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Wildlife in J&K and Ladakh—green shoots of hope

Wildlife in J&K and Ladakh—green shoots of hope

It has been one year since the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was divided in two union territories—J&K and Ladakh. Till then Hangul and the Black Crane were the state animal and bird. Recently, the J&K government issued an order to the wildlife protection department to identify a new bird for J&K as the erstwhile state mascot, the black-necked crane is found only in Ladakh.

Being the state animal, the hangul (Cervus canadensis hanglu), Kashmir Stag, has been at the centre of wildlife conservation efforts in Kashmir for decades. However, after the change in political status no notification has so far been issued to give the Hangul the status of the UT’s animal.

Experts and officials believe that the Kashmir flycatcher (Ficedula subrubra) is “the best choice” for a new bird mascot for J&K. Similarly, Ladakh can have the snow leopard (ounce) as a UT animal. Ladakh will also be looking for designating a new UT bird.

Sadly, the hangul in J&K and snow leopards in Ladakh are both on the verge of extinction. Hangul is being poached for ‘trophies’ and its meat. The 30-year long militancy and border conflict between India and Pakistan is another major threat to its survival.

Hangul, a rare species of red deer found only in Kashmir, is just 160 animals in existence, according to a preliminary census by wildlife authorities last year. This antlered red deer was once the biggest draw of Dachigam, a mountainous sanctuary on the outskirts. But rampant poaching, neglect by authorities, militancy, and political instability took its toll on the population of the majestic-looking deer which, in 1989 ranged around 900, experts said.

Originally set up as a hunting preserve by erstwhile maharajas and later converted into a national park, Dachigam, the most charming dales of Kashmir, has been an inaccessible fortress with severely restricted entry, used only as a VIP getaway. Also, the violence that engulfed Kashmir with the outbreak of insurgency in 1989-90 took toll on the hangul population. Dachigam was turned into a sanctuary by militants and later security forces moved into the area and also set up camps in surrounding hills which further ruined the habitat.

Owing to the Pakistan sponsored terrorism, the police and forest guards were unable to protect the forests, which militants and smugglers continue to loot with impunity. An astonishing 72 forest officers, including a conservator of forests and some junior officers, fell prey to bullets in the call of duty during the insurgency.

Forests were the first victims of militancy. Militants took cover in forests and supported timber smuggling. The vigilance system of the forest department simply collapsed. Forest guards would not venture into the forests and plundering of forests became part of the terror economy.

A permanent solution has still not been found. A Forest Protection Group was formed in 1996, but remains unarmed. It is yet to be given arms clearance from security agencies making it difficult for unarmed members of this group to protect the forests against armed smugglers.

However, since 2003, when the conflict situation started to improve, thousands of cases have been filed against poachers and smugglers, and hundreds were booked under the State’s Forest Act—a law under which a person can be detained for up to two years without any trial. For example, from 2014 to 2017, forest department has registered as many as 1,301 cases in police stations and courts against 4,206 culprits.

Yet this was not enough to prevent destruction of the forest ecosystem. A few years back, security forces unearthed and seized 836 animal skins including 222 leopard skin coats worth Rs two crore. What helped unscrupulous operators was not only the pre-occupation of the police with security problems, but also the existence of a law that was at variance with national laws. J&K was the only state in India where the Indian Wildlife Protection (IWP) Act, 1972, does not hold good. The lacunae in the state legislation, in comparison to the Central law, was glaring. The IWP Act is stricter in listing animals under various schedules. The desert fox, for example, is listed under Schedule I of the IWP Act and cannot be hunted. But under Schedule IV of the JKWP Act, a hunting licence could be acquired, which allowed legal killing of a large number of animal species.

Finally, there is real promise of change. The IWP Act 1972 will now be applicable to both J&K and Ladakh.

The change in law cannot be timely. At least 30 species of animals and plants in the two UTs are on the verge of extinction, according to a notification issued by Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF). The 10 animal species are hangul, markhor, Tibetan wild dog, Kashmir musk deer, chiru, Tibetan gazelle, snow leopard, Himalayan tahr, white backed vulture and western tragopan.

The IUCN’s <em>Red Data Book</em>, which contains lists of species at risk of extinction, has declared the Hangul as one of three species that were critically endangered in J&amp;K. The other two are the markhor–the world’s largest species of wild goat found in Kashmir and several regions of central Asia–and the Tibetan antelope or chiru found mostly in Ladakh and the mountainous regions of Mongolia and the Himalayas.

“Hope there is stability, and under the central government we can import this species to increase the population of the hangul,” says Nazir Malik, an expert on the Dachigam sanctuary.

Wildlife experts say that a strong political will is needed immediately. Though previous governments had given assurances nothing concrete happened. In 2009, the Central Government launched campaigns in Kashmir, Ladakh and adjoining states—‘Save Kashmir’s Red deer Hangul’ and ‘Save Our Snow Leopard” with international agencies but little was achieved in J&amp;K state. Interestingly in 2011, Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI), an infantry regiment of the Indian Army adopted the hangul as its mascot and launched a campaign with the state forest department to save the deer.

In 2015, the Union Government approved a long-term plan for the conservation of hangul, snow leopard and markhor but the main obstacle were the local laws. Now the Central Government plans a project similar to Project Tiger, to save hangul, the snow leopard and other species.

Every year, 15th Century Kashmiri saint and poet, Sheikh ul Alam’s saintly advice “<em>Ann Poshi Teli Yeli Wan Poshi</em>” (food will last as long as forests last) reverberates across the region with speakers at thousands of schools, colleges and public gatherings referring to the importance of forests without missing out on quoting the famous saint on such occasions as World Water Day, Earth Day and World Environment Day. Yet, forests and wildlife in Kashmir have suffered extensive damage in the recent decades..