Caught between militarisation of habitat and apathy, as the world community is observing the Wildlife Day, risk of extinction for the Hangul looms large.
Passing fingers gently over the pointed and branched antlers, put at a display on the entrance of their grandparent’s home, two siblings Muafiq and Faizan cherish the majesty of the unseen red deer.
Septuagenarian Mohammad Yousuf Wani, their grandfather recalls how occasionally, ‘Kashmir’s prized animal’ used to stray close to their premises, while turning nostalgic on the mention of the animal.
A spectre, Muafiq and Faizan in their early twenties have never been able to witness, unlike their grandfather, at their ancestral house in Barji Harwan, a small hamlet situated at a stone’s throw from Dachigam National Park, harbouring the endangered species of this Himalayan red deer.
The Hangul or Kashmir Stag (Cervus elaphus hanglu) is the only subspecies of European red deer found here. Its limited distribution and small population makes it a ‘critically endangered specie’.
With drastic decline in the numbers over the years, the population of Hangul is minimal.
IUCN Red Data Book, which records the list of species facing the risk of extinction, has declared this state animal of J&K as a critically endangered species.
Red Data List released in 2018 at Rio+20 Earth Summit, held at Rio de Jenario in Brazil, has placed the animal among the ‘most threatened species’ in the world.
Pegged at around 5,000 in 1900 A.D, the population of Hangul has seen a constant fall over the decades.
According to the census report released by the Department of Wild life and Protection (counting carried out on 24, 25 and 26 of March 2017 by experts and trained officials) the number of Himalayan Red Deer is as low as 182 now.
From the census reports available with the department, Annual Hangul Counting started in 2004 estimates the population at 197 (2004), 153 (2006), 127 (2008), 175 (2009), 218 (2011), 186 (2015) and 197 (2017).
Although the last two decades have shown some stability in the population, the low numbers put the state animal of J&K at constant risk of extinction.
Fragmented habitat due to militarisation, barbed wires and sealing of migratory routes, inbreeding issues, poaching and poor female-fawn ratio are the main concerns faced by this unique species of Himalayan Red Deer.
Data available from the census report 2017 suggests that, in 2004, sex ratio of the animal was 19 males per 100 females.
This ratio dwindled between 21 males per 100 females in 2006, 22 males in 2008, 26 males in 2009, 29 males in 2011, 22 males in 2015, to 16 males per 100 females in 2017.
Fragmented habitat and inbreeding depression
Once widely distributed in the mountains of Kashmir, with a small population outside J&K in the Chamba district of Himachal Pardesh, the Hangul distribution range has drastically declined, confining the animal to the 141 sq Km Dachigam national park.
“Hangul is a long ranging animal. Earlier, its traditional habitat stretched between Kishtwar to Gurez. Unfortunately this corridor connectivity has been lost to many factors, leading to the inbreeding depression,” says Dr Khursheed Ahmad, Scientist and Head Division of Wild Life Sciences SKAUST Kashmir, while deliberating on the eminent causes of the decline in Hangul population.
“Disconnectivity among the main set of population in Dachigam and the adjoining protected areas like Wangat, Shikargarh etc leaves chances of genetic spread at ebb. Isolated population leads to the lack of population progression,” adds Dr Khursheed.
Female-fawn ratio and predation
In 2004, the female-fawn ratio was 23 fawns per 100 females. There were 9 fawns per 100 females in 2006, which remained unchanged in 2008.
Then, the ratio swung from 27 fawns in 2009, 25 fawns in 2011, 14 fawns in 2015, to 19 fawns in 2017, reveals the annual census exercise 2017 carried by the Department of Wild Life Protection, Jammu and Kashmir.
‘Very low’ fawn survival is attributed as the main cause of poor fawn-female ratio.
“In addition, biotic factors, ‘fairly good’ population of local dogs and those belonging to the armed forces camped in the area, harsh winters, natural predation by leopard and fox and the coinciding of movement of livestock with the fawning season are other major factors affecting the fawn survival,” explains Dr Khursheed.
Conservation measures and some hope
Wildlife conservationist, M.K Ranjitsinh in her book ‘A life with wild life’, writes that Dachigam national park is the only hope for the critically endangered Hangul.
“Shifting of the sheep breeding farm from the national park has a been a big step in conserving the whatever population has been left now,” says the expert in her book.
“Shifting the sheep farm would also result in more natural fodder for the animal,” says a Wildlife Department employee who has been serving for the past 20 years.
“Proper feeding of the animals during winters in the form of dried Salix leaves and salt licks, when the prized species normally face scarcity of the fodder, has also helped in maintaining the numbers for last few decades,” claims the employee.
Establishment of 5 acre breeding centre in Shikargarh Tral is another big project for improving the population of Hangul through In-Situ breeding.
However, there is still a long way to go, Dr Khursheed says.
“Establishment of corridor connectivity between mainland Dachigam and adjoining relic protected areas, conservative breeding programme, re-introduction programme and elaborate research are needed to increase the population of Hangul,” opines Dr Khusheed.
As the fate of world precious Kashmir stag still hangs in balance, Kashmir’s top wild life officer, Rashid Yahya Naqash, Regional Wild Life Warden Kashmir, seeks cooperation.
“The department needs support from public at large to save and conserve the wild life, especially the priced Hangul,” appeals Rashid.
Amidst the efforts and appeal, the likes of Muafiq and Faizan long for the survival of ‘Kashmir’s pride’, the Hangul.