Up close with the endangered brow-antlered deer floating on Manipur's Loktak Lake
The dugout canoe glided through a narrow water channel, surrounded by tall reeds. We were a small group of birders, perched precariously on the canoe as the boatman negotiated the bends and the reeds. Bird calls filled the air, though we couldn’t see any through the thick sea of grass. It wasn’t just birds that we were there to see, however. We had travelled to the far end of the North-East, a corner of Manipur’s iconic Loktak Lake, the Keibul Lamjao National Park (KLNP), to see a rare deer.
The Keibul Lamjao, the only floating national park in the world, is home to the last of the brow-antlered deer (Rucervus eldii eldii), one of the most endangered deer in the world. It’s not certain how many survive in the 40 sq. km KLNP. A head count in April last year put the number at 204. This year, according to the park’s field director, there haven’t been enough funds for a proper count. The Wildlife Institute of India believes the figure could be much less. In 2006, 2007 and 2008, it estimated the deer population at 90, 88 and 92, respectively.
The brow-antlered deer, or sangai, is the state animal. The word is ubiquitous—it can be found on shop signage, cafés, clubs, a regional daily newspaper, even at an annual tourism festival. “The sangai is an integral part of the sociocultural and economic life of the Manipuri people but ironically, the deer is not protected," says Dinabandhu Sahoo, director, Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD), department of biotechnology, Imphal.
The animal is, in fact, in danger of losing its home—most of the phumdis, or floating swamps, are unable to sustain its weight. A barrage has changed the hydrology of the lake area; the vegetation is changing and choking its food supply. Farming is eating into its space.
In the past year, two national- level consultative meetings and workshops have been organized to discuss conservation and sustainable management of this species, little known perhaps to people outside the region.
The first, in August, was organised by WWF-India in New Delhi. The second was held last month at the IBSD. These workshops brought into focus the fact that if the KLNP’s sangai population, the only one in the wild, becomes extinct, Manipur would earn the dubious distinction of being the only province in the world to lose its state emblem.
Preservation efforts are under way. At the Imphal workshop, experts proposed a sangai-centric conservation programme, comprising a foundation and a task force, with various stakeholders, including local communities that live around the sanctuary and the Loktak Development Authority. The detailed roadmap is yet to be formalized.
It was during the British Raj that indiscriminate hunting first led to the extermination of the sangai from most areas. In 1951, it was reported extinct, but British tea planter and naturalist Edward Pritchard Gee rediscovered it in 1953. In Gee’s words, “The deer is readily distinguished from all other species of deer by the peculiar form of the antlers. These are set in the head at right angles to the pedicle, and the curve of the brow tines is continuous with that of the beams. The antlers of opposite sides are unsymmetrical when compared with one another. The beams are unbranched for some distance, much curved, and finally forked." This report by Gee was published in the Journal Of The Bombay Natural History Society in December 1960.
1n 1975, an aerial survey led by M.K. Ranjitsinh, conservationist and architect of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, spotted 14 deer; this area was subsequently notified as a national park. Since then, the sangai population has shown a slight increasing trend—but it can only be sighted now in the KLNP, on the south-eastern fringe of the vast Loktak Lake.
The reed bed where we moored was a phumdi. Tall reeds, grasses and other plants grow on a mat of dead or decaying vegetation, and this mat floats on the lake, with approximately one-fifth of it above the surface. “Phum or phumdi is a mat of organic matter in which reeds and grasses grow, often up to 15ft or more. It is subdivided into phumdi arupa (sinking) and phumdi ataoba (floating)," writes Gee.
Our early morning visit paid off handsomely. We spotted more than a dozen sangai. It was worth scampering up the hill and lying flat on our bellies, camouflaged by shrubs. This was the rutting season, February-May, and we saw stags strutting with grass on their antlers to impress the doe, and fawns which latched on to their mothers for safety and comfort. Hog deer and wild pigs share this floating sanctuary. For hours, we were glued to our binoculars, soaking in the action as the deer played hide and seek in the tall grass. As the sun crept up, the deer melted away in the golden grassland, only to emerge again at the end of the day.
Within the park’s 40 sq. km, only 23 sq. km of phumdi can sustain the weight of the deer. Conservationists say the construction of the Ithai Barrage in 1986 changed the hydrology of the lake. A study by three scientists, Laishangbam Sanjit, Dinesh Bhatt and Romesh Kumar Sharma, suggests that the ecological changes have resulted in the disappearance of over 16 indigenous species of fish and 20 species of economically important aquatic plants.
According to a WWF-India report, the phumdi would settle on the ground during the lean season and be replenished by the soil. Now, however, it floats continuously and is thinning gradually.
Part of the overall threat comes from para grass, introduced on a large scale in 1972-73 in a bid to support dairy development. This grass, once one of the many constituents of phumdis, has become the dominant species. And while phumdis, a characteristic feature, now cover 70% of the lake’s total area, only those in the KLNP are thick enough to support the sangai. Here too, it is feared, changing vegetation patterns could hit the plants the sangai depends on for food and shelter.
Many say the barrage has hit the ecosystem in another fashion too—stopping the natural process of removal of old phumdis, which used to flow out of the lake into the Manipur river.
Threats come from without too. Forest officials say the park is surrounded by water and fish farms, and the absence of clear boundaries means that confrontations are commonplace between park staff and villagers on resource extraction, grazing and encroachment. Poaching and illegal fishing is said to be rampant.
Conservationists have a tough task on hand. Protection and population estimation is difficult since it involves navigating thick and unstable phumdis. WWF-India has suggested the camera-trap method to monitor deer. A study will be conducted by the WII and Manipur University, in collaboration with the state forest department. Plans are still being firmed up.
What’s clear is that the rare sangai is in desperate need of a safe home in the wild.