Kanha Tiger Reserve

Barasingha breaks new ground

Print edition : March 17, 2017

A barasingha female and a fawn at the Kanha Tiger Reserve. The fawn has spots at birth and is often confused with a chital. Photo: Sanjay K. Shukla

The Barasingha population of three subspecies—the hard ground barasingha endemic to Kanha, the northern subspecies and the north-eastern subspecies—is faced with many challenges, resulting in a low growth rate. Photo: Sanjay K. Shukla

A full-grown stag with the characteristic 12-point antler configuration. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

Grassland and a waterbody, an ideal habitat for the graminivore, at Kanha. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

In the past, populations of this deer occurred across undivided Madhya Pradesh and in Maharashtra, Bihar, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The northern subspecies in a swamp, its natural habitat, at the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh. Each subspecies differs slightly from the other morphologically. Photo: Dudhwa Tiger Reserve

A barasingha herd at the Kanha Tiger Reserve, which supports typical central Indian sal forests and grassy plains. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

A tigress watching a herd of barasingha in the distance. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

Jackals go for selective predation of newborns, upsetting the recruitment of the barasingha. Photo: Anant Zanjale

An alert herd, though its anti-predator reflexes are relatively slow. Photo: Suresh Deshmukh

Pythons can sometimes upset the number of fawns in protected areas. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The north-eastern barasingha in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Photo: Kaziranga Tiger Reserve

Kanha is a combination of beauty and biodiversity. Photo: Abhishek Singh

The grass-eating hard ground barasingha gives conservationists a lot to cheer about following a slow but sure increase in its almost extinct population at the Kanha Tiger Reserve.

IT was an early winter morning in late December. The temperature had dropped from last night and was hovering below zero degrees. I stood amid the winter sounds in an old growth forest of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, in Madhya Pradesh, close to a sal grove and could hear the soft sound of fog water dripping off the trees. The guttural calls of tree pies and the noisy screams of peafowls somewhere in the distance, however, were calming and felt like an attribute of the profound serenity and solitude. The overnight freeze had resulted in a thin off-white covering of frost on the grassland stretched all around. My immediate surroundings of sal woods, meadow and grazing barasingha were shrouded in a dense mist that would gradually clear away later in the morning as the intensity of daylight increased.

I hastened to focus my field glasses on a bugling barasingha stag in the nearby breeding herd. The majestic deer had raised its head slightly and was emitting the two-toned rutting call so typical of this deer, starting at a low pitch and rising to a crescendo in high bugle-like notes. Mesmerised, I watched the animal call intently as the cold condensed his breath into a narrow plume of light smoke that vanished into the mist.

The revival of this endangered and endemic cervid, belonging to the cervidae family, in the Kanha Tiger Reserve is hailed as one of the most successful and inspiring conservation projects in the world. While Kanha’s name may be synonymous with the tiger, it is actually the hard ground barasingha that has consistently challenged the professionalism, including foresightedness and managerial adaptability, of the Kanha management.

The successful conservation programme is all the more significant in the context of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Report 2016, which predicts that the global wildlife population could decline by an average of 67 per cent between 1970 and 2020 as a result of human activities. The global populations of birds, mammals, amphibians, fish and reptiles have already declined by around 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012. And India stands as one of the five global biocapacity hub-countries, accounting for around half of the world’s biodiversity.

Deer cousins

The swamp deer, or barasingha, meaning a species having 12 distinct points or being 12-tined in its antler configuration, is regarded as one of the world’s endangered large mammals. While the deer is exclusive to India and Nepal’s biogeographical limits, several animal ranches in Texas and Florida in the United States are reported to have sizeable populations. All the three subspecies of the swamp deer are endangered in India. While a free-ranging population of the hard ground barasingha ( Rucervus duvauceli branderi) is restricted to the Kanha Tiger Reserve, the northern subspecies ( Rucervus duvauceli duvauceli) and the north-eastern subspecies ( Rucervus duvauceli ranjitsinhii) occur in the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve (Uttar Pradesh) and the Kaziranga National Park (Assam) and their surrounding areas. Each subspecies differs slightly from the other morphologically, which is probably due to geographical separation for a very long time.

