The Kashmiri Hangul: A Critically Endangered Stag

The Kashmiri Hangul, a unique subspecies of red deer native to the Kashmir region, faces critical endangerment due to habitat loss, poaching, and various threats. Conservation efforts are urgently needed to protect this iconic species, preserve local ecosystems, and uphold cultural significance.

The Kashmiri hangul, also known as the Kashmir stag, is a subspecies of Central Asian red deer that is endemic to Kashmir and surrounding areas. It is the only surviving Asiatic member of the red deer family and the state animal of Jammu and Kashmir (UT). It has a distinctive coat color of brown with speckles and a light rump patch, and the males have impressive antlers with up to 16 points.

The Hangul’s Habitat and Ecology

The hangul lives in groups of two to 18 individuals in dense riverine forests, high valleys and mountains of the Kashmir valley and northern Chamba in Himachal Pradesh. It prefers deciduous woodlands, natural grasslands, pastures and meadows, and sometimes ventures above the tree-line. It feeds mainly on grasses, herbs, leaves, bark and twigs.

The hangul has a matriarchal society, where the females lead the groups and choose the mating partners. The breeding season occurs from September to October, when the males compete for the females by roaring, fighting and displaying their antlers. The gestation period lasts for about eight months, and the females give birth to one or two fawns in May or June. The fawns stay with their mothers for about a year, until the next breeding season.

The Hangul’s Conservation Status and Threats

The hangul is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, as its population has declined drastically over the years due to habitat loss, overgrazing by domestic livestock, poaching, predation, diseases and human-wildlife conflicts. In the 1940s, there were between 3,000 and 5,000 hangul in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, but by 1970, this number had dropped to as low as 150. Thanks to conservation efforts by the state government of Jammu and Kashmir, along with the IUCN and the WWF, the population increased to over 340 by 1980. However, since then, the population has fluctuated and remained low. According to the census in 2019, there were only 237 hangul left in the wild.

The main stronghold of the hangul is the Dachigam National Park, where it receives protection and monitoring. However, the park is facing pressures from encroachment, development, tourism, firewood collection and livestock grazing. The hangul also faces threats from predators such as leopards, wolves and bears, as well as from diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and anthrax. Poaching is another major threat, as the hangul’s antlers are highly valued in traditional medicine and trophy hunting.

Why We Need to Save the Hangul

The hangul is a unique and magnificent animal that represents the natural heritage of Kashmir and India. It plays an important role in maintaining the ecological balance of its habitat by dispersing seeds, pruning vegetation and providing food for other animals. It is also a source of cultural pride and identity for the local people, who have coexisted with it for centuries.

Saving the hangul is not only a moral duty but also a legal obligation, as it is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. Moreover, conserving the hangul can benefit other wildlife species that share its habitat, such as musk deer, Himalayan black bear, Himalayan brown bear, snow leopard and golden eagle. It can also enhance the ecosystem services that forests provide for humans, such as water regulation, soil conservation, climate regulation and recreation.

How We Can Save the Hangul

Saving the hangul requires a holistic and collaborative approach that involves multiple stakeholders such as government agencies, NGOs, researchers, local communities, media and tourists. Some of the key actions that can help conserve the hangul are:

  • Expanding and strengthening the protected area network for the hangul by creating corridors, buffer zones and satellite populations.

  • Restoring and improving the quality of the hangul’s habitat by reducing grazing pressure, preventing forest fires, controlling invasive species and promoting native vegetation.

  • Reducing poaching and illegal trade of the hangul’s antlers by enforcing laws, increasing patrolling, raising awareness and providing alternative livelihoods for poachers.

  • Mitigating human-wildlife conflicts by installing fences, deterrents and compensation schemes.

  • Monitoring and managing diseases that affect the hangul’s health and survival.

  • Enhancing scientific research on the hangul’s ecology, behavior, genetics and population dynamics.

  • Raising awareness and education among the public about the importance and plight of the hangul.

  • Promoting ecotourism that is sustainable and respectful of the hangul’s habitat and culture.

The hangul is a precious and irreplaceable part of India’s biodiversity and heritage. It deserves our attention and action before it is too late. Let us join hands and work together to save the Kashmiri hangul from extinction.

About the author:

Mohmmad Irshad Rather is part of Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability at the Azim Premji University.