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With less protection, hangul may be on the verge of extinction

Hangul’s only refuge too is being dismembered

n the lush valley of Kashmir, nestled in a tiny corner, not too far from the bustling and troubled city of Srinagar, lives a deer; very beautiful, shaded a rustic red, adorned with a crown of twelve-tined antlers—and very rare, with only about 150 concentrated here at the Dachigam National Park.

One would imagine that a creature of such rarity commands stringent protection. It does, on paper. The hangul is listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, and as 'endangered' under the Word Conservation Union's Red List. It has been adopted under the Ministry of Environment and Forests' Species Recovery Programme. Under this scheme, the Centre has doled out about Rs 90 lakhs to the state to give the animal's protection an extra push.

Yet, the Cervus elaphus hanglu stands at extinction's door. There is little 'protection' on ground, poaching continues, and worse, the hangul's only refuge is steadily being dismembered. Within Dachigam's 141 sq km, there is a sheep breeding farm, a trout hatchery, a fancy rest house and a captive breeding centre. Plus, there are encroachments edging onto the park and bakarwals (shepherds) graze their sheep in the meadows. There are also reports of small eateries being set up in upper Dachigam, which is the feeding ground of the hangul in the summer. The hangul has nowhere to go.

This is not just the hangul's fate, but the fate of most species that are on the brink. Beyond the tiger—whose bleak fate is a known fact—there are other species that stare at uncertain, precarious futures: the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), the dugong, the olive ridley turtle, the vulture, the Bengal florican and many more.

Barely 300 GIBs remain in India. Yet, a chunk of their sanctuary in Maharashtra is on the verge of de-notification—the bustard has long vanished from there—and we are set to 'rationalise' another of its few last refuges, the Desert National Park. I was shocked to find that the site of Hyderabad's new airport had GIBs less than a decade ago.

The plight of the vulture has been well publicised with their population crashing by about 99%. Yet, there seems to be scant regard for their habitat; a ropeway is to be constructed in one of their last strongholds in Gujarat, and elsewhere in Madhya Pradesh, a recent Hollywood shoot at a vulture-nesting site disturbed the breeding of this rare bird.

There is little ‘protection’ on ground, poaching continues, and worse, the hangul’s only refuge is steadily being dismembered.

The beaches, where thousands of olive-ridleys nest, have shrunk drastically, partially due to repeated cyclones, but mainly because of the intense industrial activity and the number of ports along the shoreline. Dugongs, also called the 'mermaids of the sea', have been hunted to near extinction. The last 500 or so that remain face the threat of shipping canals and mega-projects in their last habitats - the Gulf of Mannar and the Gujarat coastline. Rivers, where the Gangetic dolphin and the critically endangered gharial swim, are no more than toxic, turbid drains, their flows stilled by hydel-projects.

What is difficult to digest, even more than the wanton destruction, is the apathy towards wildlife and the fact that wildlife concerns are rarely factored in, or worse, are usually overlooked - be it in development projects, urban planning or any other activity. Why are endangered creatures considered expendable? Why are we willing to sacrifice them for even the most frivolous of causes, like say, a film shoot, even as we protect them by law?

o creature can survive without undisturbed space to live, breed and raise its young in. Specialised conservation projects, though well meaning, will not serve their purpose unless the habitat is protected.

While there is little denying the fact that economic growth is important to our country, it is equally critical to understand that there can be no economic growth without ecological security. Huge tracts of forests have been destroyed and many rivers have been dammed since Independence in our quest for growth. Yet, over 300 million Indians continue to live in dire poverty. Where have the fruits of development gone? The 'conservation vs development' debate calls for a separate article. What needs to be understood is that there is no 'vs'; viewing forests as a hurdle to growth is fundamentally flawed. It's crucial to set aside a part of our country for wild habitat. The forests, wetlands, coasts, deserts and grasslands that we seek to destroy, perform vital ecological services on which rest our very survival and livelihood. Hundreds of rivers flow from forests, wetlands recharge groundwater and millions of fishermen depend on the sea for their sustenance. Tigers, dolphins and bustards are the symbols of these ecosystems, vital to life on earth. In conserving them, we ensure a future for ourselves.

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