From near extinction in 1951, the population of the brow antlered deer, aka dancing deer — found only Manipur’s Bishnupur district — is 260, according to a joint census conducted by the Forest Department and wildlife enthusiasts in March 2016. Though encouraging, it is nothing to write home about.
Foreign and domestic tourists come to Manipur to see, among others, this deer and pony which are not found anywhere in the world.
In a bid to save and help them multiply, there is a demand for a second home for the deer. However, villagers in Thoubal district have been launching sit-in protests and taking out torch light processions almost every night, saying that they should not be deprived of their livelihood by opening a second home for this deer at Phumlenpat Lake in the district.
It is very likely that the State government may drop the project. The reason? In Manipur, no government can do anything against the wishes of the womenfolk. While seemingly unconnected, it is illustrative of the women power in the State. The government had to drop the idea of tabling a bill — which proposed exporting country liquor — during the monsoon session of the Manipur Assembly earlier this month. Women activists took umbrage at the statement of one Minister that the revenue will be used in paying salaries of some government personnel.
Women of villages surrounding the Phumlenpat say that for generations they have been depending on fish, other water living beings and edible water plants in this lake. Nungshitombi, a woman activist said that they will starve if they are not allowed to enter the lake once the sanctuary is opened.
To understand the context, the State government enforced the Manipur Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, and later declared Keibul Lamjao as the National Park. Officials said that 14 deer were sighted in 1975. Despite slaughtering by poachers who enter the lake by masquerading as local fishermen, its population had increased. Wildlife enthusiasts, however, say that 260 deer of this species is too small a number to be comfortable.
Cut to the present. On Friday, village leaders said that they will oppose the government plan to keep the deer at the Phumlenat Lake. Activist Salam Joy said, “The Phumlenpat in Thoubal district is quite different from the Loktak Lake in Bishnupur district. There is no plant or grass or floating bio mass in the Phumlenpat Lake which means the deer will starve to death. At the same time, the villagers who will be denied entry in the lake will starve. Both deer and people will die and this government plan should be dropped”.
The Forest Department had kept 14 deer in the “second home” at Iroishemba near Imphal. Conservator of forest, A. Kharsing, IFS, said that two fawns were born in 2014 in Iroishemba. However, animal lovers are not happy since this deer does not stay in mountains. They said that the deer stays in the floating bio-mass to give the impression that they are dancing. They relish the water plant sprouts found in the floating bio-mass.
During the Congress government of R.K. Jaichandra in 1988-90, armed Manipur Rifles personnel were deployed in the National Park near the lake. The skeleton forest guards who were not issued firearms would chase away poachers with the armed personnel’s help. However, soon the guards were withdrawn.
A forest official in the National Park said that they could do very little since a handful of unarmed officials cannot confront the poachers. They also disclosed that a staggering number of migratory birds are also caught by the poachers in the Loktak Lake.
To exacerbate, personal belongings of the forest staff were incinerated by a local group of budding politicians with an eye on the elections. They also allegedly instigated the villagers to demand closure of the National Park in Bishnupur district. Teaming up with villagers they say that ‘man is more important than deer’ and the 40 sq. km National Park should be converted into paddy fields.
The campaign against the proposed home of the deer is gathering momentum with the government doing precious little so far.
Some activists suggested shifting some deer to the vast sanctuaries in Assam since it is not safe in Manipur. However, it was vetoed saying a day will come when Assam will claim the deer as their own.