Found within the breath-taking landscapes of Kashmir, a silent guardian of the valley stands on the brink of vanishing: the remarkable Kashmir red deer Cervus hanglu hanglu, also known as the hangul. Long considered a subspecies of the European red deer Cervus elaphus, this enigmatic deer is instead now recognized by the IUCN as a subspecies of the Tarim red deer Cervus hanglu, emerging from the heart of the Central Asian deer lineage.

At a time when species classifications are constantly evolving, the IUCN’s acknowledgment of the hangul as a subspecies of the Tarim red deer, distinct from the much more common European red deer, brings a new chapter in our understanding of its uniqueness. Yet this new status is not a triumph; it’s a grave alarm. The hangul, an emblem of India’s natural heritage, is teetering on the very edge of existence. It is categorized as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, a distinction that underscores the urgent need for collective action.

An adult male hangul (left) and a herd of hangul including collared individuals (right) in Dachigam National Park. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee (left) and Nazir Ahmad (right).

The population of this deer, endemic to the mountains of the Kashmir Valley, has been continuously declining since the 1900s, with fewer than 200 individuals now remaining in the wild. India’s revered Dachigam National Park is home to most of the dwindling population, with a few small herds living in the adjoining territories. The Park, located near the city of Sringar, is one of the oldest wildlife reserves on the Indian subcontinent. It has a rich history as a former hunting reserve, or ‘Rakh’, of the Maharajah of the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, and received recognition as a wildlife sanctuary in 1945. Dachigam was elevated to a national park in 1982 and plays a pivotal role in conserving the last remaining viable population of hangul deer, as well as boasting the highest density of Asiatic Black bears in India. But despite the Park’s protected status, the hangul population faces a barrage of challenges that threaten its existence. In our research we presented findings from 19 years of monitoring the species, assessing the likelihood of the current population declining to extinction and offering insights for conservation management.

Author Dr. Khursheed Ahmad and article co-author Parag Nigam setting up equipment in the field (left) and fitting a satellite collar on a hangul (right). Photos: Khursheed Ahmad.

Monitoring the hangul has been a fascinating journey marked by both challenges and successes. Studying a species that inhabits such remote and rugged terrains poses difficulties, and the hangul’s elusive nature and small population size further add to the complexities of observing the species. Traversing the rugged landscapes of Dachigam isn’t for the faint-hearted. The field conditions can be physically demanding, with treacherous terrains and unpredictable weather. Yet, it’s these very challenges that give our work a sense of purpose and adventure. Navigating through dense forests, climbing steep slopes, and enduring harsh weather conditions are all part of the process. Each step is testament to our commitment to conserving this unique species, and the challenges we have faced have led to meticulous and innovative monitoring approaches. A combination of satellite telemetry and camera traps strategically placed across the hangul’s range have contributed to a comprehensive understanding of their behaviour, movement patterns, and population dynamics. Collaborating with local communities has also added a vital dimension to our work; local insights, often passed down through generations, provide valuable knowledge about the species’ behaviour and habitat preferences. While challenges persist, the progress we’ve made in understanding this magnificent creature and its ecosystem reaffirms the significance of our work. It’s not just about monitoring a species; it’s about preserving a fragile balance between nature and its inhabitants.

A herd of hangul. Photo: Khursheed Ahmad.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are major threats to the hangul’s survival. Urbanization and expanding human settlements encroach on its ancestral home, fragmenting its habitat into shrinking islands of wilderness. Another significant pressure on the population is the impact of poaching, driven by the demand for both sustenance and trophies. The hangul’s refuge is marred by this relentless assault, and stringent protection measures are needed if the species is to be saved. Until recently, the problem was exacerbated by the presence of armed forces and insurgent activities within the Park, making the establishment of anti-poaching patrols extremely difficult. However, as the situation regarding insurgency has improved, patrolling efforts have become more effective and a vigilant surveillance regime is now in place in the densely forested areas where poaching is prevalent.

Hangul males with a female in the rutting season. Photo: Khursheed Ahmad.

Perhaps the most poignant threats are the less obvious ones: competition with livestock, and a skewed sex ratio. Overgrazing by livestock disrupts the delicate balance of the ecosystem, leaving the hangul with a limited food source and causing knock-on effects down the food chain. The presence of livestock during the summer months has also caused disruption to the hangul’s migration patterns, leading to a decline in genetic diversity and thus increased vulnerability to diseases like John’s disease, brucellosis and tuberculosis, as well as parasitic infestations. To halt this downward spiral, reducing or eliminating livestock grazing is a necessity, so that the Park and its adjoining wildlife corridors can recover.

A female-biased sex ratio is not unusual in deer, but this is particularly pronounced in the hangul, with only 15 stags for every 100 hinds observed, suggesting high mortality of adult males. During our fieldwork, we observed a low fawn-to-hind ratio, meaning many of the adult females did not appear to reproduce successfully. Fawn mortality is high, with only a small chance of surviving into adulthood. Many of the youngsters fall prey not only to wild carnivores such as leopards, black bears, foxes and jackals, but also to shepherds’ dogs that roam freely in the landscape.

A hangul male with females (left) and a herd of hanguls (right) in Dachigam National Park. Photos: Intesar Suhail (left) and Parag Nigam (right).

Decades of research tell a sobering tale: the survival of the hangul is hanging by a tenuous thread.  Yet there is a glimmer of hope; the tale of the hangul is not a reason for despair, but a call to action. Effective conservation interventions hold the key to recovery, and collaborative efforts could rewrite the narrative of this regal species. Our pursuit has garnered unwavering support from both national and international stakeholders. The establishment of a comprehensive conservation breeding and reintroduction programme, jointly initiated by the Department of Wildlife Protection, Jammu & Kashmir Government, the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences & Technology of Kashmir, and the Wildlife Institute of India, along with implementation of the hangul recovery plan by the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change, Government of India, represent pivotal milestones in these conservation efforts.

Governments, conservationists and communities must come together to safeguard the hangul and pave the way for a brighter future through habitat restoration, anti-poaching initiatives and sustainable land-use planning. In the beautiful landscapes of the Kashmir Himalayas, let the majestic hangul guide us towards a future where the harmonious coexistence of people and wildlife is not a dream, but a reality.

Author Dr. Khursheed Ahmad observing a herd of elk at Yellowstone National Park, USA. Khursheed has over 23 years of fieldwork experience.

The article Is the hangul Cervus hanglu hanglu in Kashmir drifting towards extinction? Evidence from 19 years of monitoring is available open access in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Dr. Khursheed Ahmad, is a highly accomplished senior scientist heading the Division of Wildlife Sciences at Sher-e-Kashmir Agricultural University Kashmir. He has extensive expertise in Himalayan ungulate and avifauna conservation, with both an MSc & PhD in Wildlife Sciences, has specialized training from The Macaulay Institute, Scotland, and is a visiting scientist at Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology, Institute, USA. Leading more than 25 funded research projects and collaborating with esteemed institutions worldwide, he pioneered the capture, satellite collaring and recognition of the hangul as a distinct species. His contributions encompass genetic studies on hanglu, Tibetan antelope, snow leopard habitat exploration, and uncovering mammalian and avian biodiversity in Jammu & Kashmir. Notably, Dr. Ahmad serves in various national and state-level capacities, including being a member of multiple IUCN SSC groups and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in India.