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INDIA: Animals Nearing Extinction Need Urgent Attention – Experts

Athar Parvaiz

SRINAGAR, Jun 22 2010 (IPS) - With threats looming large on the survival of several wildlife species in the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir in northern India, experts warn that these species could go extinct in the coming years unless immediate steps are taken to prevent their extinction.

The hangul, found at the Dachigam wildlife sanctuary in Jammu and Kashmir region in northern India, is in danger of extinction. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

The hangul, found at the Dachigam wildlife sanctuary in Jammu and Kashmir region in northern India, is in danger of extinction. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

Such species include the ‘hangul’ – the only Asiatic survivor or sub-species of the European red deer in the Himalayas, says B. M. Arora, head of the Association of Indian Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians.

In the 1980s, the estimated population of the hangul was more than 400 in the 141-square-kilometre Dachigam National Park, a wildlife sanctuary in Srinagar district in the region, says wildlife researcher Dr Khursheed Ahmad. Today the endangered animal’s population is down to an estimated 150 to 170, he says.

Ahmad says there is a need expand the range and habitat of the hangul to the sub-alpine and alpine meadows in upper Dachigam to ensure its survival. This requires freeing the area of livestock and “anthropogenic pressures by controlling poaching and disturbances,” he adds.

Ahmad reveals he and his colleagues in the campaign for conservation of biodiversity have forwarded several recommendations to the Jammu and Kashmir government for the preservation of endangered species in the region.

“We also sought funding for importing the latest technology from the countries where technological interventions have achieved the best results in terms of biodiversity conservation,” he tells IPS. He refuses, however, to divulge the details of their proposals pending response from the government.

As early as 1996, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red Data Book – which contains lists of species at risk of extinction – has declared the hangul, or Kashmir red deer, as one of three species that were critically endangered in Jammu and Kashmir.

The others are the markhor – the world’s largest species of wild goat found in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and the disputed Kashmir territory – and the Tibetan antelope or ‘chiru’, found mostly in the mountainous regions of Mongolia and the Himalayas, where Jammu and Kashmir is mostly situated.

Nine other species are also facing extinction in the Himalayas. These are the musk deer, snow leopard, brown bear, ibex, common leopard, Himalayan tahr, serow, Tibetan gazzelle, and golden eagle, says Rashid Naqash, wildlife warden for central Kashmir.

Despite the promulgation of the anti-poaching law, rampant poaching is the chief cause of the decline in hangul population, says Arora.

The Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972, which applies to the whole of India except for Jammu and Kashmir, and the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife (Protection) Act place the hangul, the chiru, and other wild animal species in Schedule I, which accords them absolute protection and prescribes the stiffest penalties for the corresponding offenses.

But despite the implementation of strict laws, animals like the markhor are still the objects of intensive hunting, which has caused a steady decline in their population. It is also believed that the conflict in Kashmir is affecting wildlife.

“Poaching, overgrazing and constant conflicts at the border areas are the major threats to markhor conservation in Jammu and Kashmir,” says Ahmad. “Therefore collaborative management of areas inhabited by the markhor needs to be undertaken with the Indian army in border areas.”

Kashmir is in the centre of a territorial conflict involving India and Pakistan. Prolonged, bloody border disputes and the presence of armed forces in the forest areas of Kashmir have posed serious threats to the natural habitat of wild animals that are native to this region.

Conservation of the hangul and other endangered species is not “impossible” if the needed measures are pursued immediately, says Ahmad.

To prevent the extinction of certain animal species, he says some countries have successfully adopted certain technologies, including artificial insemination to breed wild animals.

“We can also import this technology to increase the population of the hangul,” he says.

Experts say that the potential extinction of certain animal species is both an ecological and an economic threat, given the contribution of these species to the economy of Jammu and Kashmir.

For instance, the musk secreted by the musk deer – which is used to make perfume –and the ‘shahtoosh’ (Persian word meaning ‘king of wools’) shawls made from the wool of the Tibetan antelope are the backbone of the economy of Kashmir, says Ahmad.

Trade in these products has been banned globally since 1975 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. While the Indian government banned shahtoosh trade in 1991, the Jammu and Kashmir government allowed the trade until the year 2000 for the sake of artisans benefiting from this trade. Shahtoosh is highly valued in South Asia for its softness and warmth.

Ahmad says a special conservation breeding programme on the musk deer and Tibetan antelope needs to be urgently pursued by Kashmir’s Wildlife department using modern technology to revive the livelihood of Kashmiri artisans.

Hussain Abbass, a Kashmiri shahtoosh shawl maker, says he does not favor the ban on shahtoosh trade, which he says does not require killing the chiru. “Fur shed naturally by these animals gets stuck on bushes, and it is then collected and made into wool,” he reasons.

But the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) belies this claim. “Virtually no bushes are found in the steep, snowy and windswept areas where the chiru live for this to be possible,” says WPSI in its book ‘Shatoosh: the Illegal Trade’, which was published in 2006.

“Do not be fooled by myths and rumours spread by dealers to soften the brutality involved in the illegal trade of shahtoosh. Today every shawl seller knows that the Tibetan antelope or chiru is killed and skinned to obtain raw shahtoosh wool.”

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