As Forces Block Nomads’ Access To Pastures,Grazing Poses Major-Challenge To Hangul-Conservation 

Srinagar— With the security forces having put dozens of alpine pastures out of bounds for nomads, the latter’s grazing their sheep and goats in the Dachigam National Park instead has become a major challenge for the conservation of the endangered Hangul, or the Kashmir stag.

After the outbreak of militancy in the state, the forces had closed down traditional routes to such pastures in Gurez and Ladakh, forcing nomads to look for alternatives like the upper reaches of the Dachigam National Park for summer grazing. 

 “Nomad herds coming into the Hangul habitat is a constant challenge causing not only disturbance in the Hangul habitat, but has other repercussions also,” says Ghulam Hassan Kango, former forest conservator and chairman of a Srinagar-based environment watchdog, Peoples’ Environment Council (PEC).”This is despite the fact that there are a number of other pastures which could be made available to the nomads for grazing their herds.”

According to a top official, the Wildlife Protection Department is working seriously on a solution to this problem and is in touch with security top brass for reopening at least some routes.

 “We are also planning to meet the heads of the nomadic families in order to convince them about the importance of the Hangul. And now that we have been able to remove a sheep farm (that had come up in the National Park), it will be somewhat easy to convince them. Earlier, they used to ask how their herds could cause harm when the large sheep farm didn’t,” he says.  

Male-female and fawn-adult disparity in the Hangul population is another challenge to Hangul conservation. Experts say that decline in Hangul’s population is mainly occurring due to low recruitment rate of fawns to adults.

 “There is a female-biased ratio of 23 males to every 100 females. This and the fawn to adult ratio of 30:100 are the two main reasons for the declining numbers of Kashmir’s Hangul,” say Khursheed Ahmad, a senior wildlife scientist at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST).

Other reasons, as per Ahmad’s research paper, include excessive predation of fawns by common leopard, black bear and nomads’ dogs as also continued Hangul summer habitat loss and degradation due to excessive livestock grazing in the upper Dachigam.

Also known as Kashmir Stag, Hangul is the only Asiatic survivor or sub-species of the European red deer. It was once widely distributed in the mountains of Kashmir and parts of Chamba district of the neighboring Himachal Pradesh. But, today, the last few left are restricted to Dachigam National Park in the neighborhood of Srinagar covering an area of 141 Sq. Kms.

From a population of 5,000 in early 1900s, Hangul’s numbers have constantly declined over the decades making it largely confined to the 141 km² of Dachigam National Park although some studies suggest that small isolated Hangul herds of five to ten have been reported from adjoining areas of Dachigam which include Shikargah-Traland the Overa-Aru Wildlife Sanctuary in south Kashmir.

According to the latest survey of 2017, the Hangul population in Dachigam and adjoining areas stands at 182. Earlier population estimates suggest that the population was 197 in 2004 and 186 in 2015.

 “The population is steady for the last 10-12 years. But the area has a far greater carrying capacity despite the fragmentation of forested habitats of Hangul,” said a wildlife warden.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red Data Book – which contains lists of species at risk of extinction – has declared the Hangul as one of three species that were critically endangered in Jammu and Kashmir.

The other two are Markhor – the world’s largest species of wild goat found in Kashmir and several regions of central Asia – and the Tibetan antelope or ‘chiru’, found mostly in the mountainous regions of Mongolia and the Himalayas, where Jammu and Kashmir is mostly situated.

Hangul is placed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the J&K Wildlife Protection Act, 1978.

According to Ranjitsinh, India’s top wildlife expert and the member of Jammu & Kashmir’s State Board for Wildlife, Dachigam ecosystem is Hangul’s only hope now.

 “Outside of it, the scattered few would, perhaps, number less than ten. Upper Dachigam, which was their traditional summer breeding ground, is now occupied by the Gujjar shepherds and their dogs in the summer,” he writes in his book “A Life with Wildlife.”

He has consistently spoken for J&K’s wildlife, particularly Hangul, for. During a meeting of  State Board for Wildlife on March 2, 2012 in Jammu, Ranjitsinh, who is the member of the Board, had told the then chief minister, Omar Abdullah, that if his government cannot remove the sheep farm from Dachigam, then he should make an announcement about sheep being J&K’s state animal, not the Hangul.        

Yet, that could not happen immediately. It was towards the end of 2017 that Kashmir’s wildlife department managed to remove the 66-hectare sheep farm from Dachigam Park after strenuous efforts and a long tussle since early 2000s with the government’s Sheep Husbandry Department. The wildlife department had been consistently pleading with the sheep husbandry officials that the farm is acting as a huge disturbance to the habitat of Hangul.  

Officials of the wildlife department said that, in winter, they were able to see herds of Hangul frequenting the area which earlier hosted the sheep farm.

 “The Department of Wildlife Protection has put in lot of efforts to ensure expansion of the ideal Hangul habitat by way of shifting of sheep breeding farm from Dachigam National Park. It is highly appreciable,” says Khursheed Ahmad of the SKUAST.

Another conservation measure taken by the wildlife department in recent years is a project for improving the population of Hangul through in-situ breeding.

The Breeding Centre along with some infrastructure over a five-acre forested area in south Kashmir’s Shikargah-Tral area was started a few years back. But, so far, wildlife officials say, they have not come across any appropriate parental stock. 

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