Survival skills of the swamp deer

Inside the protected Jhilmil Jheel marsh, the barasingha are wary of people. But their Kanha cousins behave differently

Published - August 21, 2021 04:08 pm IST

Two barasingha stags practise their rutting techniques at a lake in Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh. Getty Images/ iStockphoto

Two barasingha stags practise their rutting techniques at a lake in Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh. Getty Images/ iStockphoto

Some wildlife experts think of swamp deer, also known as barasingha, as “stupid”. Writing in the 2013-published Mammals of South Asia , researchers, who studied the species in Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, describe the animals allowing humans to approach within 30 metres and being equally unconcerned of predators.

Had the subspecies in western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand behaved like their Kanha brethren, Shrutarshi Paul’s work would have been simpler. A small group of the reddish-brown deer lives part of the year in Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve near Haridwar, Uttarakhand. But they disappear with the onset of monsoon, the period of birthing. Why would they leave the safety of the protected wetland at such a vulnerable time? Could the riverside swamps southwards along the River Ganga offer better forage?

In the dark

The 130-kilometre stretch from Haridwar to Garhmukteshwar is chock-a-block with people, where many hadn’t seen the species. You’ve come to the wrong place, they declared when Paul showed them photographs of the barasingha. But the animals walked past his camera traps set in the marshes and meadows.

How does the swamp deer survive amid humans? It’s not a small animal to escape detection. Stags often reach 150 to 180 kilograms with impressive 10 to 14-tine antlers, which explains their Hindi name, barasingha, or twelve-horned. Inside the protected Jhilmil Jheel, they are wary of people. Unlike their Kanha relatives, these animals would rather forgo grazing and flee than let a biped approach within a 200-metre radius.

The swamp deer living near settlements were much more difficult to find. Paul and his field assistants huddled through the night at Nangal, along the Ganga close to Najibabad, with their torches switched off. Mosquitoes weren’t a concern since it was winter, but they kept a worried lookout for snakes. A barasingha approached within 50 metres. They sat still as tree stumps, and four more animals emerged. By then the researcher had been on their trail for six months, and he drank in the sight until 5 a.m., when they retreated into the riparian marsh.

Small groups

The small riverine wetlands can’t support great numbers as in Kanha, where a herd of 120 swamp deer grazing together wasn’t an uncommon spectacle. Instead, groups of up to seven feed at night, when people are out of the way, factors key to the barasingha’s survival.

The next step in Paul’s study was to fix radio-transmitter collars on two animals. Catching deer is fraught with danger as they can die of a condition called capture myopathy. The researcher perfected a method using humans and goats. Working with a team of 50 to 60 people, he stretched a 150-metre-long net in the Jhilmil Jheel marsh. Then everyone took their places among the bushes and waited for nightfall. The hungry barasingha emerged unaware of the plans afoot. The crew guided them towards the mesh by standing up slowly, without alarming them. As soon as the net collapsed on the first animal, the rest of the herd leapt over it and disappeared into the wetland. In a swift operation, the researchers fixed a collar with a transmitter around the hind’s neck. Days later, they caught and freed another female swamp deer, which also vanished into the darkness wearing a transmitter neckband.

These two does swam across the flooded Ganga, surprising Paul.

“They were feeding on one bank, and two hours later, their locations showed up on the other bank. They are not aquatic, but they were able to swim against the strong current.”

These animals provided the researcher with insights into their habits. During the monsoon, the Jhilmil Jheel grasslands submerge as the river swells. Paul speculates the deer probably emigrate to give birth on high ground and exploit the seasonal wealth of vegetation.

These barasingha along the River Ganga may yet clear the unfavourable reputation their Central Indian relatives have given their kind.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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