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Forays of the Kashmir stag

Searching for a toehold: “The challenges the hangul faces include poaching, threats from insurgency and the border conflict between India and Pakistan.” A herd on a snow-covered slope in the Dachigam National Park.   | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

It is a chilly December afternoon in the Dachigam National Park. The mild winter sun has no impact on the frozen sheaths around the park’s water bodies. Even dying grass and shrub have been taken over by frost. Located not far from Srinagar and spread over an area of 141 sq km, the denuded forest range of the national park connects south Kashmir’s Tral-Pahalgam axis with central Kashmir’s Ganderbal-Sonamarg axis.

The upper passes of Dachigam, at an altitude of 14,000 ft., received the season’s first heavy snowfall on November 3, which sounded the bugle for the annual migration of the Kashmir stag, locally known as hangul, from the Dagwan river in Upper Dachigam (at an altitude of 7,500 ft.) to Lower Dachigam (5,500 ft.).

The national park is considered the last undisturbed home of the hangul, a sub-species of the European red deer, in Kashmir. The animal was classified as ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

First identified by Alferd Wagner in 1844, the species is believed to have travelled all the way from Bukhara in Central Asia to Kashmir. It is the only sub-species of red deer in India.

A matter of luck

Nazir Ahmad Malik, 50, a forest guard for 20 years and a trekker since the age of nine, is highly regarded for his knowledge of Dachigam’s flora and fauna. A phone call from someone in Muniv, a patch of pasture in Lower Dachigam, alerted Malik to the first sighting of the hangul this winter.

Says Malik: “If a hangul is sighted at 1.30 p.m., it’s good news. Hangul prefer grazing either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Sighting a hangul is a matter of wild luck. The animal senses human presence much before a human eye can spot it, and makes a quick getaway. The hangul is always ahead of man’s sensory abilities.”

Similar in appearance to the European red deer, the Kashmir stag has a tiny white rump patch and a short dark tail. But unlike its European cousin, its coat is not red, but dark grey and dark brown. The local name, ‘hangul’, is said to have come from either the preferred food of the animal — the Indian horse chestnut (Aesculus indica), also known as ‘Han Doon’ — or its antlers (known as ‘heng’ in the local dialect). The hangul is known to favour ridges facing south, and which receive maximum sunlight, as resting places.

Malik warns against the use of perfume and conversing loudly on our way to spot a hangul. He also advises against chasing the animal, and wants us to keep our distance in case we spot one. However, the 45-minute trek to Muniv does not result in a hangul sighting. Evidently, luck was not in our favour. But Malik is brimming with fresh enthusiasm for the official animal of Jammu and Kashmir; it stems from his having spotted a group of 12 hanguls in the first week of November.

He says: “The group comprised a sub-adult male with five-point antlers, two sub-adult females, and a young female. The rest of them were yearlings. From their weight and their antlers, I would guess that the sub-adult male had visited Dachigam last year too. I expect more of them this year with the fresh spell of snow in the Valley,” says Malik, who loves the sight of inter-mingling hangul herds. Only the stag has antlers.

Malik was lucky to spot a huge herd of 66 hanguls intermingling back in April-May 2015. He says, “I can never forget that sight. But no such happy sighting has happened since then. I am hopeful that this year may throw up a surprise.”

For the first time in many years, in November this year, Malik recorded noises made by rutting stags from seven pasture zones in Dachigam: Reshwodre, Droag, Muniv, Raazinaar, Hydernaar, Chanddernaar and Tcholri. He says, “Last year, it was only from six pasture lands. This indicates that seven big herds are preparing to recruit new mates this winter and, hopefully, produce a new generation of fawns.”

‘Rutting’ refers to the phenomenon wherein an alpha stag starts his courtship with the females (or hinds) in the autumn, with courtship peaking in October. The stag shows off his eight to 10-point antlers and fights it out with the other stags in the herd to win over hinds to form his own harem.

The Regional Wildlife Warden (RWW), Kashmir, Rashid Naqash, says: “Female hanguls keep a watch as stags start bugling in the forest range for new mates. The males have to pass a test. The females are impressed by a stag’s antlers and his ability to protect a female.”

Mr. Naqash is also sanguine about the future of a species whose numbers have dwindled alarmingly — from 3,000-5,000 in pre-Partition Jammu and Kashmir to around 214 at present. His optimism is not unfounded.

