Under normal circumstances, the 200-odd Kashmir stags or Hanguls, the last population of the only subspecies of red deer found in India, would worry about the resident leopards or the rare wolves that pass through Dachigam. Instead, the biggest threat to their survival is flocks of resident sheep, and an assortment of livestock that take over their national park every summer.
Imagine the marvel of the higher Himalayan wilderness. The Dagwan river springing to life from Marsar, a pristine lake at the edge of the Zanskar range, and flowing through deep gullies, alpine forests and flowering meadows to feed the Harwan reservoir, which supplies drinking water to the entire Srinagar town. The river valley and the higher slopes are the last stand of the critically-endangered Hangul, the state animal of Jammu & Kashmir.
Now imagine a sheep farm in the heart of this wilderness. For over five decades, in a brazen violation of the Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1978, a state-owned breeding farm has flourished inside a national park, its flocks scaring away the shy Hanguls from much of its former range. For over eight years, the Sheep Husbandry Department is sitting on a state Cabinet decision to move the farm out. Instead, there is now a demand that the 100 hectares occupied by the farm be declared non-forestland.
Dachigam and its Hangul have too long a conservation history to deserve this fate. The erstwhile maharaja of Kashmir declared this forest a hunting reserve (rakh) in 1910 and secured it with game guards by evicting 10 villages (hence, dachi-gam) by 1934. Soon after Independence, it was notified as a sanctuary. In 1981, 141 sq km of Dachigam — the rolling grasslands in the west separated from rocky outcrops in the east by a stretch of temperate forest — became a national park.
Yet, the majestic Hangul dwindled steadily. From 4,000 in 1900 and 2,000 in 1947, its only surviving population in Dachigam shrank to 140-170 in 1970. The recovery has been disappointingly slow and the last count claimed only 218 animals. One can’t blame the usual suspects here. There is no agriculture, tree cutting or village inside Dachigam and deployment of an infantry unit in the late 1970s brought poaching under control.
But the state had already set up a sheep farm inside Dachigam in 1961 and shifted animals from Banihal to breed the Kashmir Merino. To be fair, the farm preceded the State Wildlife Act (1978) but it was anyway a bizarre decision, coming two-and-a-half decades after all the villages were moved out of Hangul habitat. What possibly prompted the move was the increasing presence of herders who made use of the chaos that followed Independence (and the absence of royal game guards) to drive their animals inside upper Dachigam during spring-summer.
Soon, the state came under pressure to issue official permission to the herders. Bakarwals from Jammu were first to get the right in 1972, followed by the Banyaris and local Gujjars. Together they herded thousands of livestock, including buffaloes, but the damage was limited since most herds would use Dachigam as a transit halt on their way further north.
Things changed with the onset of militancy in the late 1980s. The army took control of the Gurez and Tulel valleys, making the pastures out of bounds for the herders. Upper Dachigam suddenly became the permanent summer grazing ground of thousands of livestock. Meanwhile, the state-owned sheep farm — illegal since 1978 — contributed 3,000-5,000 sheep that shuttled between upper and lower Dachigam following the winter-summer cycle.
Before this takeover, Hanguls used to spend the summer months — May to September — in the alpine meadows and the conifer forests of upper Dachigam. This was also the fawning season as the young ones are born in May-June. For a long time, the Hanguls are mostly confined to their traditional winter habitat of lower Dachigam, only one-third of the national park area, throughout the year. Even here, the resident flocks of state-owned sheep have virtually monopolised more than 10 sq km.
As a result, the Hangul population is static at best. In the 1960s, biologist George Schaller reported a ratio of 45 fawns to 100 adult females, which has since come down to 21 fawns which are vulnerable to sheep dogs minding the flocks. With only 18 permanent staff and 30-40 casual labourers, the park authority has no way of monitoring the scale of poaching or habitat destruction in upper Dachigam where too many outsiders roam free.
A proposal to increase the shockingly inadequate staff strength of Dachigam is pending for two years now. But that is par for the course given that the Cabinet’s decision to shift the sheep farm has not been implemented since 2005.
Four years passed by before the chief wildlife warden sent a reminder to the Sheep Husbandry Department, which wrote back claiming that no alternative site could be found. In November 2009, the chief secretary quoted Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to reiterate the government’s resolve. Another reminder from the Forest Department followed in 2010.
At the February 2012 meeting of the state wildlife board, the CM finally set a deadline: the sheep were to go before the Durbar moved in May. A joint committee set up for the purpose reported in July that a site was found in Dingibal and the sheep husbandry department pegged the shifting cost at Rs 11 crore. But nothing moved until July this year when the government identified a different farm in Ganderbal for shifting 475 sheep.
Then, in August, the state came up with another committee to examine, among other things, if the sheep farm could continue in Dachigam. As outraged experts cornered the CM at the annual state wildlife board meeting on 16 September, Omar again asked the officials to “get it done” before the Durbar move in November. The next day, the new committee had its final meeting where sheep husbandry officials sought to buy time.
Within 25 km of Srinagar, Dachigam is a convenient field posting for the 50- odd farm officials and workers. A group of veterinarians from Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences has written to the CM, ruling out chances of disease transmission from sheep to Hanguls, inflating the cost of shifting the farm from Rs 11 crore to Rs 300 crore, claiming that sheep, in fact, help the Hangul by reducing its chance of becoming leopard prey. The setback to Kashmir’s economy from the farm’s removal, their letter claimed, would be irreversible.
At the time of going to the press, the new committee is yet to submit its report. If the Sheep Husbandry Department manages to drag its feet for another month, the farm and its 800-odd sheep will stay put till next summer when yet another panel may take over. Meanwhile, the first radio-collared Hangul approached upper Dachigam areas this May before retreating in the face of too many livestock.
The army, say forest sources, is ready to welcome the livestock back in the Gurez meadows but the herdsmen are no longer willing to trek longer distances. They have the blessings of Forest Minister Mian Altaf Ahmad. Last summer, five forest staff faced departmental action for taking on the bakarwals.
If the state continues to give the Chief Minister’s deadlines a miss and the Forest Minister’s vote bank a wide berth, J&K may win a dubious national race by losing its state animal before Chhattisgarh loses its last wild buffalo. But then, Omar may not mind looking sheepish naming the obvious replacement.