Last year on my travels in Kashmir I considered going down to Dachigam to see the Kashmiri stag with its majestic antlers when my naturalist friend warned me it may be a futile trip as their numbers had dwindled to a mere 150 and sightings were rare. Hanguls as the Kashmiri stags are called locally, have been on the endangered list for three decades. Between the insurgency, poaching (they fetch 3-5 lacs in the international market), human encroachment and wildfires, this beautiful red deer, the only Asiatic survivor has been brought to the edge of extinction.
Two years back, Hanguls were put under the satellite telemetry to study their behaviour, something that the legendary wildlife guard Qasim Wani’s did for decades with his eyes and ears only. Those days their numbers were in thousands and the first warning signs were indicated by him in the 80s when the numbers were noticed to be falling.
The name Hangul comes from the horse chestnut- Han - that the deer feeds on. There is much colour variation in its coat, which ranges from a light shade of brown in summer, to a dark and rich colour during the rutting season and in winter. The white rump patch, which does not extend beyond the tail, is most conspicuous. The fawns have distinct spots during the first few weeks of their lives after which these fade away rapidly.
In March and April the stags shed their antlers and begin moving to the upper reaches and will remain in the alpine meadows and pine forests of Upper Dachigam between 2500 to 3500 mts. through the summer months, only to start descending to the lower valley when the new set of antlers have hardened by September.
Large adult stags are known for their impressive rack of antlers and the species was protected as Royal game by the former Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. Antlers of upto 50 inches in length have been recorded and 12 to 13 sets are usually seen. In the late 70s I had seen a small herd during my trek in the Kishtwar valley. The morning sun striking the rim of the antlers is my best memory of these gentle deer that I fear I may never see again.