Operation Barasingha

In January and March this year, 16 barasingha deer were transported from the Kanha National Park in a large customised truck specially to the Satpura Tiger Reserve, where they are expected to breed in a specially designed enclosure and will be gradually released into the wild.

Published : Apr 15, 2015 12:30 IST

Female barasingha deer at Kanha. The female deer comes into the estrous cycle only once a year and delivers a single fawn after a long gestation period, which is one of the factors making the barasingha an endangered species.

Female barasingha deer at Kanha. The female deer comes into the estrous cycle only once a year and delivers a single fawn after a long gestation period, which is one of the factors making the barasingha an endangered species.

IT was a cool, sunny March morning in the Kanha National Park. I was inside the famous Kanha barasingha enclosure, scanning the fenced landscape through my field glasses. Amid a tremendously wide range of hues of the green of the stately sal and its associate trees, the riotous orange-red flowering of the butea gum trees, and, more commonly, the flame of the forest, rendered a remarkable and amazing contrast. The all-pervasive serenity was sometimes delicately punctuated by the distant calls of peafowls. This could well be the wilderness setting that inspired Henry David Thoreau, the famous American thinker and sage, to write the classics Walden and The Maine Woods and pursue his philosophic and spiritual quest. This large barasingha enclosure, surrounding a classic mosaic chunk of habitats, had proved to be an extremely important and game-changing concept in the conservation of the endangered and endemic hard ground barasingha, Rucervus duvauceli branderi , in the Kanha Tiger Reserve.

I adjusted my glasses to focus on an all-female herd in a small clearing. The golden chestnut-brown coloured does were strikingly handsome, and for a moment I was overwhelmed by anthropomorphic emotions, generally frowned upon in conservation. In a few days some of these animals were to be captured and transported to the Satpura Tiger Reserve under an ambitious reintroduction project. These founder-animals’ initial struggle for acclimatisation and survival at a new site would contribute to establishing, through generations, a new bloodline of this majestic deer species. In this way, the Satpura founders would over the years grow into a geographically separate population from the existing small population of the deer that was hitherto confined to the Kanha Tiger Reserve, where it faced many challenges.

The permission to capture and translocate 20 barasingha was accorded by the technical committee of the Government of India in January this year. The first eight animals were captured and transported on March 3, and another eight on March 15. Four other animals will be captured and transported later this year. At the time of the two transportation operations in March, Kanha had a barasingha population of around 600 animals. The “reintroduced” animals will be kept in a specially designed enclosure in the Satpura Tiger Reserve for future multiplication and gradual release into the wild.

The hard ground barasingha is one of three subspecies of the Indian swamp deer. While the distribution of this subspecies remains endemic or restricted to the Kanha Tiger Reserve, the northern and north-eastern subspecies occur in small numbers in the Dudhwa and Kaziranga National Parks and adjoining areas respectively. Morphologically, each species differs slightly from the others, and geographical restrictions are responsible for these variations.

Rucervus duvauceli branderi was first systematically described by R.I. Pocock, the famous British mammalogist, and was named after A.A. Dunbar Brander, a British forest officer, who had earlier distinguished this from the northern subspecies. Regarded as a majestic and handsome species, “barasingha” is called so because of its antlers, which are conspicuous in males. The word means “twelve-tined”. These antlers are shed and regrown every year.

The hard ground barasingha is a large specialised deer and depends on a narrow range of food items in the wild. It is almost totally graminivorous, and grasslands are crucial for its survival though it shows a preference for water plants. Often the deer wades in water, frequently dipping its muzzle, to feed on them.

In the first three decades of the 20th century, this royal deer species was distributed in many districts of Madhya Pradesh and also in the adjoining States of Maharashtra, Bihar and Odisha. The absence of biotic pressure, on account of low human and cattle density, supported wilderness areas of very large, unfragmented, multi-tiered woodlands and large grassy expanses in and around the Kanha ecoregion. The region was then only sparsely dotted by small villages which practised marginal agriculture.

