The population of Kashmir stag or 'hangul', a highly endangered species found only in the Valley's Dachigam National Park, has increased substantially, a wildlife department official has said.
"Although the census figures for 2013 are awaited, the signs are good that there has been a substantial increase in the number of animals in Dachigam National Park, particularly Hangul," wildlife warden Nazir Ahmad Malik told PTI. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the estimated number of hangul was around 5,000, with its habitat spread over the Himalayan mountains covering Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.
However, due to several reasons including poaching, habitat destruction and overgrazing by domestic livestock, the number dwindled to 150 in 1970.
The Jammu and Kashmir government, in collaboration with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), prepared 'Project Hangul' for the protection and conservation of these animals, which resulted in the population increasing to 340 by 1980.
However, the onset of militancy dealt a blow to conservation efforts, and the numbers again fell to just 160 in 2008.
Due to renewed efforts post-2008, the number of hangul in Dachigam rose to 219 in 2011, and is expected to have risen further in 2013.
Wildlife officials get a chance to conduct a census of over 200 species of animals in the Dachigam National Park during winter months, as snowfall forces the animals to climb down toward the plains in search of food and water.
"Snowfall blocks the natural food available to the animals, and they come down to the plains. We have taken measures to ensure that while they get adequate food within the park, they should not venture out of the park into human habitat, which could lead to man-animal conflict," Malik said.
He added that food was scattered at many places within the limits of the national park during winter months for these animals. "It gives us a chance to conduct the census of these animals," he added.
The optimism of the wildlife officials is based mainly on the large number of animals seen in groups after heavy snowfall lashed Kashmir earlier this week.
"Earlier, we used to spot a group of 10 to 12 hangul when they would climb down during winters. However, the groups have been as large as 40 animals this winter," Malik said.
As the official was dishing out statistics about the hangul, a group of nearly 30 animals descended toward a heap of food some distance away.
Malik is hopeful that the number of hangul will increase in the future as well, if the measures taken over the past few years are continued.
"Ample availability of food during winter months and avoiding conflict with humans are two key factors that will help in constant rise of the hangul population," he added.
The state government has also drawn up plans for captive breeding of hangul to boost their numbers. However, not much headway has been made in this project so far.