Is time running out for the 260-odd endangered sangai deer which have their only home Manipur?
The sangai or the Indian Eld’s deer (Rucervus eldii eldii) resides as an isolated single population in the world’s only floating national park in Manipur − the grassland-dominated Keibul Lamjao National Park (KLNP).
Unlike other national parks in India, KLNP is a 40 square km patch of floating biomass (locally called phumdi) and water body, in the southern rim of the saucer shaped Loktak Lake, a Ramsar wetlands of international importance and the largest freshwater lake in northeast India.
Conservation of the sangai, the state animal of Manipur, has been the subject of concern and controversy. Despite being embedded in the cultural consciousness of the Manipuris, the dancing deer is now literally losing ground.
Much of it has to do with the thinning of the phumdi habitat of KLNP, an observation that has been linked to dwindling water quality of Loktak Lake and changes in the water regime due to the National Hydro-Electric Project Corporation (NHPC)’s Ithai barrage on the Manipur river. On the other hand, the national park is bracing for a different set of issues: competition between sangai and associated species, the hog deer while the park inches towards its carrying capacity.
Despite the latest wildlife census describing the population as stable, a section of wildlife experts believe the sangai, battling habitat loss and human pressures, may be fighting its “last battle”.
A satellite population could be the turning point for the species, experts aver. “The single population is highly vulnerable due to homozygous nature with low genetic variability (inbreeding depression), disease susceptibility (immune system is compromised), fertility related issues (reduced fertility),” conservation geneticist Ajay Gaur said.
To aid conservation of the endemic Manipur subspecies, Gaur and colleagues associated with the Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), decoded the sangai’s mitochondrial DNA. The mitochondrial DNA sequence tells us that though the sangai had a common ancestor, it is genetically distinct from other subspecies owing to its geographic isolation, Gaur explained.
He agreed that relocating and maintaining a satellite population is a wise idea. “You should not put all eggs in a single basket. Any infection or disease outbreak may wipe off the whole population. Under the present competition with hog deer and park reaching its carrying capacity, it will be advisable to have an alternative place to keep these animals and relocate as and when required,” Gaur said.
Further, he said, the population present in zoos would be genetically uniform with no or very low variability or totally inbred and certainly at risk of endangerment.
The last wild population of 260 sangais are vulnerable to inbreeding, reduced fertility and diseases. Officials and researchers believe that relocating some sangais to an alternative location is crucial to save the species from extinction. Photo by M. Ningombi.
But proposals pitching relocation to an alternative site (harbouring floating biomass) have hit a roadblock over protests by local community members apprehending livelihood challenges.
One of the alternative sites identified by Wildlife Institute of India as suitable is Pumlen Pat and adjoining Thongam Mondum Reserve Forest, a 63 square of wetland and hillocks in Thoubal district of the state. Pumlen Pat is a fresh-water lake second largest in the state after Loktak Lake. The matter was discussed in the sixth meeting of the State Board for Wildlife in May 2017.
“Pumlen Pat was identified as the most suitable site for the establishment of this population due to similar habitat features with the Keibul Lamjao National Park. ,” said WII project scientist Chongpi Tuboi, who works on sangai conservation.
Discussions focused on developing Pumlen Pat as the second home of sangai, sustainable development of the area and that conservation breeding of sangai should be initiated using modern techniques at the Keibul Lamjao National Park, she said.
She said a section of local communities are under the assumption that if Pumlen Pat is converted to a conservation reserve for the sangai then they would be barred from entering the lake and this would affect their livelihood (mainly fish farming). This is not true, she maintained.
Tuboi remarked that the aim is not only to find a second home for the sangai but also for the sustainable development of the area through various means such as ecotourism, but there should be something for the tourists to see.
“We need to get the area declared as a conservation reserve. We can not carry out livelihood interventions for the local communities without reintroduction of sangai. Value addition needs to be done to Pumlen Pat in terms of sangai which will attract national and international tourists to see the sangai conservation success,” she said.
Creation of conservation reserve does not curtail the rights of the local communities, asserted Tuboi, adding that it allows them to use the area as before but with restriction so as to maintain the sustainability of the resources. The communities are open to sustainable development of the area but are extremely worried about their livelihood, she said. “So we are trying to explain to them the difference between a reserve and national park,” Tuboi noted.
That is why we are advocating reintroduction of sangai in the area, she stressed. This will make the area available for sustainable use and not be encroached or degraded.
“If you look at Pumlen Pat scientifically, then we see it is in a highly degraded condition. If there is no scientific intervention in Pumlen Pat are going to over exploit the resources and degraded it further in the near future. Hence, our plan is to conserve the Pumlen lake but in the name of sangai as we will use only a small portion of the lake, and not the entire lake, as people believe,” she said.
Acknowledging the concerns, chief conservator of forests (wildlife) Anurag Bajpai emphasised on preserving the interests and rights of the community before taking any steps. “We have to look into people’s interest because this area is not under the forest department. People are dependent on those areas. We would not like to go into conflict with people because it would endanger the animal again. We want to earn the confidence of the people first and provide alternative livelihood options. But we do understand relocation is essential,” Bajpai told this visiting Mongabay-India correspondent.
Hailing from the villages at the edge of the national park, youth volunteers Ratan Kumar and Ashok Kumar, who work as “nature guides” for tourists at the park threw their weight behind the importance of making local community members aware of the value of conservation of the sangai. Ratan Kumar, who is looking forward to hosting a member of Thailand’s royal family in November at the park, exuded confidence that if local community members are involved in ecotourism initiatives in Pumlen Pat then that would give them a reason to share their resources with the sangai.
