Project Hangul - Conservation of Kashmir Stag

In the 1970s, the Jammu Kashmir Government with the support of IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) prepared a project for the protection of the Hangul and its habitat. 

Hangul is widely known as Kashmir Stag.

This ambitious project for the conservation and protection of Kashmir stag came to be known as project hangul. As a result, the population of this species had increased to 340 by 1980. As per the IUCN Red book, Hangul is categorized under Critically Endangered species.

Why is Project Hangul in the news?

In the recent past, the government in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir has taken several steps to take a stock of the population of endangered animals. Further, there have been encouraging signs of their movement to the adjoining forest regions of the Dachigam National Park, primarily considered one of the existing protected area habitats of the species. 

The Hangul being granted protection status under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, is important from the perspective of environment and conservation for the UPSC Examination.

In this article, we shall be discussing various aspects of the project and various challenges. Moreover, this article covers other important aspects, keeping in mind the demands of the preliminary as well as a Main examination of the UPSC IAS Exam.

What is Hangul?

  • Hangul, also known as Kashmir red stag, is a subspecies of the elk native to India. Earlier, the Kashmir stag was categorised as a subspecies of European red deer. 
  • Later Hangul was categorised as the subspecies of elk after the mitochondrial DNA genetic study revealed that it belongs to the Asian family of elk. 
  • The Hangul was once widely distributed in the mountains of Kashmir Himalaya, the Chenab Valley in Jammu, and parts of the Chamba district in Himachal Prade, the only viable population is in the Greater Dachigam landscape (ca 1,000 km²) north-east of Srinagar, centred in Dachigam National Park and adjoining protected areas.
  • Hangul lives in groups in the riverine forests, high valleys, and mountains in Kashmir and the northern Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh.
  • The Hangul is found in conservation reserves of Bren-Nishat, including Cheshmashahi Forest Reserve, Khrew Khanagund, Shikargh, and Overa Wildlife Sanctuary.
  • Outside Dachigam National Park, range-wide surveys from 2000 to 2009 suggest that the Hangul is restricted to 351 km² of approximately 885 km² of its possible range
  • The Hangul is the only surviving species of the Asiatic member of the red deer family.
  • The male Hangul has antlers which can have around 11 to 16 points on them. 
  • The society of Hangul is matriarchal.
  • The Hangul is the state animal of the erstwhile state and present UT, Jammu & Kashmir.
  • Since the 1950s, it has been considered one of the rarest species of mammals in the Indian subcontinent.

What is the Ecology and Habitat of the Hangul?

  • Hangul inhabits deciduous woodland, upland moors, and open mountainous areas (sometimes above the tree-line), natural grasslands, pastures, and meadows.
  • Primarily it uses mixed oak forests, followed by mulberry Morus and riverine habitats during the winter and mixed oak forests and coniferous forests during the summer, where food availability is greatest.
  • In woodland, its diet consists mainly of shrub and tree shoots, but in other habitats, it also consumes grasses and shrubs.
  • It is generally found in mountainous areas, where it spends summers in alpine meadows and winters in valleys. 
  • On level terrain, it seeks wooded hillsides in summer, open grasslands in winter.
  • Surveys suggest that the Akhal and Kangan blocks of the Sindh Forest Division are particularly important for Hangul in summer when the upper subalpine reaches of Dachigam National Park are under intense pressure from local people and livestock.

What are the Threats to Hangul?

  • Poaching, by both civilian and military personnel, was identified as the main cause of the decline of the Hangul in the past and present. 
  • Lack of patrolling to prevent the Wildlife crimes
  • Difficulty in implementing protection activities adequately due to security issues in parts of the Dachigam National Park.
  • The incursion of nomadic livestock herders and predation of fawns by their guard dogs is reportedly also a significant problem that is not being effectively dealt with. 
  • Competition for grazing grounds with livestock and the associated risk of disease transmission are also potential threats to Hangul
  • The Hangul population in the Dachigam landscape now appears to have low genetic variation compared with other species and thus could be susceptible to the effects of inbreeding.
  • An imbalance in the male-female and ratios has been documented although a population viability analysis suggests that the population has the potential to recover if stringent protection and other conservation measures are implemented 
  • Reported predation by Leopard and Asiatic Black Bear may exacerbate an already fragile situation
  • The fragmentation of habitat has hampered the genetic flow across its different populations. 
  • It has also been responsible for the hangul population becoming locally scarce and even extinct.

