Are there wildlife biologists in India?

Hangul (cashmere deer)

A deer is fighting for survival

In the past, the hangul was considered a subspecies of the widespread red deer, and therefore remained unknown to many conservationists. Indian wildlife biologists are working to ensure that their critically endangered deer receive more attention and help.

The last Hanguls live in the Dachigam landscape near the city of Srinagar, in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. It is graceful-looking deer that roam the forests of the Dachigam National Park and, in summer, feed on the higher alpine meadows. The protruding antlers of a buck, which looks at the photographer with dark eyes, show the upward bend after the third rung, which is typical of original Asian red deer. Even the summer temperatures stay cool in the Dachigam. The park with its almost European-looking mountain landscape is located at some altitude in the Himalayas, it stretches from around 1700 meters in the wooded valleys to 4300 meters above sea level in the mountains.
According to the latest population estimates, around 150 to 200 individuals of the acutely endangered Hangul or Kashmiri deer are still alive, explains wildlife biologist Dr. Samina Amin Charoo, head of research in the wildlife protection department in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The deer remain largely confined to the 141 square kilometer Dachigam National Park, and a few individual deer populations exist in neighboring areas.


Poaching and problem leopards

The surrounding settlements of the big city Srinagar have long been eating their way into the central valley of the national park. The deer habitats outside the park are also threatened by overbuilding and other human-related disturbances. Infrastructures such as some cement factories have settled on the park boundary. This leaves the animals only a few walking corridors to get to other areas. "The loss and fragmentation of the habitats are evidently a major source of danger," says Samina Charoo.
The Hangul was once home to a much larger area and the extensive habitat allowed the animals to move freely between different valleys. The Today's population in the Dachigam National Park is genetically impoverished due to inbreeding. The reproduction rates are generally low, as are the survival rates of the fawns. In addition, there was an imbalance in the gender ratio, so that relatively fewer bucks and fawns were counted than would be expected in a natural deer population.
Nomadic shepherds with thousands of animals use the summer habitat of the Hanguls, where the hinds also give birth to their fawns, and exert massive pressure on their pastures there. Fawns were torn by the shepherds' herding dogs. "Problem bears" and "problem leopards" that had to be caught in populated areas have been released in the national park (a practice that Dr. Charoo says has been stopped) and increased the number of predators. Above all, however, poachers represent an additional burden for the small population.

Asian relative of the red deer

  In the past, the hangul was classified as a subspecies of the widespread red deer, which is why its critical endangered status was hardly noticed outside of India. It was not even noted on the internationally respected Red List of Endangered Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN. There it simply read “safe” for the red deer, which is very common overall. Indian biologists around the geneticist Dr. Mukesh Thakur finally pushed for this representation to be revised.
More recent genetic analyzes support the assumption that the hangul does not belong directly to the red deer. Rather, it forms a separate lineage with two other Asian subspecies, the Buchara deer and the Jarkand deer. The latter two are Central Asian lowland dwellers and live mainly in so-called Tugai forests along bodies of water in dry semi-desert or desert areas, a form of vegetation made up of floodplain forest, shrubbery and reed beds that is now endangered.
Indeed, the concerned conservationists succeeded last year in having the new classification included in the IUCN list, although the situation still needs to be analyzed in more detail. And the Indian Hangul has received a separate classification on the list as a subspecies: Its status is now well documented and it is clearly visible as “critically endangered”.
Mukesh Thakur hopes that the inclusion of the hangul on the Red List "will help attract international attention for the protection of this subspecies." If the hangul were "only" considered a subspecies of the widespread red deer and continued to be ignored on the red list, this would be far more difficult. In Kashmir itself, and also in other Indian media, reports on the deer threatened with extinction are often made in response to the efforts of Indian biologists. Last but not least, he is known as the symbol of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The recent construction of a breeding station also gives hope to the Hangul, who lives in a troubled, troubled part of the world.

Published in Tierwelt No. 8, Feb. 22, 2018

© Text E. Wullschleger Schättin

© Pictures Dr. Lalit Sharma