Septuagenarian Mohammad Yousuf Wani, recalls how occasionally the hangul — “Kashmir’s prized animal” — used to stray in as close to their home in Barji Harwan, a hamlet at a stone’s throw from the Dachigam National Park that is home to the world famous species of the Himalayan red deer.

The sight of the majestic hangul is something that his grandsons Muafiq Wani and Faizan Wani, today in their early twenties, have never witnessed. The Hangul or Kashmir stag (Cervus elaphus hangul) is the only subspecies of the European red deer found in India. Its limited distribution and small population makes it one of the world’s critically endangered species.

With a drastic decline in its numbers over the years, the risk of its extinction looms large. According to the The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Data Book, which records the list of species facing the risk of extinction, has declared the hangul of Jammu and Kashmir as critically endangered species. The Red Data List released in 2018 at Rio+20 Earth Summit, held at Rio de Jenario in Brazil, has still places the animal among the most threatened species in the world.

The hangul’s population was pegged at around 5000 in the year 1900. However, over the years the hangul population has seen a constant decline. According to the census report released by J-K’s Department of Wild life and Protection, Counting carried out between 24 and 26 March 2017 by experts and trained officials from the department in collaboration with other agencies, the number of Himalayan Red Deer is as low as  182.

From the census reports available with the department, the annual hangul counting started since 2004 using scientific methods estimates the population at 197 in 2004, 153 in 2006, 127 in 2008, 175 in 2009, 218 in 2011, 186 in 2015, and 197 in 2017.

Though the last two decades have shown some stability in the population estimates, the low numbers put the state animal of J-K at a constant risk of extinction. Data available from the census report 2017 suggests that, there were 16 male hanguls per 100 females. Fragmented habitat, inbreeding, poaching and poor female-fawn ratio are the main concerns faced by this unique species of Himalayan Red Deer.

Once widely distributed in the mountains of Kashmir with the small population outside J-K in the Chamba district of Himachal Pardesh, the Hangul distribution range has drastically declined, confining the animal to the 141 square kilometer Dachigam National Park.

“Hangul is a long ranging animal. Earlier its traditional habitat stretched from Kishtwar to Gurez,” said scientist Dr Khursheed Ahmad, head of the Wild Life Sciences department at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology. “Unfortunately this corridor connectivity has been lost to many biotic factors, leading to the inbreeding depression.”

He added: “Disconnectivity among the main set of population in Dachigam and the adjoining protected areas like Wangat, Shikargarh etc leaves the chances of genetic spread at ebb. Isolated population leads to the lack of population progression.” Very low fawn survival is attributed as the main cause of poor fawn female ratio.

In 2004, female fawn ratio was 23 fawns per 100 females. There were 9 fawns per 100 females in 2006, which remained unchanged in 2008. Then after the ratio swung from 27 fawns  in 2009, 25 fawns in 2011, 14 fawns in 2015  to 19 fawns in 2017, reveals the annual census exercise 2017 carried by the Department of Wild Life Protection.

In addition, Biotic factors, fairly good population of  local dogs as well as belonging to Security forces camped in the area, harsh winters, natural predation by leopard and fox and the coinciding of movement of livestock with the fawning season are other major factors affecting the fawn survival, explained Dr. Khursheed.

Renowned wildlife conservationist M.K Ranjitsinh, in her famous book ‘A life with wild life’, writes that the Dachigam National Park is the only hope for the critically endangered Hangul. “Shifting of the sheep breeding farm from the national park has a been a big step in conserving the whatever population has been left now,” she wrote.

“Shifting the sheep farm would result in more natural fodder for the animal,” said an employee working for past 20 years in the animal husbandry department. “Proper feeding of the animals during winters in the form of dried Salix leaves and salt licks, when the prized species normally face scarcity of the fodder has also helped in maintaining  the numbers for last few decades.”

The establishment of a 5 acre breeding centre in Shikargarh in south Kashmir’s Tral is another big project for improving the population of Hangul through in-situ breeding.

However, there is still a large way to go, said Dr Khursheed. “Establishment of corridor connectivity between mainland Dachigam and adjoining relic protected areas, Conservative breeding programme , re-introduction programme and elaborate research are needed to increase the population of Hangul”, he said.

As the fate of world precious Kashmir stag still hangs in balance, Kashmir’s top wild life officer, Rashid Yahya Naqash, Regional Wild Life Warden Kashmir has a message for common masses: “The department seeks cooperation from public at large to save and conserve the wild life especially the priced Hangul.”

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