The hard ground barasingha of Kanha is exclusively graminivorous and is almost totally dependent on grasslands. Unlike its two cousins that inhabit swampy habitats, the Kanha, or Branderi, subspecies has adapted itself to the hard ground conditions of central India, though it still reveals its evolutionary affinity for slush and swamps. It is the special biology and ecology of this deer that has made it so endangered and difficult to conserve. Besides being graminivorous, the female comes into estrus only once a year and gives birth to only one fawn after a gestation period of about nine months. Consequently, the population is faced with many challenges, resulting in a low growth rate. It is an established fact that small populations are challenged by a number of intrinsic (relating to genetics) and extrinsic (relating to environment) limiting factors that increase the likelihood of the population going extinct.

Steady decline

Once upon a time this majestic deer recorded far and wide distributions. Populations occurred in many districts of the erstwhile Madhya Pradesh and in Maharastra, Bihar, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. The forest tracts of the Kanha ecoregion were regarded as some of the finest and hitherto untouched wilderness areas in the country. The unfragmented multi-tiered woodlands, large grassy expanses and waterbodies resulted in many ecotones and settings excellent as wildlife habitat. The region was sparsely dotted with small human habitations that practised marginal agriculture with an aboriginal touch. The barasingha roamed these grasslands and clearings in large numbers and had safe and unobstructed access to most of its habitats for foraging, breeding and parturition. Consequently, a large population of this deer, albeit fragmented, with good recruitment every year could survive the slow but sure onslaught of poaching and habitat loss due to encroachment for agriculture and altered land use patterns. A census of this deer population conducted in and around the present Kanha National Park in 1938 indicated that there were 3,023 animals.

The cervid population, however, did not remain secure for long. A large number of barasingha used to be killed by tribal people in September and October when large herds formed on the plateaus in Chhattisgarh, previously a part of Madhya Pradesh. Much later, in spite of several forest and wildlife protection laws, the wild animals were under pressure because of poaching, which was unfortunately increasing day by day. Wildlife habitats were subjected to illicit felling, encroachment, cattle grazing and fire. Shifting cultivation, or slash-and-burn practice, was rampant. Large chunks of forest were clear-felled and meadows converted into agricultural lands to grow marginal crops. Such lands were used only for three to four years and then abandoned for new ones. Besides, destruction was getting more and more mechanised and efficient.

The hard ground barasingha bore the brunt of this onslaught. Village residents hunted the deer for its meat and occasionally for sale as trophies. By 1951, barasingha habitats had started to succumb seriously to agriculture and settlements. Poaching and biotic pressures, including timber felling, encroachment and cattle grazing, had tattered the forest, with grave consequences.

The barasingha have never had an easy time of it. Wildlife classics on the natural history of the region are replete with references of how the deer was snared, poisoned and shot. The situation became so serious that the Madhya Pradesh government banned barasingha hunting in 1954. The Supkhar area of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, which was earlier part of the north Balaghat forest division, lost all the animals by the late 1950s. In 1964, baiting—the practice of using animals such as goats and buffaloes to attract tigers for close sightings and photography—was allowed in the Kanha meadows. These domestic animals used to be tied to a tree and left for the tiger. The practice encouraged several tigers to remain in a confined area. These tigers also killed barasingha and further decreased this population. While some good steps were taken to arrest the decline, they were too late to be effective. Poaching continued unabated, and the barasingha population went from the 3,023 recorded in 1938 to 577 in 1958, 98 in 1968 and 66 in 1970. This critical number was restricted to the central meadows of the Kanha National Park, and there was no knowledge of any other population of this deer in the wild anywhere in the country. The deer was now on the brink of subspecies extinction.

