Hope has kindled for the survival of the nearly extinct Kashmir antelope ‘Hangul’. The preliminary findings of the census of Hangul conducted in Kashmir in March 2011 have shown an increase in their numbers. The state Forest Minister Mian Altaf Ahmad while reviewing the conservation of Hangul in Srinagar recently revealed that census report of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has put the number of Hanguls at 218 in Dachigam and adjoining areas.
The Department of Wild Life Protection of Jammu and Kashmir Government in collaboration with the WII has been regularly monitoring the population of Hangul in the Dachigam National Park and the adjoining areas since 2004. The last census in 2009 had put their number at 175 with an increase in male, female and fawn ratio. The wildlife authorities had that time said that it boded well for a sustained population growth of Hangul and had described it as a sign of hope.
Critically endangered Hangul, a sub-species of red deer, is found only in Kashmir. Kashmir stag is distinct with its male species bestowed with magnificent antlers with 11 to 16 points and long hair on their necks while their female counterparts have none of these features. Nevertheless, both change their brownish fur with seasons and also with age. In the beginning of the 20th century the red deer existed in thousands. They lived in groups of 2 to 18 in dense riverine forests, high valleys, and mountains of Kashmir valley. Unfortunately, their habitats were destroyed, their pastures over-grazed by domestic livestock, and became victims of poaching.
Hangul is confined today to Dachigam National Park at elevations of 3,035 meters on the outskirts of state’s summer capital Srinagar. According to an aged and former wildlife official Mohammad Qasim Wani, at the time of Independence there were around 3,000 Hangul spread over various parts of the valley. He recalled that he had seen quite big herds of Hangul in Kulgam and Pahalgam in South Kashmir and Uri, Lolab, Kupwara, Gurez, Teetwal, and other places in western and northern parts of the valley.
Similarly, older people living around Dachigam National Park recall that the area had plenty of Hangul who would sneak into their fields to eat crops. Wildlife officials confirm that the National Park had as many as 800 Hangul at one time. Mohammad Qasim Wani laments that Hangul became victim of poachers’ greed and the indiscriminate killings for sport that wiped out the Kashmir stag from most of the areas in the valley and taking it to the verge of extinction. Moreover, human encroachments into forests have considerably increased since 1947 resulting in fragmentation of the habitat of Hangul.
The first ever census of the Hanguls by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources was held about four decades back in early 1970s which sounded alarm bells as their numbers were found to be mere 170. The State Government initiated several measures to save the Hangul from extinction. These included the enactment of Wildlife Act and the setting up of a full-fledged wildlife department. These and other steps had started giving great results and the Hangul population increased to over 340 by 1980.
But unfortunately, the outbreak of militancy over two decades back set the clock back, while the Wildlife Department staff feared to venture out into the Hangul habitat some nomads reportedly took undue advantage of the situation and encroached with their sheep into the designated grazing grounds of Hangul. The Wildlife Institute of India shockingly found a steep drop in their number ranging somewhere between 117 and 160 making the Kashmir stag critically endangered. However, with situation on the ground improving in recent years, the conditions for Hangul’s survival are changing for the better.
The three-member team of the Wildlife Institute of India during the recent census spotted Hangul outside the Dachigam National Park in nearby Khanmoh, Khrew, and Brain. The Institute has suggested that besides these areas adjoining Chasmashahi, Nishat and Wangat should also be incorporated in the conservation area of the endangered deer species. Encouraged by the latest census findings, the Department of Wildlife Protection jointly with the Wildlife Trust of India, New Delhi has initiated the survey of Hangul all over Kashmir valley to know the actual position regarding the distribution of Hangul population in natural habitat. Meanwhile, an ambitious ‘Save Hangul’ project is being implemented which includes survey of the Hangul’s natural habitat along with that of the leopard and black bear. The five-year project will make use of the latest wild animal photograph technology, including the use of satellite imageries and geographical information systems.
The other features of the Rs. 1.67 crore project includes artificial breeding of the highly endangered deer for which a Conservation Breeding Centre is being set up with necessary infrastructure on about five acres area at Shikargagh in Tral with monetary assistance from the Central Zoo Authority. Construction of another such breeding centre is in progress at Darwudri-Mamar. According to the Chief Wildlife Warden of Jammu & Kashmir, A K Srivastava on its completion around ten male and female Hanguls in the ratio 3:7 would be put up in the centre for breeding. Once the fawn grow, they would be installed with radio collars and released into the wild to monitor their movements. Experts say the centre would also help in building a genetic stock of Hangul in case the species gets extinct due to some natural calamity or any other reason. The programme is likely to be expanded further depending upon its success.
It is also proposed under the project to upgrade the natural domain of Hangul through reforestation and also initiate measures to conserve soil and improve water management and develop pastures. Anti-poaching measures would be strengthened too and encroachment into Hangul pastures prevented. But experts say much will depend upon the participation of local community in the conservation efforts. Without people’s involvement and political will of the Government, Hangul’s future would remain in doldrums. There is already awareness about it in certain sections of local community and that has acted as a silver lining. This needs to be broad based and strengthened to conserve Hangul in its last bastion, who is a glorious constituent of Kashmir’s natural heritage.