J&K’s pride faces extinction

hangul_low resIt was November, and after an  exhilarating hike through the lush green and golden forests of Dachigam, we took a much deserved rest. We had been fortunate to have met with the Himalayan black bear — Mama bear (with a cute teddy astride) who gave us a stern warning before taking off into the jungle, a jackal, much hunkier than the ones we are used to seeing in the plains below, a pair of yellow-throated martens, and myriad birds — too many to list. What was sorely missed was a rare, rare creature — the Kashmir Stag or the hangul, the only sub-species of red deer in Asia,  down to a mere handful and endemic to the region. It’s our last day here, and we have all but given up hope…when Nazer Malik, (forester, protector of Dachigam) softly murmurs, “Look behind”. We turned slowly — walking a few feet behind is a grand old stag, wearing an elaborate 12 antlered crown, his auburn coat shining in the low Kashmir sun. He is in ardent pursuit of a doe, rutting lustily, supremely unconcerned of our presence…

The hangul population in the early 20th century was between 3,000 and 5,000. The hunting records of Maharaja Hari Singh, who ruled the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir from 1925 to 1947, show that its range stretched across the mountains of Kashmir to the Gamgul Siya-Behi Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh. A steady decimation of habitat, and hunting saw a sharp, terminal decline with the 2011 estimates (by Jammu & Kashmir’s Department of Wildlife Protection and the Wildlife Institute of India) indicating a population of 218 (205-233), largely confined to the 141 sq km Dachigam National Park on the edge of the State capital of Srinagar, with a few and small relict populations surviving outside. Making its situation even more precarious is the high fawn mortality — just 26 fawns per 100 females.

Even the tiny habitat of Dachegam is beset with problems. For about five decades, in defiance of every law of the land, a Government-owned sheep breeding centre has flourished within the park, occupying over 10 sq km of prime hangul habitat. The State Cabinet took a decision in 2005 to shift the sheep farm out of the park within a year. Nine years on, the sheep thrive, and the hangul…don’t. Shifting the sheep farm was a key pre-condition for de-notifying another chunk of hangul habitat, the Salim Ali City National Park, to build a golf course. Though the Salim Ali Park was not denotifed, the forest was razed over, and a luxury golf course, hotel etc have been in operation since years (it must be noted that such destruction and alteration of habitat has escalated human-bear conflict in Srinagar, resulting in many fatalities). As the State dawdled, its Wildlife Board chaired by the Chief Minister, in its meeting of February 2012, took a decision that the farm would be shifted by May that year. Yet, instead of taking action on its own resolution,  the State formed another committee mandated to see if the sheep breeding farm can continue to stay within the park.

The other major threat is severe anthropogenic pressure. The park’s higher reaches and the hangul’s fawning ground and summer habitat, Upper Dachigam, has been overrun by  nomadic graziers (gujjars, bakharwals)  with thousands of sheep and other livestock, including buffaloes. In fact,  semi-permanent structures have come up here, and there are reports of even sub-letting these! Besides devastating habitat, livestock (including from the sheep farm) carries the risk of infectious disease. The nomads’ sheepdogs are known to prey on young fawns, and such an influx in the park renders the hangul vulnerable to poaching.

It gets worse, in recent years, reportedly encouraged by political patronage, livestock  invaded the middle reaches of the park, and this winter there are confirmed reports that the last — even if tattered — refuge of the hangul, Lower Dachigam has been lost, with huge herds of cattle stomping on the grasslands below Palipora, where I had the fortune to see the Kashmir Stag wooing its potential mate.

Where does the hangul go? How can it survive in the face of such assault on its habitat? Does Jammu & Kashmir, whose emblem is the Kashmir Stag (hangul) not care for the survival of its own State animal? Harsh words, these, but the lethargy, indeed indifference of the State may well push the hangul — already in a precarious state — to its extinction.

There are other threats: Within Dachigam there is also a trout hatchery, a rescue centre (where leopards and bears ‘rescued’ from conflict situations are housed) and a VIP guest house. A key problem with the latter is primarily the retinue of security that VIPs bring causing disturbance. As for the trout hatchery and rescue centre, these  simply have no place in a national park.  The argument that these, including the sheep farm existed before the park does not hold water, given that the Wildlife Protection Act mandates parks to be inviolate, and the very fact of the critical status of the hangul.

Mining (for gypsum and limestone) on a large scale also continues in the Khrew-Khanmoh Conservation Reserve which harbours a small satellite population of the deer and serves as a buffer for Dachigam. There are over 16 cement factories — some of them illegal — that operate on the margins of the park. The illegal factories must be closed, and no new ones allowed.

A conservation breeding programme was initiated in Tral Shikargah, and though considerable funds have flowed in, it has failed in its objective. In fact, the fawn in the enclosure was killed (by leopard) the same night the facility was inaugurated. The gravity (or the lack of it) is reflected in a recent statement of the State Forest Minister who announced a considerable award to those catching hangul fawns for the programme! While conservation breeding is essential to ensure the survival of the species it must be done professionally, with the objective of augmenting the wild population, whose conservation is priority.

If the hangul is to be saved the State must prioritise hangul conservation and take decisive action to free hangul habitat of anthropogenic pressures and shift the sheep farm. Staff strength needs to be augmented and frontline staff well-equipped and trained. The Centre must provide for adequate and timely funding.

Dachigam was protected by royal decree not only for its game (hangul), but the fact that its water bodies are the main source of water for the city of Srinagar (the Dachigam-Telbal nallah still accounts for 80 per cent of water flowing into the Dal lake). The present Government, it appears, has failed to imbibe this vision, and seems to have forsaken the magnificent emblem of its State.

(The writer is trustee, ‘Bagh’, member, State Board for Wildlife, Uttarakhand, and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife)

Photo: Prerna Singh Bindra

This column first appeared in The Pioneer on 12th March 2014

 

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