In Jammu and Kashmir, animals too fall prey to 'enforced' disappearances

In the conflict-ridden Kashmir valley, it is not people alone who go missing. Animals too are now falling prey to ‘enforced’ disappearances.

Nazir Ganaie May 29, 2016 08:47:53 IST
In Jammu and Kashmir, animals too fall prey to 'enforced' disappearances

Srinagar: In the conflict-ridden Kashmir valley, it is not people alone who go missing. Animals too are now falling prey to ‘enforced’ disappearances and a case in hand is a Hangul, an endangered Kashmir red stag that had been tagged with a satellite collar by wildlife scientists in 2013.

The decision to fit satellite collars on a group of Hangul at Dachigam Park was taken to find out the causes of extinction of the species, but ironically, the lone sample for the research remains untraced. It is being widely speculated that the Hangul died due to strangulation or a possible infection in its neck because the collar had been fixed too tightly. The probable death of the Hangul has also spurred a controversy on the use of radio gadgets on animals. There are no traces of the Hangul and officials have been maintaining silence over the issue.

The collaring was meant to enable satellite telemetry of the animal and provide in-depth knowledge on lesser known aspects of Hangul biology, behaviour and ecology. The cost of the project is pegged at approximately Rs 70 lakh.

In Jammu and Kashmir animals too fall prey to enforced disappearances

Hangul in Jammu and Kashmir. Reuters

“It has come to our knowledge that the Hangul fitted with collar has died in the initial months of the research, and has not survived due to the reasons best known to the scientists,” a wildlife expert said. He said that the satellite collar was tightly fixed around the Hangul’s neck. It is a farce that one Hangul lost its life due to negligence of the officials at a time when the species is already facing extinction due to shrinkage of habitat, official apathy and lack of effective scientific intervention for its survival.

The skeleton of Hangul has not been found so far. “The collared Hangul seems to have migrated to some inaccessible destination where neither the radio waves nor the satellite signals work,” former chief biologist, Department of Wildlife J&K, Dr Mir Mansur, said. He said regardless of which telemetry system was selected, potential effects on Hangul’s normal behaviour must have been considered whenever an animal was handled or instrumented. “Adverse effects from capturing and radio-tagging an animal may have short to long term impact and in some cases, it may prove fatal,” Mansur said. He said there was a technical fault in installing the collar besides disparity in choosing the sample for the study. “Technically, I can affirm that the way the collar was installed onto the animal, it clearly indicates that the Hangul is ether strangulated or has died of infection,” he said. “One Hangul as a sample doesn’t justify the study either.”

After tagging a lone Hangul in 2013, the scientists had later said they would tag eight more Hanguls with satellite collars at Dachigam Park. They claimed to have gained an insight into the behaviour of the highly-endangered animal. The satellite monitoring of Hangul has been carried out by the Centre for Mountain Wildlife Sciences of Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Shuhama, in collaboration with Jammu Kashmir Wildlife Protection Department and Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.

“As far as the Hangul project is concerned, researchers haven’t come up with periodical findings and it is because the Hangul is either dead or we have to go by the claims of the researchers,” former Regional Wildlife Warden, Kashmir, Muhammad Shafi Bacha said. He said the Wildlife department in Kashmir “has gone to dogs”.

“There is no rationalisation of the finances issued to the stakeholders. Similar is the case with researches carried out at the department,” Bacha said. “I am working on the census of the Hangul population and the picture is worrying.”

Principal investigator of the project, Dr Khursheed Ahmad, informed that in 2013, an adult male Hangul was tagged with GPS satellite collar and then monitored on a regular basis through real-time satellite link by the scientists. The monitoring enabled scientists to study the animal’s movement, seasonal foraging patterns and other behaviour since 2013. Ahmad said the earlier research on tracking by satellites had given insight not only about the expanse of the park traversed by Hanguls but also on how they avoid certain areas which they see unsafe due to human interference.

