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Saving The Barasingha A Conservation Saga

Saving The Barasingha A Conservation Saga

Cradled in the sylvan Mekal hills in the eastern sector of the central Indian highland, Kanha National Park sprawls over an area of 940 square km. in the Mandla and Balahgat districts of Madhya Pradesh. It is not only among the largest of India's national parks, but is considered to be one of the best wildlife treasure troves of Asia.

Cervus duvauceli branderi
Photo: H.S. Panwar.

Expansive, grassy plateaus, densely tree-clad slopes, rolling meadows, in valleys interspersed with groves of stately sal (Shorea robusta) and meandering streams, mark the typical Kanha landscape. Since the forties, small portions of this picturesque park have constituted the last stronghold of the hardground barasingha and though the forest has enjoyed much better protection than most other forested tracts, the barasingha, over 3000 in 1938, dwindled to near extinction levels right up to 1970, when well-directed efforts were fortunately able to reverse the downward spiral. In 1970, however, extinction seemed imminent. Scientists and conservationists all over the world, looked on in dismay as almost no effort seemed able to arrest the dwindling of the herds. Fortunately, a detailed analysis of the problem finally provided us with a solution. But could we implement our plans in time? When the numbers of any species are reduced to figures as frighteningly low as 66, there remains no margin for error, no scope for experimentation. And most of all, no time. In 1970 we either succeeded in our attempts, or lived with the depressing fact that in the middle of Asia’s finest wildlife reserve, we would witness the extinction of Cervus duvauceli branderi, one of India’s handsomest deer.

Captain Forsyth, who visited Central India in the later part of the nineteenth century, vividly described the abundance of barasingha, which were then distributed far and wide, from Hoshangabad in the west, through Madhya Pradesh, parts of Maharashtra, Bihar and Orissa in the east. But it was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that Dunbar Brander, a forest officer in the then Central Provinces, first reported the dwindling of the barasingha population due to the destruction of its habitat. Early measures to save the barasingha population were limited to the declaration of the Banjar Valley area as a sanctuary in 1933. Subsequently, licensed hunting of the barasingha was banned in 1954 but this action was highly ineffective against poachers who were more numerous than the licensed hunters.

In September 1963, George B. Schaller, a scientist acknowledged to be one of the world's foremost students Of animal behaviour, came to India.  He spent 16 months in Kanha studying the ecology and inter-relation of the ungulates and the effect of tiger predation on them. In 1967, he published a book titled, “The Deer and the Tiger”, which served to focus world attention on the plight of the Branderi barasingha which is listed in the IUCN’s Red Data Book of endangered species.

In March, 1971, Claude Martin, from the University Of Zurich, took up an intensive study on the status and ecology of the barasingha in Kanha, under a fellowship from the WWF, and he published a Paper which is still considered to be an excellent and exhaustive treatise on the subject.

The reports of the above mentioned individuals coupled with my own field observations, undoubtedly show that the main reason for the rapid decline of the barasingha was the drastic and progressive reduction in their grassland habitat. Previously, when their range covered a much larger area they were constantly poached upon, as it was very difficult to protect them -- especially from the tribals who could pick them off almost at will. These grassy glades also came under severe grazing pressure from the cattle belonging to nearby villages and the wild herds of chital (Axis axis). In fact, the barasingha’s inability to adapt to different habitat, particularly its preference for specific grasses, must be considered as a major reason for its failure to thrive. The presence of cattle also impeded the growth of tall, dense grass in which the female barasingha normally drop their fawns. This lack of cover rendered the young ones susceptible to predator attacks and added to the multitude of factors that conspired to wipe out the species.