Conservation Actions 

  • Dachigam National Park is the stronghold for the Hangul containing the only population larger than a few individuals. 
  • Despite some conservation efforts, poaching is the biggest threat to Hangul.
  • Ensuring that poaching is no longer a threat to the Hangul is the highest priority conservation intervention. 
  • Secondly, preventing the incursion of nomadic livestock herders will reduce competition with livestock for grazing grounds, reduce the potential for disease transmission and
  • Such measures are expected to increase the survival rates of fawns by reducing depredation by herding dogs.
  • Discontinuing the release of problem Leopards and Asiatic Black Bears in the area could also help reduce predation on Hangul fawns and increase survival.
  • The Hangul’s range needs to be expanded by ensuring the subalpine and alpine meadows of upper Dachigam and other formerly 
  • Areas occupied earlier should be kept free of livestock and other anthropogenic pressures such as poaching.
  • Mapping, protecting, and enriching forest patches where Hangul habitat remains should be undertaken, based on thorough scientific study.
  • A comprehensive management plan would help to further determine priority conservation and research activities to ensure the effective conservation of Hangul and its habitat. 
  • A ‘mega preserve’ of Greater Dachigam has been proposed to strengthen the protection in the Buffer Zone by upgrading conservation reserves.
  • Creating an Eco-sensitive Zone, by extending the protection to the remaining Shikargah sub-populations of the Tral and Sindh areas.
  • Conservation breeding has to be given high priority to safeguarding the Hangul.
  • Reintroducing the Hangiul in its earlier local habitats and putting in place mechanisms and adequate conservation measures.
  • Earlier habitats such as Overa Wildlife Sanctuary and Shikargah Conservation Reserve, which once held a large number of Hangul, are almost free of human interference and are crucial for this purpose.

Also learn, Why Dachigam National Park is famous?

Wildlife Conservation Fund

  • Wildlife conservation fund was founded in 2010 to save the wildlife and Wilderness in Jammu and Kashmir. 
  • It proposes to undertake the conservation and protection of wildlife in Jammu and Kashmir starting with the conservation of Hangul.
  • It aims to achieve this through community support, awareness, and management of wildlife. It aims to change attitudes towards nature and promote harmony between humans and wildlife.
  • Wildlife conservation fund launched Hangul Conservation Project (HCP) which will try to resolve the various issues which are related to the threatened Hangul species in Kashmir, particularly in the Dachigam National Park.

What are Critically Endangered as per IUCN?

A taxon is considered critically endangered if it meets any of the following criteria

  •  If its population has declined by greater than 80% in the last 10 years or three generations.
  • The species has been restricted to a geographical range.
  • If its population is less than 250 individuals and it is declining at 25% in 3 years or one generation.
  • If it has a very small and restricted population with fewer than 50 mature individuals.
  • If the probability of extinction in the wild is very high.

Read: Species in News for UPSC

Conclusion

Hangul is one of the few surviving endangered species in the Himalayan landscape. The conservation and stabilization of the population of the Hangul must be accorded the highest priority. Further, reintroduction of their population to new habitats, minimizing the effect of conflict on their population, strong protection measures, and vigil from poaching are the need of the hour.

They duly deserve the priority given the status of Schedule-1 animal being granted to this species under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. Further study for relocation, reintroduction to conducive and supportive ecosystems in the Himalayan states must be conducted and a better diverse genetic pool must be developed for their conservation and protection against various biological evolutionary threats. Citizens and civil society must come forward and join hands with the forest department to protect this critically endangered, beautiful animal from possible avoidable extinction.

This article is relevant for the environment section of the UPSC syllabus prescribed for the Preliminary and Main Examination of Civil Services Exam.

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