New Delhi:It was on New Year’s day in 1960 that M.K. Ranjitsinh, who later became India’s first director of wildlife preservation, visited the Jim Corbett National Park. The grasslands of Dhikala, a zone inside the park, were full of hog deer, he recollects. “I can’t explain in words —the abundance of the hog deer dotting the vast grasslands,” he says.
The hog deer was the principal prey of the tiger as it vastly outnumbered the spotted deer, or chital, in population. Today, the hog deer is listed among endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“Unfortunately, today the number has dwindled and somewhere around 20-40 hog deer are found in Corbett—a sad reflection on the present state of wildlife conservation in prime tiger habitat,” says Ranjitsinh. “Soon the last one will die and no one will come to know of it.”
One of the prime reasons for the near disappearance of the hog deer is the annual ritual of burning grasslands in the region, located in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand. For ages, fire has been used to control weeds and prevent woody species from encroaching into the grasslands in the region.
The locals believe that the annual ritual, which takes place around the beginning of the year, maintains and even improves the nutritional quality of the grass for grazing animals.
The small, pig-like deer with antlers is a grassland dweller and does not have the skills to survive in the forest, unlike other deer species. It has nowhere to run during the burning of chaurs, as the grasslands are locally known.
“We follow this old method of burning grasslands for better crop, but haven’t spared much thought for animals such as the hog deer, pygmy hog, hispid hare, Assam tortoise, birds such as the Bengal florican, jungle fowl and black partridges, which breed in grasslands and reptiles that can’t move fast enough to escape the fire,” says conservation biologist Goutam Narayan, a specialist on endangered species.
Around 70cm in height, with a brown coat that darkens with age, the hog deer is found mainly in the Terai grasslands along the Himalayan foothills and the flood plains of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers. A sturdy species, the hog deer requires high- to middle-level grasslands for fawning and can fawn twice a year, but habitat loss and poaching has caused its population to dwindle steadily in the past decade.
“The problem is escalated in Corbett Park, as it’s isolated in a small pocket of grassland, making easy prey for big cats and jackals. Excessive predation is another reason for the decline,” says A.J.T. Johnsingh, conservation biologist and ex-dean of the Wildlife Institute of India.
Grasslands are also being burnt to allow better visibility.
“Once the thick canopy of tall grass is gone, major tourist attractions like elephants, chital and tiger are easily spotted,” says Ranjitsinh.
In a research paper, Ecological observations on the grasslands of Corbett Tiger Reserve, India, conservation biologists G.S. Rawat, S.P. Goyal and Johnsingh write: “Because the grasslands have a high concentration of wild herbivores which attracts the tiger, the wildlife tourism in the national park is very much dependent on this area.”
In the Corbett National Park, the decline of the hog deer began with the submergence of a large part of the grasslands with the building of a dam on the Ramganga river in 1974. Some of the best grasslands, including the Buxar Chaur and Beri Chaur adjoining Dhikala, were submerged.
Today, the Dhikala Chaur is bordered by the river on one side and the sal forest surrounding it, leaving the hog deer trapped within its limits.
The hog deer is a shade better off in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam owing to a larger area. That leaves some scope for the deer to escape the burning of the grasslands. But when the Brahmaputra floods large swathes of the grasslands every monsoon, a chunk of the hog deer population is wiped out.
The ones that escape to higher ground are being poached for their meat, conservationists say. Last year, Kaziranga reported 500 hog deer deaths during the annual flooding, but a good number were victims of poachers, they add.
Does the hog deer have a chance of survival in Dhikala? Maybe if the annual burning of the grasslands stops for a season or two to allow the hog deer to breed and bounce back. Ranjitsinh cites the example of the barasingha, or swamp deer, whose population was revived in the Kanha National Park of Madhya Pradesh after the burning of grasslands was put to an end.
“The forest department can’t see the wood for the trees. Even if you have blinkers on when it comes to the tiger, at least spare some thought for its prey species,” says Ranjitsinh.