He said the research would facilitate better management of these endangered species within its last abode and help scientists plan some future projects. “Collaring gives us an exact data about the subject, its habitation and things that we are working on. In the past, we relied on humans studying the animal behavior and their movements, but now technology gives us more accurate and diverse results,” Dr Khursheed said.

Dachigam National Park, the last habitat of the Hangul, is a 141-sq km multi-terrain expanse near Srinagar starting from the foothills of Zabarwan mountain range to the high-altitude ridges and lakes toward Nagaberan, Tral. “The operation has to be so effective that an animal does not realize what has happened to it and it is vital that it is fitted with the collar quickly and allowed to rejoin its herd,” Dr Khursheed said.

Officials at SKUAST feigned ignorance about the data and assessment of the Hangul project. “I think we have got the data regarding the Hangul project. It has been over two years now. The project should have been completed by now,” Director Research, SKUAST-K, Dr Muhammad Shafi Wani said. About the suspected collar killing issue, Wani said the Hangul may have been eaten up by wild animals in the woods. “We completed the study on that Hangul but I don’t know what happened to the animal afterward,” he said.

Hangul is the only Asiatic survivor of the red deer specie, which was declared a critically engendered species in the Red List of The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1996 and also listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to which India is a signatory. Presently, the animal has lost its conservation status in the IUCN Red list of the species. However, Hangul, being the State animal of the Jammu Kashmir, is protected as Schedule 1 specie under both Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1978.

Minister for Forest, Environment and Ecology, Chaudhary Lal Singh said conservation of the State animal (Hangul) was a priority for PDP-BJP coalition government. “This is a serious matter and it will be proved,” he said. “I will personally meet the officials and get the figures about it.” Singh said his government was “serious” about the conservation of wildlife animals in the state. “I am planning a trip to all these areas in order to get the report about various matters pertaining to wildlife,” he said. The former Forest Minster, Bali Bhagat, had ordered a probe into the issue, however nothing concrete came up.

The minister put the population of Hangul in Kashmir region at around 200. In the world of wildlife conservation, use of radio telemetry is nothing new. It gives valuable data on animal behavioural patterns from a distance without disturbing their natural movements. Experts and researchers believe that radio collars play a crucial role when it comes to conserving endangered or threatened species. However, they believe there was something intrinsically wrong with these gadgets, trusted by the wildlife scientists for over three decades.

Pertinently, the minister informed the legislators during an ongoing Budget session in summer capital Srinagar that for preservation and safety of Hangul, the Government has submitted a project report of Rs 25.72 crore to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests for approval. He said the plan provides conservation, completion of construction and maintenance of conservation Breeding Centre as well as other provisions like veterinarian, research fellows, plan, training and Red Deer breeding expertise consultancy etc. The Minister informed that as per records Shikargah is part of Tral-Cum-Khiram Rakh under the J&K Preservation Act-1942. He said these are deemed to be conservation reserves under J&K Wild Life Protection Act-1978. He said for conservation of Hangul, construction of an off-display Hangul Conservation Breeding Centre was taken up in 2008-09, which continued upto 2011-12 with the assistance of Central Zoo Authority of India.

There are too many questions about the issue, but not many answers. Developed in the US in early 1960s, radio collars were first used in India by the Bombay Natural History Society to study elephants and by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to observe behaviour and movement pattern of lions in Gujarat's Gir forest in the mid 1980s.

Activists who are already worried over the Hangul mortality rate in Kashmir are not ready to accept the red stag’s death “for the sake of research”. They are raising the question whether radio collars are to blame for animals’ death.

“We had already highlighted this important single case of Hangul with collar. We demand an FIR must be filed under Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1978 against all involved in this act. As an environmental lawyer, I will write to the Chief Minister and Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and seek a detailed inquiry into the issue and also follow up action," environmental lawyer and Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Law, Nadeem Qadri said.

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