Inside the militarized habitat of Kashmir’s Royal Stag

Grappling with multiple problems, Hangul, the Kashmiri stag is now facing rising military interference in its native heartland. Even as the menace has been termed ‘serious’ by many, the wildlife department is far from ‘ascertaining the possible causes’ triggering the near extinction of the Kashmir Royal Stag.

Behind the closed gates of Dachigam National Park, an unattended crisis is silently taking a hideous form, putting the very habitat of the Hangul at stake. An immediate trigger, the insiders say, is the military and militarized activities inside the park.

The armed footfall inside the sanctuary, says Intisar Suhail, is one of the causes behind Hangul’s fading footprints.

As a wildlife warden, Suhail is somebody who has meticulously mapped the activities of the Hangul habitat over the years.

“Frequent patrolling and improper waste disposal by the armed forces create disturbances in the Hangul habitat,” Suhail says. “The scattered wastes attract dogs and other scavengers, and that’s dangerous, especially during their fawning season, posing a threat to the animal.”

The locals say military presence and camps in the upper reaches of Dachigam, along the route that the Hangul takes, is leaving the animal caged in certain pockets. Fearing possible public outcry, the authorities have responded in manner typical to Kashmir. They’ve put restrictions and barred locals, including photographers and wildlife enthusiasts, from venturing inside the sanctuary.

The ban termed bizarre by many has raised a raging question: When National Parks—home to endemic species—around the world are open to photographers and wildlife enthusiasts, why is Dachigam inaccessible?

Perhaps, in the place where every gag is being justified on “security grounds”, not many are up ante against the self-styled prohibition order.

“Getting access inside the park is an uphill task, if one doesn’t have an influential backing,” Rouf Bhat, a local wildlife enthusiast, says. “It feels like the place has been exclusively reserved for VIPs and military forces.”

Dachigam National Park.

Given the prevailing dynamics in the sanctuary, Bhat’s assertion doesn’t appear misplaced.

But before housing the Indian army, alongside the whittling Hangul population, the Dachigam Park was marked as a hunting reserve by the Dogra regime in 1910. Then in 1934, the Dogra Maharaja evicted 10 adjacent villages to safeguard it.

After the Dogra rule ended with the arrival of the Indian army in Kashmir in the fall of 1947, the locals say, parts of the park housed the Indian troops that shortly started garrisoning the so-called strategic zone in Kashmir.

Among those “strategic zones” were pastures, hills, meadows and jungles. Dachigam’s militarization can be seen as an offshoot of the larger military management of Kashmir.

It was in 1981 that the 141 square kilometers Dachigam sanctuary became a National Park.

Eight years later, as insurgency against the Indian establishment erupted in Kashmir, the Indian army took control of the adjoining ranges in the park, in a bid to establish their positions of power. The locals say it was like reestablishing the writ of Indian state in Kashmir, as many armed guerrillas were then making rounds in the sanctuary.

“But the heightened militarization marked by barbed wiring suddenly changed the natural corridors which these Hanguls used for grazing and reproduction,” a wildlife official says. “At times, those razor-sharp wires would leave many Hanguls bleeding. In such a stressful environment, how do we expect the population to grow?”

The park crisis was equally created by the remote militarization, confined to Kashmir’s hinterlands.

Down in northern Kashmir’s Bandipora, as Gurez and Tulail valleys’ pastures came under the control of the army for falling in the close range of the Line of Control (LoC), Dachigam suddenly became the permanent summer grazing ground for thousands of livestock.

This additional seasonal grazing rush in the upper reaches of the sanctuary, already housing the Indian army, further encroached upon the Hangul’s natural habitat. And it had nowhere to go.

Before the military intrusion, Hanguls used to spend the summer season — May to September — in the upper reaches of the Zabarwan range of the western Himalayas, at an altitude ranging between 5500 ft to 14000 ft above sea level. The period happens to be the fawning season, as the young ones are born between May and June.

But now, the intrusions during the breeding season have resulted in stress among pregnant hinds, a wildlife official says, causing frequent abortion of its fawns.

Mainly leading a static lifestyle in the lower Dachigam—its traditional winter habitat—Hanguls now roam in reduced and controlled pastures.

Amid this alarming disturbance in the Hangul heartland, the forest department is still “ascertaining the possible causes” behind the decline, even as the numbers are already hinting at near extinction of Jammu and Kashmir’s State Animal.

In 2015, a census by the state wildlife department showed that Hangul, the Royal Stag’s population has come down to 189.

The figure has further gone down by four, in 2017. “The Hangul population decreased from 3,000 in the 1940s to a little over 200 by 1969,” Rashid Naqash, regional wildlife warden, notes in his book Management Plan, Dachigam National Park.

Apart from the military menace, this rare species and the only surviving Asiatic sub-species of the European red deer family is also facing poaching problems. Much of that has to do with its magnificent antlers, meat and skin.

ALSO READ: Following a poacher in the heart of Kashmir’s wetlands

After momentarily going into hiding, amid rising combat during the 90s, the hunters are back in action. Even the sizeable presence of the military inside the sanctuary isn’t acting as a deterrent to them.

“I’ve multiple times witnessed the presence of poachers in the area,” a frequent trekker to Dachigam says.

When Harwan police arrested six poachers in January 2011, four kilograms of Hangul meat was recovered from them. The main felon was one Muhammad Shafi Bhat, a professional hunter.

Poachers in Dachigam. (Photo: FPK sources)

Despite the tough official posturing against the poachers, guns continue to rattle the calm of the Hangul habitat. Last summer, a group of a nomadic tribe killed a musk deer in Dachigam.

“They very often do that,” the trekker continues. “Besides musk deer, many other wild birds are killed by professional poachers hunting with licensed guns.”

ALSO READ: Poachers’ Paradise: ‘Its bird butchery happening inside Kashmir wetlands’

Notably, these hunters seem to have a field day in the belt where the military and the counterinsurgents have long established their encampments, to keep a check on militant movement.

On the other side of the peak, lies the defiant Tral — one of the strongholds of militancy in Kashmir.

But how do these poachers manage to secure entry into the militarized “forbidden sanctuary” perhaps explains the prevailing state of affairs in the Dachigam National Park.

A musk deer killed by poachers. (Photo: FPK sources)

“There’re these dogs that armed forces use inside Dachigam, which create major problems for Hangul,” says Dr Khursheed Ahmad, Head wildlife Science Division, SKUAST. “We need to understand that Hangul is a very shy animal, who isn’t able to adapt with the changing interference.” This is where it’s getting dangerous for the Hangul welfare.

And given how things work in Valley, not many seem to ask the obvious: Who let the dogs out in the Hangul heartland?


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