- In the early 1900s, the population of the Kashmiri deer, hangul, was estimated to be around 5000. The numbers have declined with just 261, and perhaps less, are reported to be surviving today.
- The decline in hangul numbers has been attributed to the fragmentation of habitat and impact on wildlife corridors by human intervention, urbanisation, illegal industries, mass tourism as well as military presence.
- The presence of cement factories is one of the main concerns cited by local experts, which they say impacts the hangul habitat and in turn, the population. In the mid-1980s, cement factories were established in the region owing to massive limestone deposits.
On the foothills of the Himalayas, covered in striking forests, a shy animal with refined marbling is battling to survive. The wild hangul, a totem of charm in Kashmir, is fast losing its habitat as industrialisation, militarisation and human intervention threatens its habitat and numbers.
The numbers of this Kashmiri deer have declined since the beginning of the 20th century. While there have been varied estimates of hangul population over the years, with differences in data between official population statistics and independent research, it is certain that the population lies somewhere between 100 and 261. This is a significant decline from the early 1900s when the population of the hangul was estimated to be around 5000. Those studying and monitoring the deer are now concerned that this critically endangered species (Cervus hanglu ssp. hanglu) could soon face extinction.
Some wildlife experts and activists have attributed the decline to the construction of cement factories close to the animal’s habitat and wildlife sanctuaries. In addition, the construction of defence infrastructure and other human interventions have led to fragmentation of its habitat, they note.
The hangul, according to some assessments, is considered one of the six easternmost sub-species of the European red deer found in Asia. However, in his research, Khursheed Ahmad, a scientist heading the department of wildlife sciences at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences (SKUAST), found that the Kashmiri deer (hangul) is a separate species with more relations to the deer family from Samarqand and Bukhara in central Asia. Hangul is placed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the J&K Wildlife Protection Act, 1978.
Located close to Srinagar city, Khrew, an area adjacent to a wildlife sanctuary, is a vital corridor connecting wildlife-rich areas such as Dachigam National Park and Gurez Valley in northern Kashmir with other protected areas in Kashmir such as Shikargah conservation reserve (now part of Tral Wildlife Sanctuary), Overa Aru Wildlife Sanctuary and Kishtwar National Park.
Long-ranging animals such as the hangul use this corridor for seasonal migration and movement. Over the years, said Ahmad, especially in the last two decades, many cement factories have been built in Khrew, encroaching the hangul habitat and corridor.
“The construction of cement factories has limited the area of hangul and they are now mostly restricted to Dachigam National Park,” Ahmad said. Earlier, the animal would cover the area from Gurez Valley spread over 200-150 kms towards the north and 400 kms towards the south up to Kishtwar National Park. Today, there are no hanguls left in Kishtwar, he said.
A hangul preservation project was in fact started in 2015 with the aim to undertake the conservation and protection of the hangul in Jammu and Kashmir, recalled Ahmad. It aimed to achieve this through community support, awareness, and the management of wildlife. “We also studied the movement pattern of hangul in and outside the Dachigam national park and released the report in 2021.” In addition, a conservation breeding centre for Hangul was established in Shikargah, but it has not been kickstarted yet in terms of bringing animals into captivity and the structure for the breeding centre is not in the form that it should be, said Ahmad.
Rise of cement factories
In the mid-1980s, the then government of Jammu and Kashmir established a cement factory in Khrew area owing to massive limestone deposits in the adjacent mountain range.
According to some estimates, there are about six cement factories currently operating in Khrew, a fairly small town spread over 12 km2.
A local activist campaigning against the cement factories, Adil Bhat, as well as some other activists, have said that since the government-owned factory was established, at least seven other privately-owned cement factories have been established in the area that some point out, is likely to be a violation of wildlife conservation rules.
The Supreme Court of India guidelines suggest that an area of 10 kilometres around the wildlife sanctuaries is an eco-sensitive zone. Many of the cement factories in Khrew are within one kilometre of the adjacent wildlife sanctuary.
“Not only have these factories directly impacted the habitat of hangul, but they have also swamped the pastoral land forcing the pastoral community to relocate livestock deep into the forest for grazing,” the activist explained.
“Hangul is sensitive to smell and sound from a long distance. Sound is a big disturbance for hangul,” Ahmad said, referring to the blasting of limestone deposits around Khrew. He has conducted extensive studies on the ecology and biology of the Hangul. Based on his experience, he notes that emissions from the factories have likely impacted the physiology and food patterns of the hangul. “The chemical emissions (particles) from cement factories rests on grass in habitation areas which the hangul consumes.” he said.
Additionally, the confined habitat area of the long-ranging animal, is leading to low breeding among the hangul population. “There is a female-biased sex ratio – we have more females than males – which is not healthy. We also have a very low recruitment (addition of new fawns) in the population of hangul,” Ahmad explained, adding that even if new fawns are added to the population, they have a low chance of surviving. “These are the main ecological reasons that we see that the population of hangul is not stabilising for the last two or three decades,” he said.
The mortality rate of fawns remains high. Most of them die within a year, because of disturbances to their environment. “There are climatic and natural factors as well such as attacks by predators such as foxes and jackals, and dogs of paramilitary forces stationed inside the Dachigam National Park,” explained Ahmad.
Fayaz Ahmad Lone, 75, a local resident of Khrew, would cultivate his land in the area before the 1990s. “We would see at least five to six hanguls and now they are extremely rare,” Lone said.
Ahmad says that because of issues along the border (between India and Pakistan) after the insurgency in the 1990s, the grazers are focusing on areas such as the upper Dachigam National Park and other parts of the hangul corridor. This has a direct impact on the hangul habitat, he said. Additionally, said Ahmad, increasing tourism and human intervention in the critical habitat also impacts the hangul.
Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, an environmental activist based in Kashmir, is not convinced by information presented by researchers, particularly those working in government institutions. He alleges that the researchers target the pastoral community, shepherds and forest dwelling community for overgrazing, which they (researchers) say is leading to the decline of the hangul. But they miss out on more important aspects. Rasool points to the deployment of military troops in forests and establishment of cement factories, which he feels are the main problems. “What has forced the pastoral community to move to upper reaches and meadows is the cement factories and military interventions,” he said.
If the hangul is to be saved, cement factories have to be shut and the officials who have granted them environmental clearance should be investigated, Rasool said. He is also suspicious of the hangul census, claiming that it has not been carried out in the area where cement factories are located. He believes that an accurate census will show the presence of hangul in the area and that could lead to closure of activities that disturb the hangul habitat. The hangul census is usually conducted every two years by the Wildlife SOS team that partners with the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Department and student volunteers from Kashmir University.
Banner image: The wild hangul is fast losing its habitat as industrialisation, militarisation and human intervention threatens its habitat and numbers. Photo by Mohammad Dawood.