The barasingha roamed these grasslands and clearings in large number and enjoyed safe access to most of its habitats for foraging, breeding and fawn rearing. Consequently, a large population of this deer, fragmented but with good recruitments every year, could survive the slow but sure onslaught of poaching and habitat loss caused by encroachment for agriculture and altered land-use patterns. In 1938, an estimation of this deer population around the present Kanha National Park suggested that there were around 3,000 animals.

The barasingha population began to shrink in the years preceding Independence and just after. In spite of many laws meant to protect forests and wildlife, this sizeable population of deer was gradually getting exposed to illegal hunting and poaching. Its habitat faced problems such as illicit felling of trees, encroachment for shifting cultivation, illegal cattle grazing and forest fires. Royal hunts and trigger-happy Army officers only added to the problem. The emphasis on “grow more food” after Independence also led to large chunks of forestland being brought under the plough. Gun licences were granted generously to villagers to protect their crops from herbivores, and guns were used gleefully against wildlife.

Fortunately, in the meantime, some measures for the conservation of wildlife were taken, which included stringent enforcement of existing laws and declaring potential wildlife areas as sanctuaries. Still, the Madhya Pradesh government had to impose a ban on the hunting of this species in 1954. These measures, however, came too late to be effective. Illegal hunting and poaching continued unabated, restricting the barasingha population to the Kanha National Park where the population declined to an all-time low of a mere 66 animals in 1970. Its fate was almost sealed.

Conservation efforts

It was now clear that all-round efforts were needed to save and propagate this small population. Serious conservation efforts started in the early 1970s. Protecting the deer and its habitat from all forms of poaching and destruction was accorded top priority by the tiger reserve management. A special predation-proof enclosure was erected in 1972 to closely monitor and manage a small number of founders for assured multiplication and future release back into the wild. The enclosure area was expanded in 2007.

As early as the late 1960s, the strategy of relocating forest villages, unheard of earlier, was implemented to reclaim additional habitat for this deer species. Wildlife habitats were protected from wanton fires and illegal cattle grazing. Besides expanding grassland areas by uprooting invasive shrub and tree species and improving them through the eradication of weeds and other unwanted species and planting palatable grass species, new shallow waterbodies were developed and water plants propagated to suit the deer’s exclusive food habits.

These interventions paid dividends, albeit slowly, and the deer population in Kanha has been restored to, if not a safe, at least a less risky, 600 animals. It took some 45 years to establish this population, a worryingly long time.

The special biology and ecology of this deer are what have made it endangered and difficult to mangage. Not only is the deer a “food specialist” (meaning, an animal with restricted food preferences; the barasingha feeds on only grass and does not eat leaves, shoots or flowers), the female of the species comes into the estrous cycle 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. This is now an established fact that small populations are challenged by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors that increase the likelihood of the population going extinct simply because the population is small.

Relocation strategy

Amid this internationally renowned conservation success, some wildlife officers were redeveloping and refining an old concept of establishing geographically separate populations of this deer species in the Satpura Tiger Reserve and the Van Vihar National Park. The writings of British naturalists and forest officers, especially Captain James Forsyth and A.A. Dunbar Brander, suggest that a small population of this deer species occurred in what is now the Satpura Tiger Reserve about 125 years ago. At present too, the area harbours very good barasingha habitat. The Van Vihar National Park has excellent ex-situ facilities to conserve a small number of these ungulates.

Narendra Kumar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), Wildlife, Dr Suhas Kumar, Additional PCCF, Wildlife, and J.S. Chauhan, Field Director, Kanha, all pragmatic, and strong proponents and actual implementers of this concept, were clear that this population was still at risk and that it was sheer luck that no epidemic had so far caused mass fatalities. Besides, having grown from a mere 66 animals, it was also a highly inbred population with inherent genetic risks for diseases. A rough calculation suggests that the present population is composed of animals of the 10th or 11th generation. Another technical justification for these separations was enhancement of biodiversity conservation values in these protected areas.

