SRINAGAR A massive decline in the population of Kashmirs iconic wildlife species, the Hangul (Cervus hanglu hanglu), also known as the Kashmir stag, continues to be a big concern as conservation efforts for the deer, going on for years, have not yielded any significant results so far.
Today, the Hangul, the state animal of Jammu & Kashmir, is restricted to the Dachigam National Park some 15 km north-west of Srinagar.
From a population of 5,000 in the early 1900s, the Hanguls numbers have constantly declined over the decades, making it largely confined to the 141 square kilometres 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-Tral and the Overa-Aru Wildlife Sanctuary in south Kashmir.
The Hangul was once widely distributed in the mountains of Kashmir and parts of Chamba district in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh. But, now, the IUCNs Red List has classified it as Critically Endangered and is similarly listed under the Species Recovery Programme of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the Environmental Information System (ENVIS) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).
The Hangul is considered equally significant to the state of Jammu & Kashmir as the tiger is to the whole of India. It is the only Asiatic survivor or sub-species of the European red deer. But the state animals decreasing population remains a big concern.
According to the latest survey in 2017, the population of Hangul is 182 in Dachigam and adjoining areas. Earlier population estimates suggest that there were 197 deer in 2004 and 186 in 2015. Results of the latest survey (2019 survey) being carried out presently are expected in a month or so. But experts dont expect any positive change in the population growth of the Hangul.
The International Union for Conservation of Natures (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 the Markhor the worlds 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.
The Hangul is placed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the J&K Wildlife Protection Act, 1978.
The biggest challenges which have been identified by experts in the way of conservation and population growth of Hangul are habitat fragmentation, predation and very low fawn-female ratio.
The number of Hangul we have right now, is not up to the mark. Lack of desirable breeding and fawn survival is a grave concern for the population growth, Khursheed Ahmad, a senior wildlife scientist at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) said.
Another challenge is the male-female and fawn-adult disparity in the Hangul population. Ahmad said that a decline in the Hanguls 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. The female-biased ratio and the fawn to female ratio of 30:100 are the two main reasons for the declining numbers of Kashmirs Hangul, Ahmad said.
An important part of the conservation project for Hangul is to study the food habits, breeding patterns and movements of the species in and out of its habitat. Ahmad and his team have started in 2013-14 by tagging the animals with satellite collars.
They studied a male Hangul for 22 months by getting data continuously before that Hangul was hunted down. According to Ahmad, he and his team analysed the information of the mortality indicator in the collar and the circumstantial evidence which established that the collared Hangul was predated upon. Presently, they are studying two female Hangul whose satellite collars have been giving data since May 2018 continuously.
Ahmad said that the information gathered by them so far, has helped them track the corridor movement of Hangul. We could establish that the Hangul spend a good time outside Dachigam. But we still need to know as to where they go and why do they go there (for food, breeding or resting). We need to establish these things fully so that those areas are protected and problems faced in those areas by Hangul are identified and addressed accordingly, the researcher said.
Right now there is much fragmentation in the habitat and the traditional route for movement. We have to make it clear what is the exact route they use.
He said that removal of a 66-hectare sheep farm sheep farm, which was in the lower part of the Dachigam National Park, is a good step, but it cant give us results in isolation. Since the year 2002, 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 the Hangul.
Another conservation measure taken by the wildlife department in recent years is a project for improving the population of the Hangul through ex-situ breeding. The breeding centre, along with some infrastructure over a five-acre forested area in south Kashmirs Shikargah-Tral was started a few years ago. But wildlife officials say that so far, they have not come across any appropriate parental stock.
Kashmirs regional wildlife warden, Rashid Naqash, told this writer last year that the wildlife department is actually looking for young parental stock which can breed naturally in the habitat where we have created conducive conditions. But, since the animal is already under great stress, we are not trying to capture the animals forcibly.
This year also, the department is waiting for the young parental stock to venture accidentally into that area. Once the parental stock ventures there, it will find the area much more adaptable. Naqash said.
Wildlife experts say that a strong political will, which can help putting total focus on the Hanguls conservation, is still lacking though former chief ministers have given assurances about conservation of this flagship wildlife species. Considering the fact that Kashmirs politicians find it hard to convince the security establishment about the withdrawal of security forces from ecologically-sensitive areas, the Hanguls future very much hangs in balance.