Hangul or Kashmir red deer (Cervus hanglu hanglu), is the only surviving sub-species of red deer in the Indian sub-continent. Interestingly it is also the state animal of Jammu & Kashmir. Worldwide known for its magnificent antlers of 11 to 16 points, Hangul was once distributed widely in the mountains of Kashmir.
Due to the very limited number of this sub-species which now survive, the Hangul is classified as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The decline of this precious species has been rapid in the recent years. From 5000 in early 1990s it has now come down to 182, according to 2017 census report of J&K government. Researchers and environmentalists have found multiple reasons for this rapid declining trend. Studies have also shown that the park is falling prey to various forms of human encroachment such as construction of cement factories, golf courses and large scale human induced cattle grazing in and around the nearby areas.
Recently, a study published in the journal Current Science (May 2018 issue), has revealed the dwindling population of this sub-species and explored the novel approaches needed to be put forth to save this precious animal species from extinction. The joint study carried out by scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India, Wildlife Trust of India and Department of Wildlife Protection of Jammu & Kashmir Government, revealed that long term conservation of Hangul is inevitable and that we should look beyond the confines of Dachigam Sanctuary and explore other nearby areas which offer great potential and favorable geo-climatic conditions for Hangul to live and breed freely. Earlier studies have also pointed to the continuous inbreeding and geographical isolation as a problem, which have together contributed to the reduction in genetic diversity among the population. With the result any disease outbreak or natural calamity in the area can cause local extinction of this species.
The study is based on a series of surveys which were carried in 33 different sites to assess and evaluate the possibility of expanding the area for conservation for the deer. Researchers used open source software known as Bio-mapper, together with remote sensing data extraction through ArcGIS, for the purpose of evaluation of habitat suitability. The study dwells upom expanding the natural habitat of the red-deer beyond the boundaries of Dachigam National Park and has subsequently found three distinct areas which have high potential of becoming part of natural habitat for this endangered species. It is important to note here that Hangul, which was once widely distributed in the mountains of Kashmir, is today confined to a restricted area of 141 square kilometers. of Dachigam National Park. The study has found that, apart from the Dachigam National Park, the hoof print of Hangul can be found in some neighboring areas too. This proves that few other areas outside the Dachigam park, have also a high potential to emerge as distinct breeding grounds, if we make them exclusive protective zones and thus put our conservation efforts there also.
It is also found that since these newly identified areas have far less human populations living in their vicinity than the Dachigam Park, they offer great promise and potential to emerge as highly successful breeding places, thus might help increase the effective numbers of this species. The areas which were found be very favorable and in fact one can witness the year round presence of Hangul there, include Wanghat- Naranag belt and Chandaji-Diver Lolab area, (spanning around 292 square kilometres). The study also reaffirms the already identified catchment area of Overa-Aru which crosses through south-Kashmir region, as a favorable harbor of Hangul sub-populations besides Dachigam.
According to the authors of the study, Hangul can be seen in several of these identified areas. Thus, they have very high potential to become breeding grounds for this species, provided we offer suitable protection. According to the study, the human induced damage upon natural ecosystems of this animal is on increase. The study further indicates that about 1591 square kilometrs of broadleaved and coniferous forest patches, on relatively open but steep and rugged terrain are suitable for the hangul. The authors reiterate that ‘Hangul’ conservation needs multipronged strategy not only to increase its population but also creating diversity in species and expanding the effective living habitat of this species is one among effective methods.
Concerted efforts and scientifically devised action plans are thus needed to save the limited and dwindling population of Hangul, from getting vanished from the region. Encroachments and human interference in the natural habitat of this animal has to be stopped and its natural habitat needs to be expanded beyond the traditional boundaries of Dachigam. This needs carefully devised planning and strategy jointly worked-out by Department of Wildlife Protection, J&K Forest Department and other related agencies. The state government in collaboration with the Government of India should formulate a regional action plan, with focus on saving this sub-species.
In 2016-17, the J&K government had submitted a Hangul Conservation Plan to the Government of India for financial assistance, which was probably rejected by Ministry of Environment . The government of J&K should again take up this case on priority basis with government of India, at the highest possible levels, not just for demanding money but also ask for institutional and logistic support. International experts who include wildlife biologists, conservation scientists and habitat specialists should be invited to devise a plan for Hangul conservation. There is also absence of an effective centralized database regarding Hangul. Even on the website of Department of Wildlife Protection, there are hardly any resources and updated information about this endangered animal species.
There is an utter need of building a centralized database which can give comprehensive and updated information about this animal, keeping in view the fact that this is not just any animal but the official animal of the state, which is on the brink of extinction. Till such steps are taken, the state government can devise an effective participatory conservation mechanism, where local habitants who live around the natural habitat of Hangul, are active stakeholders. In addition to this, there is a need to fully restore the protection and primacy, both legal and otherwise, which the National Park enjoys under the constitution of the state. The Dachigam National Park is governed by strict laws and acts such as Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act, 1978 and Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife (Protection)(Amendment) Act, 2002. The need is to strictly implement the existing laws and bring in more legal measures if need be, to stop outside intrusion and interference of all kinds including human activity in and around the area, so that animals in the region are free to live their life in the wild.
The author is a Science Writer and Science Policy Researcher based in New Delhi. He can be reached at: email@example.com)