While there were many takers for this idea, there were doubting Thomases too! A rather discouraging history of past efforts also sometimes dampened spirits and served as constant reminders to exercise the utmost caution. Besides being an endemic and Schedule I animal, the barasingha was also the State animal of Madhya Pradesh, reason enough to recall that “discretion was the better part of valour”. In 1982, all 12 animals died during a long-distance transportation from Kanha to the Bandhavgarh National Park. Three attempts were also made between 1981 and 1990 to translocate a total of around 25 animals from Kanha to Supkhar, within the Kanha National Park itself. These captures and short-distance translocations met with some success. Most animals survived, and the reintroduced animals have slowly built up the Supkhar small population.

These operations, though courageous and progressive, were fraught with the constraints of those times. Unsophisticated and unstandardised drugs, ordinary transportation trucks, and unrefined capture and restraint techniques were some of the reasons for the past failures. The same constraints worked constantly against any such capture-and-transport project involving wild animals until a few years back when South African expertise and techniques were successfully adopted to transport around 50 Indian gaur from Kanha to the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in two batches in January 2011 and March 2012.

A comprehensive capture, transportation and release protocol was prepared to the minutest detail and nothing was left to chance. In a significant departure from traditional capture techniques, it was also decided that a passive capture method, using no chemicals/drugs, would be employed. Rigorous mock drills were conducted in the field and long sessions were held to discuss every eventuality and assign specific duties to the staff under J.S. Chauhan’s meticulous supervision.

Capture and transit

Inspired by the South African capture and translocation technique, the boma method was employed to capture the barasingha in the barasingha enclosure itself. The word “boma” is a South African term for capture-enclosures or large cages. It consisted of a wide funnel tapering into an animal selection-cum-loading chute. The main structure of the boma was made of steel sections, but the wings of the funnel were extended with the help of chain-link fence supported with grass mats to make it opaque for animals.

Besides, a large transportation truck was customised to carry 15-20 captured barasingha comfortably. The truck container could be divided into two compartments by a sliding door operated from outside. It had grilled windows on the upper sides to ensure proper ventilation. Several openings on the lower sides of the container could be used to look in on the animals and slip in water saucers. The container was floored with natural anti-skid material like plant twigs, leaves and grass to prevent animal hooves from slipping and getting injured. The container was also fitted with CCTV cameras to monitor the animals from the driver cabin during transportation.

The transportation truck was closely linked to a ramp camouflaged with plastered soil and grass to make it look natural to the animals. In this way, the transportation truck, the ramp and the chute of the boma became one composite structure at the capture site. This structure was installed several days before the actual capture operation in the field so that the animals could get habituated to its presence and could freely enter and exit it.

The capture operation began in the cool hours of the late afternoon. Several crews of the capture team entered the barasingha enclosure from the direction exactly opposite to the boma structure. They were equipped with helmets, wore padded jackets and carried handy makeshift reflectors. The crews moved towards the grazing animals, which were now slightly uncomfortable, to drive them gently towards the boma and into the chute. Reflectors were used to further dazzle and confuse the animals. Utmost care was taken not to make them panicky and each attempt was made in a leisurely way. As and when the animals entered the narrow selection chute, sliding gates were closed one by one to hold and further push them into the truck. The operation took several attempts to capture the required number of animals.

If some confusion arose and the animals ran back, the attempt was suspended for half an hour or so and then remade.

The transportation convoy included, besides the truck, three more vehicles carrying senior officers, wildlife veterinarians with emergency drugs and equipment and support staff. The animals were monitored from time to time during the journey, and it took almost 12 hours to cover around 350 km and reach the destination enclosure into which these founders were released. Sixteen animals reached safely in two trips, and there was not a single fatality!

Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.

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