Schaller’s study attributed the decline of the barasingha to low fawn production, probably caused by the disease brucellosis (which induces the abortion of premature foetuses), coupled with heavy predation by man and the tiger. In my opinion however, while marginal losses due to poaching in the early years cannot be ruled out, the decline of the barasingha over a span of thirty years, cannot be easily explained against the steady increase of chital in the same area during the same period; for poaching should effect both species equally (1938 population figures: chital 2800, barasingha 3000). As for the disease brucellosis, even this supposed cause must affect all ungulate species to some degree. Field observations conducted during Schaller’s study established however, that fawning rates among chital, sambhar and blackbuck were quite satisfactory. This again contradicts Schaller’s hypothesis and in fact, the increased rate of baiting during his stay in the Kanha meadows, produced an extra concentration of carnivores in the only available barasingha habitat and thus contributed to the accelerated predation of barasingha, Schaller's baiting was, of course, carried out only to study the tiger and the final result it would have on the future of the barasingha, had neither crossed his mind nor the minds of the park officials at the time.

Proper water and habitat management has restored the health of grasslands, crucial to the survival of the barasingha who require the grass for fodder as well as for cover in which to drop their fawns.
Photo: H.S. Panwar.

Baiting for tigers, has been practised in Kanha since 1961 and perhaps even earlier to enhance the tourists’ chances of seeing the tiger. The frequency of baiting however, was neither high nor regular – till Schaller took up his studies in Kanha, when two sites within one km. of each other were chosen in the meadow region. These sites were shifted one km. away into the woodland region in 1969, when we realised the adverse effect baiting was having on the barasingha – 16 of which were killed in 1964. Happily, this shift arrested the predation rate and between April 1971 and March 1973, only three kills were reported.

After a painstaking study of all relevant causes, we came to the conclusion that habitat improvement and dispersal of animals from their highly localised base was the strategy that we should employ to ensure a revival of the species. Towards this end, it was also felt that the construction of small dams and tanks would improve the moisture content in the grasslands, thereby promoting the growth of those particular grasses favoured by the barasingha.

As an outcome of a meeting of the IUCN, in Delhi in 1969, the severe threat to the survival of the Branderi barasingha was brought to the fore. At the same time we also received, through the WWF, a donation from Mr. Frederic Stoever of the USA, which partially funded the erection of a stockade within which we planned to study and breed the barasingha. This tiger and leopard-proof enclosure was completed in 1970 with funds from the Government of India. The initial drive to impound these animals in 1970 was more enthusiastic than organised, and in their newfound fervour the staff merely managed to drive in a few hundred chital and only two barasingha actually strayed into the enclosure voluntarily. One of these, a pregnant hind, fawned in September the same year and our captive breeding program was now well on its way. Immediately, all movement within the enclosure by observers was curtailed and machans were erected outside the fencing. The enclosure provided us with much needed insight into the behaviour of the animals and furnished us with evidence that if they were left in peace with sufficient protection they would regain their numbers. We managed to return some of their previous range to the animals by shifting many villages and all cattle camps out of the core area of the park. One of these villages, called Sonf, eight km. north of Kanha, was occupied by large numbers of barasingha during their breeding season in 1972. They were probably attracted by the rejuvenated grasses which grew to quite a height here since no cattle were allowed in the area. We now observed for the first time, that a small herd of five animals stayed on at Sonf and did not return to the central maidans, even during the rutting season, in the winter of 1972-73. Our plans for dispersal of the animals were working, and the trend improved each year.

Towards the goal of better water management, two dams in Kanha and one in Sonf were constructed in the early 1970’s and more were added in later years. This improved the water supply throughout the year and consequently augmented the green grass fodder along the stream beds and the waterline of the reservoir. Additionally, this a critical step in the right direction, helped the dispersal of ungulates over a wider area in the dry months and further reduced the habitat pressure on the Kanha meadows.

