One October day in 1967, I ambled up the Dachigam Valley in Kashmir. The mulberry, walnut and willow had already turned yellow with the first frost, and the Himalayan black bear searched among the fallen leaves for the last acorns; early winter snows covered the alpine meadows and would soon claim the valley as well. From the slope above, near a stand of pine and fir, I heard a mournful yet insistent sound, at first soft, then growing louder, until it filled the whole valley, eeoouuuu, before dying away. And from up valley came one answer, eeoouuuu. The Kashmir stag or hangul (Cervuselaphushanglu), a subspecies of red deer, was in rut’ (George B. Schaller, Stones of Silence, pages 6–7).
Many many decades ago, during the early winter months,anyone venturing into the lower portions of Kashmir Valley and paying attention to the music of the forest would have heardthe rutting calls of thehangulresounding in many parts of the valley. The shikar map of Kashmir prepared by the then Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, depicts the historicaldistribution of the hangul in an arc 65 km wide, from north and east of the Jhelum and lower Chenab river and from Karen inKishenganga catchmentin the north to Ramnagar in the south. The GamgulSiyaBehi Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh, on the state border with Jammu,was the only area outside Jammu and Kashmir thathad a known hangul population in the past. The hangul was reported from the upper Neelum Valley in Pakistan,where it is nowextinct.
The estimated population of the hangul in Kashmir in 1900 was between 3000 and 5000, and even in 1947 there were at least c. 2000 thatsurvived in Kashmir. Now, thehangul—the State Animal of Jammu and Kashmir—with a population of less than 200, is largely confined to the 140-sq.km Dachigam National Park. Along with the great Indian bustard, the state bird of Rajasthan, whose total population is less than 100 in India, occurring in several isolated locations, the hangulis rapidly racing towards extinction.
The hangul is one of the six subspecies of Cervuselaphus (red deer, wapiti or elk group) confined to Asia. Other subspecies are the Bactrian deer (C. elaphusbactrianus, Central Asia), Yarkland deer (C. elaphusyarkandensis, Central Asia), shou (C. elaphuswallichi, Tibet), Sichuan deer (C. elaphusmacneilli, eastern Tibetan Plateau) and Kansu deer (C. elaphuskansuensis, north-central China). All these subspecies are threatened with extinction as they are confined to narrow geographic locations.
A well-grown hangul stag can attain a weight of 250 kg. Each hangul antler normally has five points. Heads with 16 points have been obtained, 14 points are rare, while 12 and 11 more common. Antlers average 40 inches in length and the maximum recorded along the outside curve is 50.5inches—as long as the record length of sambar antler that has come from Madhya Pradesh. The tail, half as long as the ear, is dark on top and narrowly rimmed with white hair. The white rump patch is narrow, does not extend beyond the tail root and is bordered by a broad, black band below. The neck mane is barely longer than the body hair. Fawns are spotted and many hinds carry spots in their winter coat. The small rump patch, short neck manes in stags and the occasional spotting of the coats possibly indicate that the ancestral form of the hangul was more like the Sikka deer (Cervusnippon).
The mountain ranges enclosing Dachigam National Park are a part of the great Zanskar Range. The name of the park literally means‘ten villages’ which were relocated to protect the catchment area of the Dagwanriver. This river arises from Marsarlake and flows into Harwan reservoir, which supplies drinking water to the city of Srinagar. The park is divided into two main areas: lower Dachigam,which comprises a third of the total area, and upper Dachigam, in the higher reaches towards the east. The summer and winter quarters are separated by about 15km of temperate forests, which in the past posedno problems to the deer, allowing them to move freely between lower and upper Dachigam.
The tree species found in the park are the Himalayan maple (Acer caecium), mulberry (Morusalba), Himalayan elm (Ulmuswallichiana), wax tree (Rhus succedanea), walnut (Juglansregia), blue-pine (Pinuswallichiana), spruce (Piceasmithiana), fir (Abiespindrow), Himalayan yew (Taxuswallichiana), drooping juniper (Juniperusrecurva) and birch (Betulautilis). Common shrubs are Parrotiopsisjacquemontiana, Viburnum cotinifolium, Berberis lyceum,Rosa webbiana, Rhododendron companulatumand R. anthopogon. Chrysopogonechinulatusand Themedaanatheraare two species of grass known from the area. Russian wormwood (Artemesiavestita), along with IndigofereaheteranthaandIsodonplectranthus, are common. Notable mammal species found here are the Himalayan langur, musk deer, serow, yellow-throated marten, Asiatic black bear and common leopard. Prominent bird species are the Himalayan monal, koklas, Kashmir flycatcher, orange bull finch; yellow and red-billed blue magpies, Kashmir nuthatch, Tytler’s leaf-warbler and Lamergier and Himalayan griffon.
In the past, most hangul used to spend the summer months, from mid-May to mid-September, in the alpine meadows and sub-alpine conifer forests at altitudes of 3000m and above in upper Dachigam and perhaps on the upper slopes outside the park. With the onset of cold weather, they moved down to the valley, principally the valley of the Dagwan River in lower Dachigam. Other places they travelled to for the winter were the Sindh valley to the northeast of the park and the Tral and Lidder ranges in the southeast.
Rutting in the hangul starts in the latter half of September and the early part of October. After a gestation period of 230–240 days, most young are born from mid-May to mid-June. In the vanished past, almost all the fawning took place in upper Dachigam. Currently, because of disturbances in this area, the exact summer and fawning grounds of the hangul are not known even to the personnel of the Wildlife Department.
