Saturday, December 23, 2006

India: Too many leopards means too few endangered stags

Toufiq Rashid

Wildlife experts in Kashmir are facing a dilemma: one of the reasons for the dwindling population of the “critically endangered” hangul [Kashmiri stag] is the healthy rise in the leopard population.

The authorities at the Dachigam National Park, home to both the hangul stag and the leopard, are considering translocation or, as a last resort, culling the leopard population.

The threat to the hangul from the leopard was one of the findings of a six-year study conducted in the 140 sq km park by J&K’s Department of Wildlife Protection, supported by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.

“The study has shown that the predator population in the area is beyond the carrying capacity,” said Farooq Geelani, Regional Wildlife Warden for Kashmir.

Officials have figures for the decrease in hangul population — from about 850 in the 1988 census to between 170 and 250 in the 2005 census — but there are no figures for the leopards in the area.

Even so, the study blames falling hangul population chiefly on leopards, and experts say that large-scale grazing of sheep and encroachment in the upper reaches of the park have led to the shrinking of the hangul’s home range, making it easy prey for leopards in the lower reaches.

Like the leopard, the population of Asiatic black bear has also increased in the park, and this, too is proving fatal for the hangul.

“The black bear is an omnivore. It feeds on young hangul. The female to fawn ratio is very low now,” says Rashid Naqash, the park warden. “The absence of the fawn means that there is an increase in frequency of attacks and overpopulation of predators.”

He said that an increase in the number of predators “cuts parental stock, which causes inbreeding depression and is fatal for hangul growth.”

In view of the findings, the department, in consultation with the Centre, is considering translocation of some of the leopards. Culling is being considered as the last step.

“But before taking any such steps, we have to access the home range of the hangul, said Geelani.

The Wildlife Institute of India has suggested satellite tracking of hangul to determine the home range. “They have procured GPS system to track and see where the hangul goes during summers. This will tell us whether we need to increase our coverage area or whether the predator population needs to be decreased,’’ said Geelani

In the sixties, the barasinga had faced a problem similar to that being faced by the hangul: at the Kanha National Park, an increase in the tiger population, had led to the decline of the barasinga.

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