That was when the Forest Department took several short-term conservation initiatives to protect this subspecies and its habitats. As time passed, managerial experience grew, and with the inclusion of Kanha into Project Tiger in 1973, barasingha conservation practices became more professional. Over the years, the protection of the deer and its habitats has been accorded the topmost priority under different strategies. The first relocation of a forest village, Sonf village, outside the national park way back in 1969 helped reclaim an additional grassy plain of around 1,000 hectares as deer habitat. Since then 37 forest villages have been shifted outside the core zone, or critical tiger habitat. Village relocation has helped in the reclamation of around 78 square kilometres of land, most of which has been developed into excellent grassland. Kanha’s village relocation programme, applauded as ahead of its time, is, of course, another story.

A predator-proof in situ enclosure of around 27 ha was erected in the Kanha range so that a small number of founder-animals for assured multiplication and future release back into the wild could be closely monitored and managed. The enclosure proved so effective that it now stands expanded to around 50 ha.

The Kanha management has also undertaken habitat improvement programmes with the barasingha in mind to keep wildlife habitats sufficiently healthy to sustain thousands of ungulates. This programme includes the eradication of weeds, lantana, invasive woody and shrub species; the planting of grass species; and the creation and maintenance of shallow waterbodies. The deer population is monitored daily in all habitat pockets under a prescribed protocol so that various trends and movement patterns within the protected area can be understood.

All these conservation practices have paid modest dividends, and now the species stands restored to a more or less safe status. The build-up from the critical 66 in 1970 to around 750 in 2016 has taken around 45 years.

Amid this internationally applauded conservation success, a small population of this deer was reintroduced into its former distribution range. The initiative was based on the logic that the Kanha population had grown out of only 66 animals and could be a genetically inbred population that could face future health-related complications. Besides, the deer may be vulnerable to some serious epidemic that could wipe out the subspecies from Kanha. In view of this, some barasingha were captured, translocated and reintroduced into the Satpura Tiger Reserve (also in Madhya Pradesh), another equally fine protected area and a former distribution range of the deer, under an ambitious multidisciplinary project in 2015 and 2016 (see “Operation Barasingha”, Frontline, May 1, 2015). The Satpura Tiger Reserve had many years ago supported a small population of this deer species and currently harbours a very good barasingha habitat. These reintroduced barasingha are kept in a specially designed in situ enclosure and will be released into the wild according to the protocol.

High hopes

The barasingha at Kanha is a fine example of single-species conservation, whose chief objective has been to reduce or delay the risk of the extinction of the target population. Initially, it looked like one was fighting a losing battle, later, however, the wide range of all conceivable conservation practices and innovative steps ensured that the population had a much safer status.

The resurrection of this cervid at Kanha is also an excellent example of adaptive management, or “learning by doing”. This professional adage has over the years helped the Kanha management gain a thorough understanding of the behaviour and ecology of the species and mastery over its population and habitat management, including reintroduction. Such vast experience, successful past translocations, veterinary support, and knowledge of all the logistics can be put to good use in future to reintroduce more and more animals into well-protected areas of their historical range. While on the one hand, introduced subspecies will enhance the biodiversity status of these protected areas, on the other, the expansion of its current geographical distribution will add to the security of the subspecies against local extinction and may create a new bloodline too.

However, a word of caution is in order here. The reintroduction programmes need to be undertaken in a comprehensive manner. A wide range of habitat improvement initiatives will have to be undertaken at new reintroduction sites before animal translocation. In situ captivity for some time and a later soft release into an improved habitat is a good option. The managers of reintroduction sites may need to visit Kanha and Satpura in advance to study current barasingha conservation practices for effective replication at their respective sites. The names of some protected areas that readily come to mind for this purpose are the Achanakmar and the Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserves in Chhattisgarh, the Tadoba Andhari and the Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserves in Maharashtra, the Sunabeda and the Simlipal Tiger Reserves in Odisha, and the Bandhavgarh and the Phen Wildlife Sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh. Besides achieving the obvious conservation objectives, professionalism in active management techniques, achieved through hard work and over so much time, will then not go waste and managers/veterinarians will stay in practice.

Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.

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