For their part, both Ashok and Ratan, are passionate about doing their bit for the lake and the sangai. “If we spot anyone who may disturb the sangai, we immediately alert the forest department. Local community members and dogs are a common source of disturbance. Earlier members of the local community would hunt the sangai as they were not aware of its value but now they have started realising its importance,” Ratan Kumar said.
Dancing deer and phumdi dynamics
The Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change, under the financial support from the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) has been working for the conservation of sangai since 2015.
A recovery plan has been prepared under this programme, which has proposed the establishment of a second self-sustained wild population of sangai within Manipur, Tuboi said.
The push for relocation, explained Tuboi, stems from the isolated population’s vulnerability to being wiped out by natural disasters or disease epidemics.
“The efforts made by Manipur state government for the conservation of this species is greatly appreciated. Yet, in the event of catastrophes such as floods and disease outbreaks, the population is likely to be wiped out. Frequent floods in Manipur is a matter of concern, as it is likely to affect the sangai population drastically, as has happened earlier,” Tuboi said.
In addition, the quality of the phumdis has taken a beating from the polluted water draining into the lake and the disrupted flushing mechanism of the wetlands due to the Ithai barrage. “Out of the 40 square km of the park, only 22 square km is covered with contiguous mat of phumdis that can support the weight of the sangai (90 to 150 kg). The rest is mainly water body. There are medium, thick and very thick phumdi areas. In the rest of the area, the phumdi is not as thick due to dwindling water quality,” Tuboi said.
Ratan Kumar also drew attention to the thinning of the phumdi and the appeal of villagers to decommission the Ithai barrage. “We have appealed to our higher authorities to think about decommissioning the barrage. If the barrage is decommissioned then the phumdis will grow properly, as they would be able to absorb nutrients adequately,” Ratan Kumar said.
The water level in the lake is maintained at a regular level (769.12 metres above mean sea level) throughout the year to support the hydro-power project, after the construction of the barrage. This has created a condition which Tuboi and others describe as “permanent flooding.”
“This obstructs the phumdis cycle. Before the barrage and the constant water level, some sections of the phumdis biomass would come in contact with the lake bed during dry season and pick up nutrients and soil to maintain the desired thickness. They would then rise up as the monsoon rainfall pushed up the water level,” Kumar said.
Facing new challenges
Even as debates rage around livelihood and relocation, fresh challenges surface.
The latest wildlife census (2018), a copy of which is with Mongabay-India, revealed that while the population of sangai has stabilised at 260, the population of hog deer (Axis porcinus) at the park is recorded at 288, which is an increase from 276 in 2016.
“The population estimation indicates that the population of ungulates is reaching the carrying capacity of the existing habitat of the park. Competition between two associated species, sangai and hog deer in KLNP, is forthcoming very strongly as sangai population is stable while hog deer is increasing,” states a note on the population estimation of wildlife conducted by the Manipur forest department. It adds: “Alternate sites for hog deer relocation may be considered with a proper relocation plan.”
Experts believe the limitation of the phumdi spread has led to a space crunch triggering a competition between the sangai and the hog deer.
“In the 22 square km phumdi area, the sangai and its associated species, the hog deer thrive. Both are fast breeders but the hog deer’s population has grown very fast in the recent past and exceeded the number of sangai. There is a tough competition between the two species in the same area. We do not know what kind of population dynamics is going in those tall grasses,” Bajpai said.
Bajpai added the sangai also has to deal with wild boars. “There is a small population of wild boars. They also kill fawns. So this population dynamics needs more research,” Bajpai said.
Noting the competition between the two deer species, Manipur’s environment ministry has pushed for alternative dwelling habitat sites for both the animals with proper relocation plan.
The census report suggests the protected areas Yawa Lamjao and Laiphum Phumlak “have the potential to come up as a conservation area for hog deer and even for sangai. Conservation efforts are required for improving the habitat and strengthening the protection of wildlife in these areas.”
“We are thinking that if we are unable to go to alternative site for sangai then we may shift some hog deer to some other areas. Hog deer can survive on land also but sangai needs the phumdi,” Bajpai said.
The sangai was believed to have gone extinct until a remnant population was discovered in the early 1950s. The documentary “The Return of sangai (Sangai Hallakpa)”, sponsored by the Manipur forest department highlights how the animal made a comeback from the brink of extinction. As per IUCN, by 1975, the only remaining wild population had declined to about 14 animals in the swamps of Loktak Lake. On this basis, a floating marsh on the southern end of Loktak Lake was gazetted in 1977 as the Keibul Lamjao National Park.
In 2009, the park became a battleground for counter-insurgency operations. Community members residing around the national park recount operation Summer Storm in 2009 in which several militants were gunned down by the Indian Army and the area was rid of anti-social elements.
The situation has changed for the better since then and with enhanced accessed wildlife estimation has also become smoother, officials asserted. “Disturbance prevented movement of officers in those areas so the management practices could not be taken up right then. Once upon a time the hillocks in Keibul were inaccessible but post 2010 you see the estimated number has changed,” pointed out Bajpai.
In 2016, it was also included in the Centre-sponsored endangered species recovery programme. “Even a total number of animals at 260 individuals, as a single population and with a limited space/habitat, are susceptible to any biotic or abiotic catastrophe. What is the effective population size-the number of animals reproductively active? What is the stress level affecting all parameters of their existence? Lack/loss of habitat? All these things matter and are directly time dependent. With such a low number (relocation to a second home) may be an immediate requirement,” said conservation geneticist Gaur.
“If we fail in our endeavour, we will loose sangai forever and our next generation may not be able to see sangai in the wild, its enchanting dances and its grace. We will loose our culture and our values and eventually we will loose our pride. So support from all spheres of society and politicians, especially from the present government, is required to save the “sangai” and for the sustainable development of the Pumlen Pat. This may be the last battle for the sangai,” warned Tuboi.
(The article first appeared in Mongabay-India)