Deer de­part­ing

With win­ters ap­proach­ing, Ut­tarak­hand for­est of­fi­cials set out to pro­tect the state an­i­mal, but with­out suf­fi­cient funds or a proper plan


Ahead of win­ter, Ut­tarak­hand sets out to pro­tect its state an­i­mal, the white-bel­lied musk deer, with no def­i­nite plan or funds

IT'S HEC­TIC TIME for the for­est of­fi­cials of Kedar­nath Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary. Be­fore the snow­fall be­gins in the sec­ond week of Oc­to­ber, they need to fin­ish re­pair­ing for­est paths, im­prove the con­di­tion of watch tow­ers, in­stall cam­era traps, and also en­quire from restau­rant own­ers if any­one has packed dry food for a week. The task at hand is to pro­tect the state an­i­mal of Ut­tarak­hand—the white-bel­lied musk deer (Moschusleuco­gaster).

The soli­tary an­i­mal, which roams the high alpine re­gion of the Hi­malayas at an el­e­va­tion range of 2,500-5,000 me­tres, is ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble dur­ing the harsh sea­son. As near-freez­ing tem­per­a­tures wipe out food sources in the up­per reaches, they move to val­leys in lower al­ti­tudes. There they fall easy prey to poach­ers who set fire to block off their es­cape route or set wire snares to trap the an­i­mal, and then kill them to ex­tract the musk pod.

Car­ried by the male deer in its ab­domen, the musk emits a sweet per­sis­tent aroma and is highly val­ued for its cos­metic and al­leged phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal prop­er­ties. Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture and Nat­u­ral Re­sources ( iucn), one kilo­gram of musk can fetch US $45,000 in the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket. A musk pod yields about 25 grams of the brown waxy sub­stance.

This de­mands comes at a huge cost to the ecol­ogy. In­dis­crim­i­nate poach­ing meth­ods mean three to five musk deer, in­clud­ing fe­males and young ones, get killed for ev­ery male with a musk pod. This has pushed the an­i­mal to the brink of ex­tinc­tion.

Kedar­nath sanc­tu­ary was in­hab­ited by 600-1,000 musk deer two-three decades ago, show two PhD stud­ies—one by MJ B Green from Cam­bridge Univer­sity in 1985 and the other by S Sathyaku­mar from Saurash­tra Univer­sity in 1994. “It is now left with less than 100 musk deer,” says Neethu Lak­shmi M, di­vi­sional for­est of­fi­cer ( dfo) of the Kedar­nath Di­vi­sion. In fact, there were only 376 musk deer across the state in 2008; 258 of them were in pro­tected ar­eas. The wildlife cen­sus by the for­est depart­ment shows a mar­ginal in­crease in their num­bers over the last few years (see ‘Fall from grace’). But Sathyaku­mar, who now works with the Wildlife In­sti­tute of In­dia ( wii), says these fig­ures are not re­li­able as they are based on vis­ual en­counter. Last year, wii along with the for­est depart­ment ini­ti­ated a wildlife pop­u­la­tion es­ti­ma­tion ex­er­cise based on sci­en­tific meth­ods, which would yield some re­li­able re­sults, he adds.

As of now, the an­i­mal is listed as an en­dan­gered species in the Red List Data of iucn and has been placed in the Sched­ule I un­der the En­dan­gered and Rare Species of the Wildlife Pro­tec­tion Act, 1972.

Who failed the state an­i­mal

Forests of­fi­cials say check­ing poach­ing is dif­fi­cult be­cause of in­suf­fi­cient funds, lack of for­est guards and dif­fi­cult ter­rain.

Con­sider Kedar­nath sanc­tu­ary. It was set up in 1972 for musk deer con­ser­va­tion. “But we stopped re­ceiv­ing funds from the Cen­tre in 2004,” says Akash K Verma, for­mer dfo of the di­vi­sion. “For 10 years we man­aged with what­ever lit­tle was pro­vided by the state. In 2012-13, funds again started trick­ling in, but the amount was less.”

DV S Khati, chief wildlife war­den of the state, says, the pro­tected ar­eas where musk deer can be found re­ceive be­tween

` 2 and 5 crore, de­pend­ing on their ex­panse. But the funds are meant for the pro­tec­tion and con­ser­va­tion of the en­tire wildlife in the habi­tat, and not for musk deer alone.