In the last week of last November, the first-ever satellite-linked, collared female was sighted returning to Dachigam from the species’ summer pastures in the Sindh Forest Division, near Gurez. Though Gurez is very close to the Line of Control (LoC), the guns here have fallen silent since the 1999 war between India and Pakistan. The movement of Indian Army machinery has also reportedly come down. Thanks to this fragile peace, the hangul appears to have rediscovered the traditional route that it used as a summer grazing corridor at least until the 1900s.

“The movement of the collared hangul on the Dachigam-Wangat-Tulail axis highlights the need to provide a continuous passage for fragmented traditional hangul habitations on the two flanks of the Dachigam sanctuary. This means connecting adjoining sanctuary areas into an unbroken safe zone of 800 sq. km (up from the present 141 sq. km). It is necessary if the hangul is to multiply and survive rising man-made and natural pressures on its habitations,” says Mr. Naqash.

A hangul collared by wildlife officials at the Dachigam National Park.

A hangul collared by wildlife officials at the Dachigam National Park.   | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD


Collaring the hangul

Khursheed Ahmad is a scientist who heads the Wildlife Sciences department at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology-Kashmir. He first came up with the idea, in 2013, of collaring the hangul after witnessing a similar exercise carried out on red deer in Scotland.

“We collared a male hangul that year, but it did not leave Dachigam. But the monitoring enabled scientists to study the animal’s movement, seasonal foraging patterns, and other behaviour. We were hoping that it would facilitate better management of this endangered species and help scientists plan some future projects,” he says.

Collecting data around hangul biology, behaviour, and ecology would have helped experts plan management interventions for the long-term survival of the species. However, for unknown reasons, the collared male became untraceable around 2015 and was presumed dead. Scientists concluded that the herds (excluding individual sightings in and outside Dachigam) would restrict their movements to within the Dachigam National Park due to the summer movement of non-local grazers from Jammu to the upper passes and meadows in Kashmir for sheep-rearing.

“The male hangul stayed put in Dachigam for two years,” says Khursheed, who has studied the hangul for around 20 years. He again collared two females in May this year. “It’s a tedious process. It took us two years to collar these hanguls,” he adds.

Traditionally, the hangul is a long-ranging animal which, in common parlance means, it travels long distances, and has in the past been spotted in areas ranging from the upper meadows of Kishtwar in the Chenab Valley to Gurez’s Tulail and Dras in Kargil.

Forays of the Kashmir stag

“We were curious to know if hangul herds are going out of Dachigam or whether they were purely residents... But we found that the hangul did venture out and move towards the Sindh Forest division,” notes Khursheed. He was much delighted by the new trend, the first of its kind seen after many decades.

The much-awaited movement of a collared hangul, which managed to travel a distance of around 20 km to Tulail in Gurez, is a potential breakthrough for the endangered species, as its new-found mobility could help restore traditional routes, lessen the pressure on Dachigam, and help the species to breed in a better environment.

Another collared hind was found moving towards the Surfrao, Akhal and Kangan blocks of the Sindh Reserve forest and even crossed the mighty Sindh Nallah, but its movement was restricted from Yechihama onwards due to human and livestock grazing disturbances. The animal was found to have spent a few days in and around the Yechihama-Ganiwan forests and meadows and then moved back and forth between Dachigam National Park and the Yechihama-Ganiwan forests through the same route.

However, the migration of the collared hangul and its herds across the treacherous route could not have been easy. In July, a fawn was found trapped at Kangan’s Bonibagh area, down the slopes of Dachigam towards the south. Though a tragic incident, the trapped fawn was another indication that the herd was back to using the corridor to Tulail, which was last known to be active in the early 1900s.

A shikar (hunting) map drawn during the era of Maharaja Hari Singh (1895-1961) mapped the hangul’s presence with multiple corridors. But it also depicted a continuous one from Kupwara’s Keran to Bandipora’s Gurez in north Kashmir to Kishtwar in Jammu, via the upper reaches of Srinagar and south Kashmir’s Pulwama and Anantnag. Says Naqash, “Kishtwar is a broken corridor now. However, the two flanks of the Dachigam could be restored to allow the animal to grow and multiply in a more friendly habitat.”

Buoyed by news of the hangul’s newfound mobility, the State Wildlife Department is now working towards expanding the boundaries of Dachigam towards the Wangat Conservation Reserve and the Sindh Forest Range, south-west of the Raman Nallah in Gurez’s Tulail valley, in north Kashmir’s Bandipora. On the southern flank of Dachigam, Shikar Gah Conservation Reserve in Tral, Khiram Conservation Reserve in Pulwama could be connected for a contiguous passage to Dachigam.

Says Naqash, “There have been sightings of individual hangul in and around Tral and Pahalgam. The easy movement and intermixing of populations from Tral to Dachigam and Tulail could revive its habitat and help the species fight biological and ecological challenges. We have submitted many proposals to the government and hope to make headway soon.”

