A first-ever satellite telemetry tracking of Hanguls in Kashmir’s Dachigam National Park to study the deer’s behaviourand the reasons behind its falling numbers

The Dachigam National Park, habitat of the majestic Hangul, near Srinagar is these days in for an activity never witnessed in the Valley. Technology has ultimately changed what Harwan’s legendary wildlife guard Qasim Wani did for decades before his death at the age of 100 with his empty hands and naked eyes: studying the behaviour of the dreaded Himalayan black bear, leopard, shy musk deer and Hangul.

The multi-terrain expanse of 141 sq km, spread over the plains, dense forest and barren hills from the picturesque Zabarvan range to the high-altitude ridges of Tral, is under the radar to track the Hangul alone. The other inmates in this landscape are musk deer, leopard, Himalayan grey langur, Himalayan black bear, Himalayan brown bear, hill fox, Himalayan weasel, yellow-throated marten, long-tailed marmot and otter.

Hangul, or cervus ellaphus hanglu , a sub-species of the European red deer known to be existing only in Kashmir, has been for the first time chemically captured and fitted with a state-of-the-art satellite collar by a dedicated team of 30-odd officials and experts from the State government’s Department of Wildlife Protection, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Kashmir (SKUAST) and the Dehra Dun-based Wildlife Institute of India [WII]. It is a Rs. 40 lakh research initiative and is being supported by the Union Ministry ofEnvironment and Forest (MoEF).

“It was literally an uphill task,” says Dr. Parag Nigam, wildlife health management scientist at WII, “to habituate and chemically capture the animal. It took us three months before we hit success on March 16.” Never before had the Hangul been captured and fitted with a satellite collar, Dr. Nigam claimed. He narrated how arduously one of these fastest running big deer had been lured into the Oak Patch of the national park, habituated for weeks and finally immobilised with a remote drug delivery system, called the syringe projector or a ‘dot gun’. It was hit from a distance of 30 metres by Dr. Nigam.

The only Asiatic survivor of the red deer, Hangul, has been declared (the locally) critically engendered wildlife species in the Red List of The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1996. It has similar categorisation in the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which has India as a signatory. It has been incorporated in Schedule-1 of both the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 as well as the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1978.

A.K. Singh, Chief Wildlife Warden of Jammu and Kashmir, puts Hangul’s population at 175 in March 2009 and 218 in March 2011. The department conducts a census every two years with technical support from WII. Findings of a recent census are still under formulation. The 1989 census puts the number of Hangul at 900, indicating its fall towards the verge of extinction in the last 23 years of the armed insurgency and counterterrorism in Kashmir. However, some people like the retired Range Officer Mohammad Ashraf Mir insist that the numbers should be higher as armed poaching came down to zero due to thick concentration of security forces.

The leopard alone had been the killer since 1990, many residents at Harwan and Moolnar villages believe. According to them, the only incident of armed poaching in last several years happened in January 2013 when six poachers were found to have killed a male Hangul. They were accordingly booked and arrested. In the pre-militancy era, organised gangs of local hunters used to fell scores of the deer every year. The male is killed mainly for its 11 to 16 pointed majestic antler that fetches the hunter Rs. 3 lakh to Rs. 5 lakh in international market.

As the census team is said to have spotted antlers at several places — an evidence of the presence of the male — at several places, some like Assistant Project Officer of Wildlife Trust of India, Mansoor Nabi, believe that the numbers may be higher this year. “Not necessarily,” says Mr. Singh though, with a word of caution. “Let us wait for the findings.”

Conservator of Forest Farooq Gilani, formerly Kashmir’s Regional Wildlife Warden, believes that over-grazing of cattle and wild fires in Upper Dachigam and existence of infrastructure of 12 government departments in Lower Dachigam could be a major factor behind the dwindling population of Hangul. Biotic interference, according to him, could be the bigger killer than the poacher and the predator.

Principal investigator and Dr. Nigam’s partner, Dr. Khursheed, who works as the scientist in-charge of the Centre for Mountain Wildlife Science at SKUAST told The Hindu that four of the animals were being captured and fitted with the satellite collars under the Hangul research project. He sounded confident that three more would be seized soon. Black bear and some other animals have been previously tracked through a Global Positioning System and VHF/UHF-fitted ground tracking system.

“Radio collars have been used recently here on black bear and leopard but the satellite telemetry and Global Positioning System on Hangul is in operation for the first time. This will enable us access critical data through a dedicated satellite channel and particular software to observe the animal’s behaviour and activity, including hibernation, mating, conceiving and delivery besides mortality and the ground temperature on a 24x7 basis for two years of the unit’s battery life.”

Germany-based Vectronics Aerospace, which has provided four satellite collars at Rs 2.70 lakh each, has equipped the units with multi-function sensors and implants. These are hooked to the European Iridium satellite which in turn processes and supplies data to the German firm. A particular amount is charged for each downloading of the data, normally with frequency of three hours.