- The population of hangul, also known as the Kashmir red deer or Kashmir stag, has decreased so low that the IUCN Red List has classified it as Critically Endangered.
- There have been recent efforts by the Jammu and Kashmir Government to reduce the pressures on the habitat of the hangul.
- There are still pressures due to the migration of livestock of nomadic herders into the Dachigam National Park, habitat loss and predation by leopards and dogs.
On March 4, Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted the image of Kashmir’s iconic hangul (Cervus hanglu hanglu), also known as Kashmir red deer and Kashmir stag, and proclaimed through her tweet: “…today I renew our effort to protect the hangul and our natural heritage.”
Before Mufti, other chief ministers have given similar assurances about hangul as this flagship wildlife species from Kashmir has been at the centre of conservation efforts in the mountainous region. Yet, the massive decline in population of hangul remains a concern — to the extent that the IUCN Red List has classified it as Critically Endangered and it 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 (MoEFCC).
The hangul was once widely distributed in the mountains of Kashmir and parts of Chamba district of the neighbouring Himachal Pradesh. It is the state animal of Jammu & Kashmir and is considered equally significant to the state as the tiger is to entire India. It is the only Asiatic survivor or sub-species of the European red deer.
The hangul has fascinated many, from Jammu & Kashmir’s last king, Hari Singh, to former prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. The Maharaja had constructed a rest house at lower Dachigam for sighting the hangul.
M. K. Ranjitsinh, India’s renowned wildlife conservationist, remembers in his book A life with wildlife on how during one of her trips to Kashmir, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s efforts to see the hangul were foiled by the security vehicles piloting her entourage. She slipped through the back door of the house where they had stopped for lunch and ordered the jeep driver to take her down the road. When her chief of security, caught up with her, she left for Srinagar in a huff, never to return, and refused to go to any national parks thereafter.
The last few left
Today, Hangul is restricted to Dachigam National Park in the neighbourhood of Jammu & Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar.
A map of the Dachigam National Park. Credit: Google Maps.
From a population of 5,000 in early 1900s, the 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-Tral and the Overa-Aru Wildlife Sanctuary in south Kashmir.
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 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 the forested habitats of the hangul,” said Intisar Suhail, a wildlife expert and one of the wildlife wardens in Kashmir.
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 the 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.
Recent conservation successes
According to Ranjitsinh, who has often been to Kashmir’s wild, Dachigam ecosystem is the 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 Gujar shepherds and their dogs in the summer,” he writes in his book.
He has consistently spoken for J&K’s wildlife, particularly the hangul, in recent years, and had asked for the removal of a sheep farm in the lower part of the Dachigam National Park. 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 the hangul.
Having accomplished the mission, Imtiyaz Ahmad Lone, the wildlife warden of Dachigam National Park, is a relieved man these days.
“The lower reaches of Dachigam are very important for the hangul during winters when it comes down to the plain area for food. But, 90 percent area of the erstwhile sheep farm [in lower Dachigam] was grasslands for the consumption of sheep. Now, we have planted the species which provide important nutrition for the hangul and other wild animals in Dachigam,” a jubilant Lone said at his Dachigam office.
According to him, herds of hangul have been seen frequenting that area in recent weeks. “We have placed salt-licks and fodder (dried salix leaves) there. And the hangul, which relishes the dried salix leaves, now comes to that area which used to be a sheep farm till recently,” Lone said.
“The Department of Wildlife Protection has put in lot of efforts to ensure the expansion of the ideal hangul habitat by way of shifting the sheep breeding farm from the Dachigam National Park. It is highly appreciable,” said Khursheed Ahmad, a senior wildlife scientist at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) in Jammu.
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 was started a few years ago. But wildlife officials say that so far they have not come across any appropriate parental stock.
“We are 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,” said Rashid Naqash, director of wildlife protection for Jammu and Kashmir.
“Let it be accidental. If young parental stock ventures into that area, we are sure they will find the area much more adaptable,” Naqash said.
There are still challenges to be dealt with
Influx of livestock herds of nomadic communities in the Dachigam National Park is said to be a major challenge for the wildlife protection officials who are responsible for hangul conservation. After the closing down of traditional routes leading to over a dozen alpine pastures by the army after the inception of armed conflict in Kashmir, nomads have not been able to graze their herds in those pastures. So, they are taking their large herds of livestock to the upper reaches of Dachigam during summers.
“I think the issue of nomad herds coming into the hangul habitat is one of the constant challenges which has been causing not only disturbance in the habitat, but also has other repercussions. This is despite the fact that there are a number of other pastures which are available to the nomads for grazing their herds,” said Ghulam Hassan Kango, former forest conservator and chairman of Srinagar based environment watchdog, Peoples’ Environmental Council (PEC).
But Dachigman National Park’s Warden, Lone said that the wildlife protection department is seriously working on a solution to this problem. “We are planning to meet the heads of the nomadic families in order to convince them about the importance of Hangul,” he said. “And now that we have been able to remove the sheep farm, it will be somewhat easy to convince them. Earlier, they used to tell us if the sheep farm in the park is not causing any problems, how can their herds do so.”
Another challenge is the male-female and fawn-adult disparity in the hangul population. Ahmad said 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. The female-biased ratio and the fawn to female ratio of 30:100 are the two main reasons for the declining numbers of Kashmir’s Hangul,” Ahmad said.
Other reasons, as per Ahmad’s research paper, the dangers for the hangul population include excessive predation of fawns by the common leopard, black bear and nomads’ dogs. This is in addition to continued Hangul summer habitat loss and degradation due to excessive livestock grazing in the upper Dachigam.