Con­ser­va­tion works get fur­ther de­layed as sanc­tu­ar­ies re­ceive money to­wards the end of the fi­nan­cial year. Timely fund­ing is im­por­tant be­cause Kedar­nath sanc­tu­ary re­mains cov­ered in snow for most parts of the year, says Neethu Lak­shmi. “We get only four months—from June to Septem­ber—for in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment and to pro­cure tents, warm clothes and equip­ment like gps track­ers for for­est guards who would pa­trol the area dur­ing the win­ters,” she adds. Verma, now deputy di­rec­tor of Govind Pashu Vi­har Na­tional Park, says his di­vi­sion did not re­ceive funds till Septem­ber.

The short­age of pa­trolling staff wors­ens the sit­u­a­tion. None of the pro­tected ar­eas has ad­e­quate staff to pre­vent poach­ing. Only six for­est guards pa­trol the Gan­gotri Na­tional Park, which spans 2,390 sq km. To make up for the short­fall, the na­tional park has hired 20 peo­ple from nearby vil­lages on daily wage ba­sis who oc­ca­sion­ally pa­trol the area. In Kedar­nath sanc­tu­ary, one-third of the posts lie va­cant. “Most of the for­est guards are near­ing the age of re­tire­ment, but no new re­cruit­ment is be­ing done,” says Neethu Lak­shmi, ad­mit­ting that lack of in­cen­tives for pa­trolling the dif­fi­cult ter­rain dis­cour­ages peo­ple from join­ing the posts.

The im­pact is vis­i­ble on the ground. Last year res­i­dents of Mun­si­yari in Pithor­a­garh district saw plumes of black smoke in the foothills of Pan­chachuli at least six times and tipped off the for­est of­fi­cials. “Some uniden­ti­fied men had set fire in the for­est to trap the musk deer,” says Ka­su­tav Mishra, sub-di­vi­sional mag­is­trate of the re­gion. But they had fled by the time the po­lice and for­est of­fi­cials reached the spot, fol­low­ing an ar­du­ous jour­ney of two days. Small won­der then there had been six seizures of musk pods and teeth from Dehradun, Haldwani and Pithor­a­garh be­tween 2010 and 2016.

A lack of proper con­ser­va­tion pol­icy has also failed the state an­i­mal. In 1982, a cap­tive breed­ing cen­tre was set up inside Kedar­nath sanc­tu­ary. From the ini­tial five, the num­ber in­creased to 28. But by 2006, all but one had suc­cumbed to ei­ther snake bite, pneu­mo­nia, stom­ach dis­or­der or heart at­tack. The last liv­ing musk deer, Pallavi, was shifted to Pad­maja Naidu Hi­malayan Zoo­log­i­cal Park in Dar­jeel­ing and the cap­tive breed­ing cen­tre was shut down. For­est of­fi­cials say the cen­tre would have been a suc­cess had it been set up at a higher al­ti­tude and af­ter proper plan­ning.

As of now, nei­ther the for­est depart­ment nor wii has any con­ser­va­tion plan for musk deer, ad­mits V B Mathur, di­rec­tor of wii.

Orus Ilyas, pro­fes­sor of wildlife sci­ences in Ali­garh Mus­lim Univer­sity, says in­volv­ing com­mu­ni­ties in musk deer con­ser­va­tion may help curb poach­ing. “I have ob­served that lo­cal peo­ple kill it for the musk, meat and tooth. The govern­ment should pro­vide them with proper em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties to dis­suade them from poach­ing.”

Shekhar Ku­mar Neeraj, head of wildlife trade mon­i­tor­ing net­work traf­fic In­dia, begs to dif­fer. Musk pod is highly valu­able. So, the com­mu­ni­ties would con­tinue to poach de­spite proper liveli­hood op­por­tu­ni­ties. He sug­gests strength­en­ing pa­trolling by em­ploy­ing ad­e­quate num­ber of trained per­son­nel and mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion and sur­veil­lance sys­tems. Be­sides, he says, there is a need for co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the for­est of­fi­cials, Indo-Ti­betan Bor­der Po­lice, Sashas­tra Seema Bal and the state po­lice.

White-bel­lied musk deer are highly vul­ner­a­ble be­cause of the musk pod they carry in their ab­domen

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