• Publish Date: Sep 17 2018 3:02AM
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  • Updated Date: Sep 17 2018 3:02AM

Kashmir known for it’s antlers bearing 11 to 16 points is the natural though disturbed hub of Stag (Cervus canadensis hanglu). Hereafter referred to as Hangul, the stag is a subspecies of elk native to India, which is also the state animal of Jammu & Kashmir. Hangul lived in Kashmir since time immemorial and lately due to reduction in its number in wild, had been relocated to Dachigam National Park falling on the outskirts of Srinagar city. The International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) includes Kashmir stag in the grouping of central Asian red deer (Cervus hanglu) with Kashmiri stag being it’s sub-species (Cervus hanglu hanglu). Globally, red deer is one of the most widespread deer species in the world. Yet several red deer species have gone globally extinct or are severely threatened. The Kashmir red deer is the only surviving sub-species of red deer in the Indian sub-continent. It has been classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. In the 1940s, the population was between 3000 to 5000 individuals, but since then, habitat destruction, over-grazing by domestic livestock and poaching, in association with other internal & external factors that immensely disturbed the psycho and habitual grounds of hangul in Kashmir, reduced this local population dramatically to 150 by 1970. However, the state of J&K, along with the IUCN and WWF prepared a project for the protection of this animal that came to be known as Project Hangul, bringing greater results that increased its population to 340. Lately in 2015, as per new census, its population was again found to be 186, but as per the census report of Jammu & Kashmir government released in 2017, its population had declined to 182, sending alarm bells among researchers and the administration at helm to assess the declining trend. Their breeding at restricted place since ages has decreased their chances of survival, due to inbreeding depression and geographical isolation which greatly reduced their genetic diversity, necessitating some alternative modes of conservation strategies. 

In the same period, a team of scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India, Wildlife Trust of India and Department of Wildlife Protection under the banner of state government came together and carried out a preliminary survey at 33 different sites in the valley of Kashmir to assess the possibility of expanding the area for conservation of the rare deer. The study sought to figure out whether there were sub-populations of the animals outside the national park and if any, whether the area could be suitably re-colonised and inter-connected with the Dachigam National Park. Researchers used open source software, biomapper, coupled with remote sensing data extracted using ArcGIS for evaluating habitat suitability. Both direct and indirect sighting data along natural trails and paths were used to carry out habitat suitability modeling. The scientists found that these areas, measuring about 935.46 sq kms, around the Dachigam National Park have greater potential for supporting the hangul population.

Yet another study published in journal Current Science states that for long-term conservation of the critically endangered hangul population in Kashmir, it is necessary to take up conservation efforts beyond protected areas, though systematic efforts are underway to conserve them at Dachigam National Park on the outskirts of Srinagar. However, continuous inbreeding and geographical isolation have greatly reduced their genetic diversity and any natural calamity or disease outbreak can cause local extinction of this species in the wild.

Hangul needs a multi-pronged strategy, for instance, the upland pastures that are so important for the species during summer have been run over by the nomadic tribe of bakerwal and these areas need to be reclaimed and made inviolate if hangul numbers are to grow. In addition, other areas which were once inhabited by Hangul must also be given a chance. The conservation breeding programme needs to be initiated soon before the numbers become too low, this is what has been stated by Dr. Rahul Kaul of the Wildlife Trust of India and a member of the research team of this study. Conservation biologists need to come to fore to research the intricacies involved and recommend the strategies that can be explored for increasing the population of Hangul. In addition, advanced biotechnological interventions can be used to preserve and reclaim the population if not in the wild instantly, but in the lab through germplasm recovering procedures. 

We need to think beyond protected areas to give chance to other off-sites where it had lived in the past and to other places where it may have lived or not. We can connect the Dachigam National Park with patchy lands through demarcated and protected fences to give much free access to this animal for food and for its reproductive needs, thus dispelling inbreeding depression and geographic isolation that reduces its genetic diversity. This will add new genes with high chances of survival possessing higher resilience to incurred damages and diseases and that will likely increase its chances of survival and ultimately its number in wild. Department of Wildlife protection with Wildlife Trust need to give preference to research projects preferably from Jammu & Kashmir, committed to conserve and  preserve local and endemic biodiversity, that is either at risk or fall in endangered category of IUCN. As Kashmir mostly comprises of mountainous regions, we need to assess other off sites as well in which Hangul is not living naturally to introduce it there as well and tap the sites where it is suitably adjusting with the local environmental conditions. In addition, by adopting counter-strategies, we need to rehabilitate the nomadic people that occupy these areas where Hangul is growing naturally and act as a stumbling block for its striving for food and reproductive purposes and totally demarcate these hotspots for Hangul only. Surely, when we will strive and are committed to preserve this natural gift from nature for our future generations, we need to put our efforts to truly conserve this state animal through mutual trust and cooperation with associations who are working tirelessly to preserve it as Hangul is battling for its survival in its last bastion.

In a written reply to a question during the legislative assembly session, the government said it has formulated Hangul conservation action plan as the deer has been accorded highest priority in terms of its conservation and protection as it is the state animal of J&K. The Dachigam National Park - earlier divided administratively between two wildlife divisions - has now been made a single administrative unit under the wildlife division (central) to ensure better conservation of Hangul in its last known habitat. Demarcation of boundaries of Dachigam National Park and adjacent conservation reserves has been initiated, strengthening reinforcement and protection. In addition, a conservation breeding centre to breed Hangul in captivity and then replenish its wild populations has been established at Shikargarh Tral and the efforts to provide the minimum parent stock to initiate the breeding are underway. For this purpose, the process of habituation and luring has been initiated at Shikargarh. But before anything is done to reclaim the last glory of Hangul, efforts underway from the state government need to be technically guided from scientists and researchers to incur minimum damage in the form of mis-conception and ill knowledge based senile approaches. And above all, these action plans need to be implemented, not imitated only, on ground in order to really work for resuscitating the Hangul again in its native land.


(SHEIKH UMAR AHMAD is a Ph.D scholar, currently working as DST INSPIRE Fellow at CSIR IIIM Jammu)