Barasingha (swamp deer)
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Population in India
The barasingha, or swamp deer, is a handsome and majestic creature, which gets its Hindi name from its magnificent, 12-tined antlers (found in fully-grown males). But this is also the reason why it was widely hunted - to mount as a trophy. Once a native to many states in India, it has, only recently, been brought back from the brink of local extinction.
Some years ago, officials of the Kanha Tiger Reserve embarked on a project to resuscitate the dwindling population of the barasingha. The project has been so successful that now founder animals are being translocated to another site where the barasingha once flourished. The most recent attempt has been in the Satpura regions where - with the latest move in February 2021 - a small population of 58 deer has been reintroduced and is doing well.
How biology worked against the deer Unfortunately for the barasingha, both biology and ecology have constrained its existence considerably. The deer is a food ‘specialist’ and a graminivore, which means it depends entirely upon grasslands for survival. Unlike other herbivores, it does not eat leaves, twigs, shoots or fruits, only grass. It also has a strong affinity for water and shallow, swampy areas. The female delivers only one fawn at a time after a relatively long gestation period of around nine months. These factors are also responsible for the slow growth of its population. One of the world’s most endangered large mammals, the barasingha is confined exclusively to India and Nepal.
Three sub-species, with some morphological differences, have been recognised in India. The hard-ground barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii branderi), which is now found only in Kanha and (thanks to translocation) in the Satpura tiger reserve, has solid and well-knit hooves to facilitate walking on the hard-ground conditions of central India. Once this species of the swamp deer recorded far and wide distributions, occurring in many districts of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Bihar and Odisha. The absence of biotic pressure, with low human and cattle density, used to support wilderness areas of very large, unfragmented, multi-tiered woodlands and grassy expanses – conditions in which the barasingha could thrive. The Kanha eco-region, at that time, was sparsely dotted by small, aboriginal villages, which practiced only marginal agriculture. The barasingha roamed these grasslands and clearings in large numbers, and enjoyed safe access to most of its habitats for grazing, breeding and fawn rearing. In 1938, an estimation of this deer population in and around the present Kanha national park, suggested that there were around 3,000 of them.
A decline in the population
The deer population, however, did not remain secure for long anywhere in its distribution range. For instance, in undivided Madhya Pradesh, a large number of barasingha were killed by local tribes for trophies. Later, despite the attempted enforcement of several existent acts and laws related to forest and wildlife protection, illegal hunting and poaching continued, and kept increasing day by day. Wildlife habitats were subjected to illicit tree felling, encroachment, cattle grazing and forest fires. Shifting cultivation or the slash-and-burn practices of the local tribes were also rampant. Large chunks of forest were clear-felled and grasslands converted into agricultural lands to grow marginal crops. Such lands were retained only for three or four years, and then abandoned again for new ones.
In fact, the destruction was getting more and more mechanised and efficient, and the hard-ground barasingha bore the brunt of this onslaught. By 1951, barasingha habitats had already started to seriously succumb to agriculture and settlements. Poaching and biotic pressures, including timber felling, encroachment and cattle grazing battered the forest, with grave consequences. Large chunks of forest and vast meadows were replaced by marginal crops. The situation became so serious that the Madhya Pradesh government had to put a ban on barasingha hunting in 1954. The Supkhar area, which was earlier a part of the north Balaghat forest division before its inclusion into Kanha, also lost all the animals by the late 1950s. In 1964, baiting practices in some Kanha meadows attracted and confined several tigers to a small area. These tigers also killed barasingha to further decrease this population. While some good steps were taken, they were too late to be effective, and poaching continued unabated, recording a gradual decline in barasingha population from 3023 in 1938, to 577 in 1958, 98 in 1968, and only 66 in 1970. The critical number was restricted only to the central meadows of the Kanha national park. The deer was now on the brink of sub-species extinction.
