrusion into its habitat. In the vast areas of upper Dachigam – like Nageberan and Marser – thousands of sheep, goat and horses are grazed by local gujjars as well as bakarwals.
Prior to the 1990s, poaching was the main reason behind the decline in the hangul population. The animal would be poached for meat antlers and skin. But when the anti-India insurgency broke out, locals were banned from owning guns.
Dachigam is also facing encroachment from fast spreading industrial areas and unabated mining. Over the years, there has been a rise in footfall in the park, not only from tourists but several government departments like water supplies, fisheries and tourism permanently establishing their presence in the name of “official activities,” thereby further shrinking the hangul’s habitat.
“During the breeding season (from April to June), the intrusions in the habitat causes disturbances, resulting in stress among pregnant hinds, often causing abortion of its fawns,” said a former wildlife official who has served at Dachigam.
The park is also home to predators like black bears and leopards who largely feed on fawns. And there is also a considerable presence of security forces inside the park, particularly in the upper reaches where the hangul move to graze during summer. “How do you expect the deer population to grow in such a stressful environment?” asked the official.
Falling sex-ratio another worry
The male to female ratio ranged from 21 to 51 males per 100 females before the 1990s. Today, the ratio is an alarming 12 males per 100 females, while the fawn to female ratio has fallen to 6 per 100. This imbalance in the ratios has led to a decline in breeding. Also, the mortality rate among fawns is on the higher side, which is adding to the worries.
“This imbalanced sex ratio is a cause of concern. We have undertaken a study to find the reason behind the death of fawns compared to females. Has it something to do with the genetic makeup or is it because of the outside factors, it needs to find out. One thing is sure that fawns from very early age want to expand their territory compared to females and hence they become more vulnerable,” said Sameena Mir, research officer with the wildlife department.
Is there a hope?
Though on the verge of extinction, the hangul continues to be in the category of “least concern” for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of threatened species – an indication of how the state government and the Centre have failed to push for hangul conservation at higher forums.
The bracketing of the hangul in the IUCN’s endangered category would mean targeted efforts at the international level for its conservation.
While the government has so far failed to attract the IUCN’s attention, the Rs 22-crore centrally-funded Hangul Conservation Project approved in 2008 is going nowhere. Under the program the state wildlife department set up a breeding centre at Shikargah on Srinagar-Anantnag highway, to start captive breeding, in 2013.
However a fawn that was shifted there, as part of the breeding program, fell prey to a leopard within days, owing to departmental negligence. Since then, the centre has been dysfunctional, with authorities yet to catch a young hangul couple to start the breeding. “Non-availability of the stock” has been the excuse put forth by the department time and again for the delay.
Minister for wildlife Choudhary Lal Singh said they have submitted a fresh Rs 27-crore proposal for the conservation of Hangul to the Centre. He didn’t say a word about the captive program or about the outcome of the satellite telemetry tracking that was also started in 2013. The project, costing around Rs 70 lakh, was aimed to determine the causes of the hangul’s declining population and provide in-depth knowledge on lesser known aspects of hangul biology, behaviour and ecology.
Effective implementation of conservation programs remains a distant dream. It remains to be seen whether the government will wake up to save the hangul from extinction.
Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.