Srinagar: Direct sightings during biennial census has revealed positive trends in population of the critically-endangered Hangul, which is surviving in its last bastion Dachigam National Park and its adjoining areas in Kashmir.
Though the final count of the census is awaited, large Hangul herds were spotted during the exercise in the upper reaches of Dachigam National Park.
“Direct sightings during the census have revealed positive and encouraging trends in Hangul population. We spotted Hangul herds of 70 and 83 during the census. There is a good fawn-female ratio also,” Regional Wildlife Warden Kashmir, Rashid Naqash told Greater Kashmir.
The census was conducted in around 800 sq-km of Hangul habitat in Dachigam, Brein, Nishat, Dara, Khimber, Khrew, Khanmoh, Tral, Shikargah, Khiram, Sindh, and Akhal.
“We are consolidating the final count and results after scientific studies of samples are completed. We have sent samples for genetic tests and all results will be evaluated in our software to prevent duplication and check errors,” Naqash said.
The weeklong census was conducted by teams of wildlife experts, researchers, and students under the supervision of officers of the Department of Wildlife Protection.
Till date nine censuses have been carried out during March of 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2021 and the Hangul population estimates in the past were 197, 153, 127, 175, 218, 183, 214, 237, and 261.
Famed for its magnificent antlers with 11 to 16 points, Hangul (Cervus hanglu hanglu) or Kashmiri stag was once widely distributed in mountains of Kashmir. During the early 20th century their number was believed to be about 3000 to 5000.
Kashmir’s ‘shikar map’ prepared by Maharaja Hari Singh depicts distribution of Hangul in a radius of 40 km spreading from Keran in Kishenganga catchments over to Dorus in Lolab Valley, catchments in Bandipora, Tulail, Baltal, Aru, Tral, and Kishtwar.
The Hangul population gradually declined to about 1000-2000 in 1947 and subsequently to 261 at present.
The species is under threat based on the vulnerability of population with regard to viability and structure, dwindling population, and habitat vulnerability.
Hangul is a critically-endangered species as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of IUCN, Red List Data, a Schedule I Species in Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972.
“Regular population monitoring of Hangul has so far revealed that although the population is stable, there were concerns like poor female: fawn ratio and the increasing rate of fragmentation of relict habitats, poaching, and consequently reduction in its historical home range,” Naqash said.
To understand the problems associated with the low recruitment rates and population stability, he said that the department had now focused on genetic related studies and awarded the study of complete genome sequencing of Hangul and to understand evolutionary insights on Hangul through mitogenomic lens.
The Department of Wildlife Protection has initiated establishment of Hangul Conservation Breeding Center at Shikargah in Tral area of south Kashmir and shifted Government Sheep Breeding Farm from Dachigam National Park.
“We are doing research and monitoring of Hangul population in Dachigam National Park and adjoining landscapes. Being an endemic species besides the UT animal, the Department of Wildlife Protection, is committed to protect the Hangul,” Naqash said.
Sustainability of a good population of Hangul would be an indicator of a healthy ecosystem and in turn help other biodiversity to sustain.
The Department of Wildlife is contemplating to protect and conserve large landscapes and associated biodiversity of the Western Himalayas in order to restore at least 50 percent of the historical range of Hangul and viable increase in its existing population.
Officials said long-term planning aims to fulfill objectives like identifying and demarcating all areas within the relict sites and identify potential sites for restoration and initiate restoration activities in these identified sites.
“We are trying to provide a protection mechanism to ensure sustenance and reduce poaching pressures in all Hangul bearing sites across the erstwhile range. We also plan to undertake conservation breeding of Hangul and release the surplus individuals at identified sites to augment numbers,” Naqash said.
Studies have revealed that Hangul is not using summer habitats due to anthropogenic pressure owing to livestock grazing in Kashmir’s upper reaches. This has been revealed by results of Satellite Collaring of Hangul with experts recommending urgent measures to expand range of Hangul to alpine meadows and corridor areas outside Dachigam National Park
Elaborating findings of this more than four years of extensive research traced the movement of Hangul from Dachigam National Park towards Hangul relic areas of Wangath-Naranag corridor in the north and Tral and Shikargah corridor in the south through the identified corridors in Sindh Forest Division in north and areas of Tral Reserve forest in south.
The study also revealed that despite availability of ideal summer habitats for the Hangul in upper Dachigam, these alpine meadow habitats are not being explored or used by Hangul possibly due to the anthropogenic pressure owing to livestock grazing therein.
In its endeavour to study movement patterns of Hangul using Global Positioning System (GPS) and Satellite Telemetry, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Kashmir (SKUAST-K) in collaboration with the Wildlife Protection Department has been undertaking satellite collaring of the animal.
The capture and collaring of five individual Hanguls by SKUAST-K under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEF&CC), Government of India, funded project has yielded significant results.
The study has been instrumental in providing valuable information on the Hangul movement ecology, seasonal Hangul home ranges, movement patterns, and migration and in identifying and validating important stop-over sites of migration, movement corridors, and barriers to migration of Hangul outside Dachigam National Park.”
“The findings of this over four years of extensive research traced the movement of Hangul from Dachigam National Park towards Hangul relic areas of Wangath-Naranag corridor in the north and Tral and Shikargah corridor in the south through the identified corridors in Sindh Forest Division in north and areas of Tral Reserve forest in south,” said Head Division of Wildlife Sciences Faculty of Forestry SKUAST-K, Dr Khursheed Ahmad.
The study also revealed that despite availability of ideal summer habitats for the Hangul in upper Dachigam, these alpine meadow habitats were not being explored or used by Hangul possibly due to the anthropogenic pressure owing to livestock grazing therein.
Based on the findings, experts from SKUAST-K and the Wildlife Department have recommended several measures and management interventions towards expansion of the Range of Hangul to alpine meadows of Upper Dachigam and potential corridor areas outside Dachigam National Park identified through this research.