Srinagar: The endangered hangul, also known as Kashmir deer, is in the throes of extinction, largely because of human intrusions and domestic livestock grazing at its only habitat here.
Wildlife experts and activists claim they have been raising the alarm, calling for stringent measures to check human intrusions at Srinagar's famed Dachigam national park, the main concentration of the endangered elk species.
But the authorities have allowed grazing in the sprawling national park, spread over 141 sq. km, for what the activists say mere "political reasons", which has gravely endangered the existence of hangul.
Once found in the high altitudes of northern India and Pakistan, the animal now only lives in the dense riverine forests of Dachigam, some 22 km from here.
According to official figures, hangul population has been declining steeply over the years since the last century when there were some 5,000 deer in the Kashmir Valley.
The 1947 hangul census recorded its number at 2,000. The massive decline was mainly attributed to poaching then. The last census was done in 2011 when its population was found just over 200, according to the wildlife department figures.
"For vote bank politics, the successive governments have allowed grazing in the prohibited area to keep a particular constituency in good humour," a senior wildlife official told this reporter, requesting not to be named.
The official was referring to Kashmir's "bakarwal" community -- the nomadic tribe that is mainly into goat herding and shepherding.
Without naming anybody, he said a minister in the previous government of the National Conference-Congress combine had an unwritten rule that bakarwal should be allowed to graze their animal wherever they want.
Tassaduq Mueen, a green activist in Kashmir, explained how grazing during the summer months in the upper reaches of the park, where deer usually move around in search of food, has "wreaked havoc" to its natural habitat.
"The presence of such a huge number of livestock has shrunk its natural habitat, substantially," Mueen said, adding hangul is a shy animal and doesn't like being disturbed.
He said during the breeding season, which coincides with summer months, the intrusions in hangul's natural habitat causes disturbances.
"The interference around pregnant hinds leads to stress which ultimately causes natural abortion of its fawn. In many other cases, fawn becomes a prey of the dogs and other wild animals like jackals and foxes accompanying grazers . With so low survival rate, the hangul population will not grow in this situation," Mueen said.
Samina Amin, a researcher in the wildlife department, said nowhere in the world are national parks used for grazing. "Call it (Dachigam) anything but a national park," she said, pointing out that there is a full-fledged government-run sheep breeding centre inside the park that has also contributed to the dwindling hangul population.
The breeding centre causes bacterial infections that affect fetuses of hind resulting in a low birthrate of hangul, she said.
"There is also a battalion of security forces, offices of fisheries, protocol, and tourism departments inside the park. Even some influential people have constructed structures outside the park in complete violation of rules. Deer population can't grow in such a stressful environment," Amin warned.
Asked why the department had not so far been able to check grazing and stop human interference to save hangul, C. Behra, the regional wildlife warden, said they would not allow any grazing inside the national park from "now on".
"We have already passed stringent orders against the grazing inside Dachigam," he said. If that happens, it might be too late for the fragile species on the verge of vanishing.