Sunday, July 3, 2016

Swamp Deer Conservation at Kanha National Park

It was probably my second visit to Kanha National Park, the year was 1976. We were on elephant safari. We swayed left and right on the pachyderm as it waded precariously through dense canopy towards the grasslands. We could see the pen a mesh of wires covering a large area of Kanha Meadow. The pen is still there.    

Human intervention in most of the tiger reserves in India is minimized. This prevents undue intrusion into a fragile ecosystem. But some times the intervention is necessary.

Swamp Deer - Uday Patel
After losing large swaths of grassland ecosystems due intruding human settlements, the status of the hard ground swamp deer or the Barasingha was endangered. Critically endangered. With only sixty six animals left in the meadows of the park it was time something was done about.

Swamp Deer survived in massive herds in grasslands and swamps in Central India, Terai or Himalayan foothills and extreme East. One of the most charismatic red deer it belongs to family Cervidae genus cervus species duvacelli with three races in India. The population has shrunk all over due to spread of human settlements and takeover of swamps and grasslands for agriculture. Incidentally this animal survives only on grass and that too on few species. They have also been seen consuming water plants in small water bodies that are present in the core area of the park. Being sensitive to human presence these animals are found only in the core zone which is inviolate. 

Branderi Barasingha as it is also known is the only race (branderi) that is found in Kanha. Through centuries of evolution, the hoof of the animal has lost its splay making it adaptable for hard ground. This happened as the swamps in the region began shrink out due to geological changes. This fact was discovered by British conservationist Dunbar Brander during the days of the Raj.

During the seventies intense research was carried out under the aegis of George Schaller et.el. The startling discovery made was extensive predation of fawns by the tiger and other carnivores. The solution was simple...let the deer breed in absence of predators. The large pen was a perfect fit, it was cleaned of all predators big and small. The deer bred safely in isolation...and still does.

Male & Female- Dinesh Makhija
The number gradually increased and today more than five hundred swamp deer roam the wild grasslands of Kanha.  With the numbers on increase some deer have been trans-located to Satpura Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. Few heads have been sent to Van Vihar Safari Park at Bhopal for gene pool conservation. 

Images By John Matthai
 Dinesh Makhija
  Dinesh Makhija
Barasingha mate during the winters from November to February. The territorial fights during the breeding season settle out who is the dominant male. Adorned with tufts of grass the male then tries to impress the spouse to be. This is an interesting spectacle what with the accompaniment of the bugle call.        

Though in Hindi Barasingha means deer with twelve horns there can be more than twelve tines present. The female gives birth to one fawn after a gestation of six months. The fawns grow into maturity under the care of the mothers whilst males form a separate schools after mating is over.

The animals association with grasslands has led to extensive research. Thanks to active conservation and translocation of villages the deer have a stable habitat to breed and multiply. Almost all large meadows like Kanha, Saunf, Parsatola, Saunder, Bisenpura have associated water bodies thus forming and excellent habitat for this rare species in India.