Hangul’s disturbed corridors hampering its movement in Kashmir

Satellite collaring reveals critically endangered animal not using its summer habitats due to anthropogenic pressure ‘Gene flow of species between Dachigam, adjoining range populations imperative for growth’
(L-R) Hangul with a Satellite Collar. Movement of Hangul with by a camera trap
(L-R) Hangul with a Satellite Collar. Movement of Hangul with by a camera trapDivision of Wildlife Sciences SKUAST-K

Srinagar: Disturbed corridors of the critically-endangered Hangul of Kashmir stag are hampering the species from using its summer habitats due to anthropogenic pressure owing to livestock grazing in Kashmir’s upper reaches.

This has been disclosed by results of Satellite Collaring of Hangul project with experts recommending urgent measures to expand the range of Hangul to alpine meadows and corridor areas outside its bastion Dachigam National Park.

GLORY

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 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.

In view of its importance, Hangul enjoys the status of Union Territory animal of Jammu and Kashmir. It was the State animal in the erstwhile J&K state.

 DECLINE

Gradually, the Hangul population declined to about 1000 to 2000 in 1947 and subsequently to 261 at present. The specie 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 specie as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of IUCN, Red List Data, a Schedule I Specie in Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972.

Till date nine censuses have been carried out in 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.

The scientific studies have indicated a decrease in genetic heterozygosity in Hangul population over a period of time and resultant susceptibility to inbreeding depression resulting from low population size.

The sensitivity analysis indicated that there is a 25 percent chance of extinction in 100 years. Increasing the chance of poaching to 39 percent with additional winter mortality with a 5 percent chance of occurrence would substantially increase the Genetic Heterozygosity extinction risk to 90 percent.

The low fawn to female ratio and fawn survival is attributed to stress owing to the biotic disturbance in upper Dachigam compounded with nutritional stress and fawn predation by common leopard, Asiatic black bear, jackal, red fox, and stray dogs of shepherds and increased human interference.

FINDING IMPEDIMENTS

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 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.

Talking to Greater Kashmir, Head Division of Wildlife Sciences Faculty of Forestry SKUAST-K, Dr Khursheed Ahmad said, “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.

“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,” said Dr Khursheed, who is the Principal Investigator of the Satellite Collaring Project.

ACTION PLAN

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.

“This is important so that ideal summer habitats are recuperated and used by Hangul in summer as it used to in the past and to ensure gene flow between the Dachigam and adjoining range populations,” Dr Khursheed said. “The identified corridor areas in Sindh Forest Division need to be urgently delineated and brought into Protected Area Network as part of the Greater Dachigam landscape so as to ensure effective protection and surveillance and immediate effective corridor management interventions for the long-term survival of the species and its corridor habitats in the landscape.”

The continued monitoring, satellite collaring of more number of Hangul individuals and surveys for collecting further baseline information on the habitat conditions and biotic interference in the identified corridor areas is imperative for habitat evaluation.

“This will help establish the corridor connectively to mitigate habitat fragmentation issues and enabling re-establishment of these areas as ecologically viable corridors for Hangul movement and reintroduction and to maintain required genetic heterozygosity for population viability,” Dr Khursheed said.

Experts said there is as such a dire need for urgent measures to arrest the loss in heterozygosis and declining trend of the Hangul population.

They said Hangul conservation breeding-cum-reintroduction for species recovery programme is imperative.

“It needs to be strengthened and given highest priority to help expand the range of Hangul by restocking and augmenting the small isolated Hangul populations in its relic range areas outside Dachigam National Park starting with the Shikargah Conservation Reserve and Overa Wildlife Sanctuary which has ideal disturbance free habitats available,” experts said.

“The identified potential movement corridors for Hangul movement between Dachigam National Park and Shikargah-Over Landscape under Tral reserve forest have recently been delineated and brought under Protected Network. This is a highly commendable measure taken by the Department of Wildlife Protection. This will go a long way in ensuring corridor connectivity and gene flow between the populations for long-term survival and conservation of the Hangul. Similar measures are required to be taken in other identified corridor areas in north,” Dr Khusheed said.

SKUAST-K in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Protection and Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun has forged international collaboration with Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, USA under the Indo-US bilateral programme which is going to help a long way in building a strong bilateral consortium and research capacities long-term management, conservation, and population recovery of the threatened wildlife especially the threatened Hangul.

GOVT COMMITTED TO PROTECT HANGUL

The Department of Wildlife Protection has made concerted efforts in initiation of establishment of Hangul Conservation Breeding Center at Shikargah, Tral, shifting of Government Sheep Breeding Farm from Dachigam National Park and research and monitoring of Hangul population in Dachigam National Park and adjoining landscapes.

Regional Wildlife Warden Kashmir, Rashid Naqash told Greater Kashmir that Hangul being very important and endemic species besides the UT animal, Department of Wildlife Protection, was committed to save the animal.

“The sustainability of a good population of Hangul will 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,” Naqash said.

He said the long-term planning aims to fulfill objectives like to identify and demarcate all areas within the relict sites and identify potential sites for restoration, initiate restoration activities in these identified sites, and 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.

He said regular population monitoring of Hangul had 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.

“To understand the problems associated with the low recruitment rates and population stability, the department has 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,” Naqash said.

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