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Home to Rare Deer, Dachigam National Park Goes to the Dogs – Literally

Home to Rare Deer, Dachigam National Park Goes to the Dogs – Literally

On June 23, Kashmir Monitor, a local daily in Srinagar, reported that 14 hangul had been photographed in Shikargah, some 51 km southeast of the city, and suggested these animals were doing well.

However, many wildlife experts paint a different picture, describing the sighting of these animals – also called the Kashmir stag – outside their last ‘stronghold’, the Dachigam National Park, as “alarming”.

The hangul (Cervus elaphus hanglu) is a  cousin of the European red deer and the state animal of erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir. They are confined to a 141-sq.-km patch in Dachigam National Park, and their numbers have been plummeting of late, so much so that they are classified as ‘endangered’ in the IUCN Red List.

Wildlife experts have attributed the hangul’s decline to several factors. Two of them dominate: human activity near the deer’s home and free-ranging dogs.

In fact, the dogs’ presence is also the result of human activity, especially along the park’s northern edge. Multiple dogs have overrun the park’s lower areas – where the deer descend in the colder months to breed. While no one has reported seeing the dogs attack the hangul, the canines often harass the grey langurs (Semnopithecus entellus) peppered throughout the park.

The dogs sneak into the park from Mulnar, a village towards the park’s north where developmental activities have gathered momentum. Wildlife experts also said the villagers had seized a part of the park to use as a graveyard, often enter the sanctuary to gather the lucrative Morchella mushrooms and fish for trout in the shallow waters of the Daghwan river.

In addition, personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) stationed inside the park feed the dogs and ‘befriend’ them for help guarding the area against intruders.

Unlike deer, dogs are quite adaptable and also breed very quickly. And “the possibility of dogs mating in the park cannot be ruled out,” said Nazir Ahmad, a retired wildlife guard familiar with Dachigam.

Wildlife officials also resent being at the receiving end of the sanctuary’s alleged mismanagement, and say they can do little to check the dogs’ entry. “All our efforts to maintain the habitat are vilified by the policies that our department has practically no control over,” Ahmad said.

Illegal roads

Illegal settlements have mushroomed just outside the park. The government had distributed this land to the people of villages nearby on the condition that they’d return it if and when the wildlife department asked for it, plus an undertaking that it wouldn’t be used for agricultural activities. However, today, large houses stand within a few hundred metres of the sanctuary’s boundary.

More recently, under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), some people began building a road along the park fence right.

“Taking advantage of the lockdown, NREGA started the construction during the night,” Altaf Dentoo, the wildlife warden at Dachigam, said. He added that he and his colleagues stopped work as soon as they found out and bulldozed the completed patches.

The wildlife department has also filed an FIR against another road, built by the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), that runs through Sharazbal Conservation Reserve, adjacent to Dachigam.

“The PMGSY road has resulted in the core buffer zone and the green belt being vandalised,” environment lawyer Nadeem Qadri told The Wire. “The boulders used for the illegal road have been extracted from Dachigam nalla, in gross violation of a division bench order stating no construction activity can be undertaken within the protected areas.”

Chief wildlife warden S.K. Gupta isn’t happy with the additional work either: “It’s not for the wildlife department to check on what is happening outside the perimeter of the park,” he said.

As it happens, the divisional commissioner of Kashmir has reportedly submitted an affidavit before the high court that no road is under construction in or around Mulnar. When The Wire visited the area, however, work was clearly underway.

In his complaint, Qadri has named a local sarpanch belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party who – according to Qadri – has been responsible for ecological destruction in the area along with a block development officer.

“Sometimes, some lower-rung officers act on their own, without informing their higher-ups, and start these constructions,” Gupta said. “Whenever such violations are brought to our notice, we act swiftly.”


The focus, vis-à-vis protecting the hangul, is currently on two CRPF camps and a trout fisheries farm located within the Dachigam reserve.

In 2017, the administration of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir had got a defunct sheep-breeding site close to the park, near Mulnar, vacated, although the site’s concrete structures weren’t removed.

But since then, local administrators say, many other government departments under various ministries have been meddling with the affairs of the wildlife department. As a result, the wildlife department has struggled to draft and enforce a protection plan.

The fisheries department also runs a trout culture farm within the park. A wildlife official speculated that it had the support of ministers, bureaucrats and top police officers who visit “the park with their entourage and relish the fish.” Why else, the official continued, would there be a “recreational building inside a national park”?

The department of hospitality and protocol maintains another structure guarded by two  CRPF camps, and which ministers, top bureaucrats, police and army officers visit. To facilitate their movement, hundreds of pine trees were felled to make way. Ironically, the wildlife department doesn’t have access to the facility, according to a guard.

There are also cement factories and stone quarries in Khrew, just beyond the park’s southern edge, that threaten the hangul. “These factories have devastated our agricultural land, which was our livelihood, and now deforestation has become a daily occurrence,” Ghulam Mohammad Mir, a member of the Khrew Welfare Society, said.

More cement factories are being installed as some unit holders have reportedly sought new permissions. “There is an online mechanism in place and anybody is free to apply for a licence. It’s up to the competent authority to grant permissions after an NOC by relevant departments is issued,” Gupta said. “There is however a need to undertake a comprehensive study on whether these factories pose a danger to the biodiversity in the area, including on the national park.”

According to a 2016 report in the Kashmir Observer, these factories have encroached on 1,500 kanal of land (187.5 acres) where shepherds used to graze their cattle.

The hangul’s future

The hangul was once present in the thousands in the Kashmir valley, across present-day India and Pakistan. However, a survey published in 1957 reported the presence of only 400 individuals in the region. Today, there are only 200 or so hangul, according to the results of a 2011 survey.

The current political imbalance in Kashmir, and loss of habitat are the principal causes of the animal’s endangered status. Wildlife activists and conservationists have argued that if corrective measures aren’t taken immediately, the animal could become locally extinct.

Farooq Shah is a Kashmir-based journalist. 

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