Saving the swamp deer
The decline of this deer population brought it into sharp national and international focus. The situation was regarded so serious that the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, now World Conservation Union) dispatched a team of internationally-renowned experts and conservationists to study the barasingha problem at Kanha and submit a report. The study team visited Kanha in November 1969, and submitted a joint report to the Eleventh Technical Meeting of IUCN organised between November 25 and 28, 1969 in New Delhi.
It was now clear that all round efforts were needed to save and propagate this small population. The Kanha management swung into action and started taking up some important conservation measures. The officials have, over the years, gradually initiated, refined, monitored, and modified these practices through a great deal of learning and adapting under effective management/tiger conservation plans.
Protection of the surviving barasingha and their habitats from poaching, illicit grazing by cattle of the surrounding villages and wanton fires were accorded the topmost priority throughout the year. As Kanha gradually grew in status to a tiger reserve and annual funds also became more easily available, protection was gradually refined and strengthened through a number of strategies. As more land was required for the safe dispersal of barasingha, the Kanha management started making efforts for relocating villages and redeeming habitats situated on crucial sites. While it was not a popular initiative as far as public response was concerned, it later proved a game changer for barasingha conservation. The first village was relocated in 1969, to reclaim a large chunk of land. This was probably the first village relocation for wildlife conservation after Independence. The abandoned village site, with basic conservation inputs, was gradually integrated into the surrounding wilderness and started attracting barasingha. Village relocation proved so effective for conservation that the Kanha management continued to go ahead with this practice and redeem additional habitat, and so far 37 villages have been relocated. It was, however, ensured throughout that the relocated villagers receive adequate compensation and benefits from the government.
Being grazers, water and slush-loving animals, and totally dependent on grasslands, the barasingha demanded specific habitat requirements. The Kanha management ensured water availability throughout the year by creating new shallow water bodies to enable the animals’ entry into them. Select palatable aquatic plants were also introduced for gradual propagation. As slush and soft mud also play an important role in its ecology, such sites were created close to these water bodies. Wallows for males to roll over dust and dried mud were also ensured to enhance courtship activity in the winter.
Grassland areas were also expanded and improved through the eradication of brushwood trees that invade and congest grasslands to create forests. Large and small unpalatable weed species were eradicated to facilitate growth of more palatable grass species. As populations of other herbivores were also growing at Kanha, grasslands were undergoing degradation because of grazing pressure. The Kanha management also started setting aside several grassland exclosures for one or two years for relief from overgrazing. Later, these exclosures would be unfenced for wild herbivores. The barasingha also benefitted from this practice. Besides, degraded areas of prime grasslands were also restocked by thorough burning, cleaning, ploughing, and seeding and planting slips of select palatable grass species. These exclosures would be closed for one or two years and opened again after some relief and revival. Good patches of tall grass cover are very essential for the fawning of the barasingha and post-natal care by females. The females drop their fawns into such covers which protect newborns from scavengers and predators, ensuring a good recruitment to the population.
A specially-designed, predation-proof enclosure was also constructed for assured multiplication of this endangered deer and their future release into the wild. Initially, the area of this enclosure, encompassing typical barasingha habitat features like grassland, perennial water and tree groves for shade, was around 25 hectares. The enclosure proved so effective that some 15 years ago, it was expanded to around 50 hectares.
Continuous monitoring forms a very important aspect of the conservation of small populations. So all the barasingha populations throughout Kanha were monitored daily in a prescribed format. This included recording the name of the site, compartment number, possible age and sex classes of the deer, mortality etc. Such continuous monitoring of the population also contributed to effective management of this species.
All these excellent and timely interventions gradually paid dividends, albeit slowly. The population rose to 88 in 1971, 96 in 1972, 138 in 1974, and crossed the 200-mark in 1976. These populations began establishing themselves on several new grasslands in the national park, although the increasing trend continued slowly and took a worryingly-long 50 years to establish this population. As the years passed, the above strategy - now modified, refined and more practically comprehended - has restored the barasingha population to a safer status of around 1,000 animals today.