The practice of winter burning of grasses has been followed for years in India and had in fact been reported in the central Kanha meadows by Brander in the early 1900’s. The objective of this early burning was to promote the production of green shoots and also to reduce the incidence of fire hazards during high summer. Soon after the burning, the moisture content of the soil would induce rhizomes to sprout green shoots which would attract ungulates in large numbers. This placed very heavy grazing pressure on the area right until the next monsoon resulting in sapped rhizome vigour and the more palatable perennial grasses progressively disappeared where the grazing pressure was heaviest. The seeds of many annuals were also burnt. In 1971-72, we decided not to undertake wholesale burning. Instead, alternate strips, 20 metres wide, were left unburnt. A qualitative examination, the following year, revealed substantially higher fodder supply in the unburnt areas and we were provided with one more concrete course of action. Since 1972-73, the practice of annual burning has been given up and instead only fire-breaks are cleared. Our fire-fighting strategy today involves a network of well-kept fire lines patrolled by personnel manning strategically placed watchtowers, with wireless equipment for effective communication.  This has reversed the ecological regression of plant communities which had previously jeopardised the availability of fodder for the animals.

An evaluation of the present overall situation to assess the efficacy of our management plan and the formulation of our future course of action provided us with the following conclusions. There has been considerable improvement in the range conditions as a result of the elimination of villages from the core area of the park. Thanks to the reduced grazing pressure and effective firefighting measures, the height of grass cover has gone up substantially and so has the quality of fodder. Further, the evacuation of these villages reduced poaching incidents. We have also been able to check the deterioration of the species composition of grass flora, though we find no distinct improvement in the regressive parts of the Kanha meadows (which were adversely affected by the annual burning) even after five years of improved fire control methods. On the other hand, there are indications of “encroachment” by hardy pioneering tree species into these grasslands, as suggested by the appearance of seedlings and saplings of Palas, Lendia and Ain. This is only to be expected when one considers the ecological status of the large, grassy blanks in the valleys dominated by sal forests in the tract. However, the survival of grassy blanks is necessary to maintain fodder productivity, not only for the barasingha but also for the entire herbivore complex. Burning once in three years therefore, may be advisable, but this too needs to be verified by constant field trials the network of the ecosystem is extremely fragile and requires constant monitoring.

The dappled forest reveals a tiger with a baited kill. To reduce the concentration of carnivores from the meadow area, where the barasingha are centred, baiting sites were moved away. The practice of baiting has met with considerable opposition from various quarters all over India and may be stopped completely in time to come.
Photo: Kailash Sankhala.

As concluded by Claude Martin in his report in 1975, the reproductive success of the barasingha was highly satisfactory in 1971-73, the overall increase being about 20 per cent and the fawn rate being higher than 30 per hundred hinds. Censuses were conducted in late June or early July, i.e. nearly nine months after the fawning period, and the high fawn rate indicated the strategy of providing abundant, safe fawning areas in the tall grasslands that came up at evacuated village sites. We had the satisfaction of knowing that our corrective measures had been effective and that it was indeed possible for man to reverse a degeneration that had been caused by his earlier actions. What was good for one species, proved good for all the major herbivores in the park, as is evident from the census figures that emerged over the years.

Today’s barasingha population is estimated to be a healthy 450 and is growing steadily. To a great extent, our success was possible thanks to the enlightened attitude of individuals in the State and Central Governments who not only made sufficient funds available to us, but also allowed us the freedom to act in the interests of Nature. The launching of Project Tiger was providential, as the concept of total environmental protection described by the project's philosophy, was virtually tailor-made for the saving of the barasingha. Though the species has been brought back from the brink of extinction, there is no scope for relaxing the vigil as it takes a moment's faltering to lose a lifetime's gain. Our next course of action is to examine carefully the possible areas where the deer can be translocated so that our eggs do not remain in-one basket.

The re-location attempts will be fraught with difficulty and each step will have to be carefully measured. The animals' habitat requirements will particularly need to be catered to prior to releasing the animals in new forests. A buffer of alternative prey species such as chital, must be available so that carnivores do not concentrate on the tenuous barasingha population. Above all, the personnel responsible for the execution of such an important effort must be sensitive to the nuances of Nature. Having once realised how close this large deer came to extinction it would be a monumental folly to allow a recurrence to take place. In Kanha particularly, the existence of the barasingha must be considered a symbol of the health of the Park.

by H.S. Panwar, First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. II. No. 2, April/June 1982.

 
 
 

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