Problems with hangul conservation began when the State Animal Husbandry Department introduced sheep in the park in 1961 by establishing the Sheep Breeding Farm, occupying 100 ha in lower Dachigam. As the population of sheep gradually increased to 3000 and were regularly taken to upper Dachigam for grazing, the population of the hangul, which was reported to be 3000 in the 1940s, steadily plummeted to about 200 in 1969. Today, nearly 1000 sheep belonging to the sheep farm, apart from hundreds of sheep, goat, buffalo and cattle belonging to the nomadic Bakerwaal and Banyaris from Jammu and local Gujjars and shepherds, are taken to upper Dachigam for grazing.
According to Fred Kurt who studied the hangul around 1978, there were other disturbances in upper Dachigam: wood cutting and grazing of sheep, goat and buffalo by locals, gujjars from Kashmir and Bakarwalas and Banyaris from Jammu. Mushroom (Morchellaesculenta) collection and poaching was common. Many were accompanied by dogs which preyed on hangul fawns. As a result of these disturbances and due to lack of sightings, Fred Kurt concluded that the hangul had almost ceased using the upper Dachigam. He came up with valuable suggestions to control these problems; these were implemented to some extent and seem to have resulted in the recovery of the population to about 900 animals. With the start of Insurgency in 1988, the management in Dachigam was unable to function normally. It is possible that the brown bear which once used to frequent upper Dachigam has become either exceedingly rare or locally extinct. In 1967, Schaller reported a ratio of 45 young to 100 females and recent counts indicate a ratio of 21 fawns to 100 females. This does not augur well for the small and only population of the hangul. Leopards and black bear, preying on fawns, also take a toll on the hangul population.
The conservation community did not sit idle when the hangul gradually lost its range and rapidly declined in number. One of the first persons to raise the alarm about low hangul numbers was EP Gee, who in 1965 reported a population of about 400 animals. When Schaller heard the rutting call, he noted with sadness that it was the mournful call of a dying species. With his vast experience, he knew that the hangul faced a dismal future. Almost every year, the Wildlife Department carries out annual population estimation.
In 2001, Khursheed under a project funded by the Government of Jammu and Kashmir began intensive studies on the ecology of the hangul in Dachigam National Park under the guidance of the faculties of the Wildlife Institute of India, Qamar Qurehi and Sathya Kumar. In 2006–07, under a project funded by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Khursheed carried out surveys in the historic hangul ranges outside Dachigam to assess its occurrence and evaluate the habitat conditions in the relic range areas. In October–January 2009, the Wildlife Trust of India again carried out a survey in the historical range to assess the occurrence of the hangul. In 2004, a large team of 296 observers headed by Qumar Qureshi from the Wildlife Institute of India surveyed the central and southern divisions of Kashmir Valley to estimate the population at the landscape level.
These surveys indicated that some hangul still occur in places like Overa Wildlife Sanctuary and Shikargah Conservation Reserve. Other potential areas identified for long-term conservation were the Erin catchments of Bandipora, Baltal-Thajwas Wildlife Sanctuary, the Surfrao-Akhal blocks of the Sindh Forest division, Tral Reserves, Desurakh, Rajparyan Wildlife Sanctuary and Kishtwar High Altitude National Park. Plans are also afoot to initiate a species recovery programme by establishing a captive breeding centre in places like Shikargah and Tral (in south Kashmir) and to release captive-bred animals in the wild. Recently, with the involvement of scientists from Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences& Technology of Kashmir (SKUAST-Kashmir) and the Wildlife Institute of India (Khursheed Ahmad, Parag Nigam and Qamar Qureshi), a male hangul was equipped with a satellite-collar with the aim to find more about the ranging and habitat use patterns of the hangul. There are also plans for more satellite-collaring. Radio-tracking will be particularly useful to find out which areas the females occupy for fawning. The preliminary observations of the satellite-collared hangul indicate that it attempted to move to Dagwan Valley in upper Dachigam, but possibly due to disturbances owing to the presence of large numbers of livestock, it restricted it’s movements to the lower grounds, upto 300 from Dagwan.
It appears that there is enough habitat in and around Dachigam National Park, where a minimum population of about 1000 hangul can be sustained if the above-mentioned biotic problems are eliminated from upper Dachigam and controlled in the adjacent potential areas. This may sound simple, but it is a difficult task. According to the website of the Directorate of Sheep Husbandry, Kashmir Division, Government of Jammu and Kashmir, the state has a sheep and goat population of 66 lakhs and yet there is a shortage about 14 lakh sheep which are brought in every year from outside the state at a cost of 1400 crores.
Consumption of sheep meat in the valley is very high compared to the rest of the country due to its socio-cultural and climatic conditions. The government wants to increase local mutton production, which will prevent the drain of 1400 crores. The government also believes that the effort to produce more mutton would create more jobs. Already, nearly 1300 sq.km are under permanent pasture to sustain the existing sheep and goat numbers (66 lakhs) and if they want to increase these numbers (14 lakhs), a larger area needs to be brought under pasture. It is likely that, as scornfully and frequently told by conservationist MK Ranjit Sinh, eventually sheep may become the State Animal of Jammu and Kashmir. If that happens, as is likely to, Jammu and Kashmir will be maligned as the only state in India that has lost its State Animal to a domestic animal widely found in India. It will be a day of great shame to the people and government of Jammu and Kashmir.
It is high time immediate concrete steps are taken to expand the range of the hangul in Dachigam National Park to the alpine meadows in upper Dachigam and the nearby areas, as it used to be in the past. This is possible only by providing on a priority basis, under the Hangul Species Recovery plan, alternate grazing areas and livelihood to grazers and others using upper Dachigam and nearby hangul habitat and involving them in hangul conservation programmes. This will entail protection and eco-restoration measures.
The task is monumental but imperative.
The author is Assistant Professor at SKAUST (K) and has done extensive research on the wild life issues in Kashmir.