The magnificent and royal Hangul deer that once lorded over the Kashmir Valley finds its existence threatened in its last bastion.
Hangul or cervus elaphus hanglu, categorised as a subspecies of the European red deer, is confined to 141 sq km of land in the Dachigam National Park near Srinagar and its population has whittled down to just 186, according to a 2015 census. The decline has been rapid for the animal that numbered about 5,000 in the early 1900s.
In the most recent attempt to save the deer, the Jammu and Kashmir government has decided to relocate a sheep-breeding farm that is located inside the national park and eats into about 100 hectare of the Hangul’s habitat, local newspapers reported on March 6.
However, wildlife scientists and experts said this may not do much to save the animal as its decline is a result of multiple factors, both natural and man made – such as the construction of cement factories and a golf course near its habitat.
Just a part of the problem
Khursheed Ahmad, assistant professor and scientist at the Centre for Mountain Wildlife Sciences, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, said the Hangul once inhabited an over 300 km stretch between Kishtwar to Gurez in North Kashmir. Apart from Dachigam, a few Hangul are now found in the Overa Wildlife Sanctuary in Anantnag district and Shikargah Conservation Reserve in Tral.
Ahmad was part of a scientific study that advocated the reclassification of Hangul as a separate species – it is currently considered a subspecies of the red deer, which is considered to be of “least concern” in the IUCN’s red list – to draw international attention to its status and encourage more targetted conservation efforts.
The main reason for the Hangul’s decline is that breeding has decreased and fawns too are very few. “Another reason is female-biased sex ratio, where we have more females than males,” he said.
A study coauthored by Ahmed found that the Hangul had a ratio of 23.18 males per 100 females for adult deer and 29.85 males per 100 females for fawns. The Hangul stag has an impressive 11 to 16-point antlers.
Ahmad said the mortality rate of fawns is high – most of them die within a year, because of “disturbances” to their environment. “There are climatic and natural factors as well [responsible for fawn deaths],” Ahmad said, such as “heavy snow and attacks by predators such as foxes and jackals, dogs [of paramilitary forces stationed inside the sanctuary] and Bakarwal groups.”
Sheepherders bring their livestock for grazing to Dachigam in April, which is also the fawning period. They are usually accompanied by guard dogs, who often attack fawns. The Hangul’s habitat is also home to predators such as the black bear and leopards, apart from foxes and jackals.
Human encroachment has exacerbated the problem. Cement factories and quarries constructed near the sanctuary has fragmented their habitat. The annual Amarnath Yatra in July-August, which draws lakhs of pilgrims, is another disturbance for the animals.
A part of Dachigam National Park is near the Amarnath shrine and several government departments and guest houses have been constructed inside the sanctuary. Srinagar’s famous Royal Springs Golf Course was also carved out of a part of their habitat.
Despite this, conservation efforts are yet to begin in earnest.
On January 17, the state government said it had submitted a five-year conservation plan for the Hangul to the central government for approval, seeking funds of about Rs 25.72 crores. Speaking in the Legislative Council, State Forest Minister Chaudhary Lal Singh said this was a long-term “Conservation Action Plan” aimed at “four major outcomes”, which included improving the survival rate of fawns and restoring the Hangal’s shrinking habitat.
The minister, however, had said this said in the Assembly in May last year too.
Moreover, a Hangul breeding centre set up in Shikargah is not yet functional close to five years after it was opened.
Wildlife Warden Intesar Suhail, formerly posted here, said that breeding efforts at the centre had been halted because of unavailability of Hanguls. “The infrastructure is ready to initiate [the breeding process], he said. “But we need at least six female and two male hanguls.”
Suhail said that there was a limited period, during winter, when the Hangul move to the lower reaches of Dachigam in search of food. “You have to first select and capture [these Hanguls]...when you miss a season, you have to wait for another,” he said. “Once we are able to capture the parent stock then only we can start.”
Wildlife Warden (Central) Tahir Ahmad Shawl said that livestock grazing in the Hangul’s habitat used to be a big problem for several years, but had been curbed “to a large extent” over the last two years.
Various government departments had been sent directing them not to grant permits to sheep herders to bring their livestock to graze near the Hangul habitat.
“Last year we plugged all routes from Khrew, Khonmoh, Ganderbal and Harwan and ensured minimum entry (of sheep herders),” Shawl said, adding that the practice would end “If we continue to put the pressure over the next few years.”