Forays of the Kashmir stag

Conflict takes its toll

The challenges the hangul faces are many. Besides its being poached for ‘trophies’ and its meat, the 30-year-long insurgency and border conflict between India and Pakistan is another major threat to its survival. Militant and Indian Army movements, often with dogs accompanying a patrol party, are chasing the hangul away from its natural habitats and into human populated areas even in Dachigam. In 2017, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) increased its presence at Lower Dachigam in the forest range in order to react to any law and order situation in the nearby colonies more effectively. But it was the hangul that suffered as a result of the fresh movement of troops inside the national park.

Earlier, the Kargil war, in 1999, had forced the Indian Army to restrict the movement of non-local grazers — those who live in the plains of Jammu in the winter and return to the upper reaches of the Kashmir Valley in the summer and tend their flocks there till the winter sets in — to the meadows of Kargil in the summers. This ended up putting extra pressure on the meadows in and around Dachigam, resulting in the displacement of the hangul population from its natural habitat.

Says Naqash, “Though the grazing pressures had disturbed the fawning ground of hangul in Lower Dachigam, the recent relocation of a 100-hectare sheep breeding farm from Lower Dachigam to Khimber on the outskirts of Srinagar has shown quick results... There are reports of hangul sightings already.”

Under pressure on multiple fronts, the hangul’s breeding pattern is also showing some worrying trends. According to official records, the male-female ratio is now 15-17 males per 100 females, down from 23 males per 100 in 2004. This is far below the ideal ratio of 50-70 males per 100 females. The fawn to female ratio is 22 fawns per 100 females, as against the ideal of 30 fawns per 100 females. The fawn survival rate has also declined.

Says Naqash, “Capture myopathy, which is a disease complex associated with capture and human handling, is high among hangul, making it harder for any kind of restrictive captive breeding. It has to thrive only in the wild, without human interference, in contiguous, bigger corridors.”

Khursheed, on the other hand, has other fears: “The skewed sex ratio shows that the population is under constant stress. There is a hypothesis that male hangul foetuses may be getting aborted. It is currently under research as scientists are trying to establish the reasons behind the phenomenon. But such a pattern has been observed in under-pressure animals elsewhere in the world too. That is why we see more females being born than males. More research is needed to draw a conclusive pattern.”

The new corridor, Khursheed says, has given azaadi (freedom) to fawns to cross over into other summer pastures. The animal needs more freedom. Its population will grow on its own, he adds.

The Wildlife Department has also set up vigil and monitoring pickets on the recently discovered corridor towards Gurez in the Sindh Forest Division to ensure the free movement of hangul during summers and help study its migration pattern. One monitoring and control centre has been set up at Haknar Gund in the Dachigam-Wangat belt in central Kashmir. The Wildlife Department has proposed the suspension of vehicular traffic between Srinagar and Sonamarg when the hanguls arrive for a crossover, taking the highway. These pickets will also help keep poachers away.

The department has written to the government to ask security forces, including the CRPF and the Indian Army, to limit the use of patrol dogs in the corridors used by the the hangul.

Says Khursheed, who now plans to collar eight more hanguls to extend the research, “It’s a very serious issue. These dogs prey on the fawns.”

Census next year

Officials admit that the hangul population has seen a decline. Says Naqash: “Numbers and figures are not important to interpret at this stage. Restoring a viable ecosystem for the animal is the first step towards giving an impetus to the endangered species. A fresh census will be done in 2019, which will help us understand any new pattern.”

The hangul, which lives up to 10 years, has a unique role in the region’s food chain. As a major herbivorous animal, it ensures that grassland lines, which are pastures between or above the forest ranges, in the upper reaches survive and are not swept away by the forest ranges. Second, a hangul can satiate the hunger of a leopard for five to 10 days, thereby reducing man-animal conflict.

Forest guard Malik, who has over the years built his own knowledge bank about the animals in Dachigam, believes that the rise in violence in Kashmir has had a definite impact on the behaviour and population of the peaceful hangul. These animals are often found dead when the foot print of the security forces increases in the protected areas. He feels that the species is an ecological barometer to judge the situation in Kashmir.

Says Malik: “When a female hangul delivers a baby, the sisters or female relatives of the mother encircle her. They keep a vigil and offer themselves as diversions in case a predator spots the mother. In many cases, they sacrifice their lives for a new fawn. The hangul is known to sacrifice itself for a new generation. Such an animal deserves our respect.”

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 4:17:36 PM |

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