(IANS) It is Kashmir's pride, but its numbers have been dwindling rapidly over the years and stands at just over 200. Besides fighting off poachers and other threats, the highly endangered Hangul deer has to also contend for space with a sheep breeding farm in the Dachigam National Park.
The 100 hectare-sheep breeding farm, comprising 800-odd sheep, is a bone of contention between the wildlife protection department and the sheep husbandry department.
The sheep breeding farm also has some 40 shepherds on it. It has been there since 1961.
The sheep husbandry department is against moving the farm. They point to Mulnar village situated on the national park's borders which comprises 120 households including 400 humans and 500 domesticated animals like cows, sheep and goat.
The state government has provided solar lighting, gobar gas plants, sanitary fitted toilets, electric supply and safe drinking water to the village.
And interestingly, the only passage to Mulnar village is through the national park!
'If the village can coexist with the wildlife why can't the flock of sheep?' asks Bashir Ahmad War, a retired senior veterinarian who was posted at the Dachigam sheep farm as manager from 1980 to 1984.
The last Dogra Maharaja of the state, Hari Singh imported the first flock of Merino sheep from Spain and oak trees from England to rear sheep and grow the oaks inside Dachigam, which was a sanctuary till 1990 when it was declared a national park.
The oak trees have since grown to gigantic heights and bears in the park climb the trees to pluck the tender branches and fruits.
Officials maintain that the sheep farm is breeding better varieties.
The state cabinet through its decision on April 18, 2005 decided to shift the farm to a suitable location.
But, later the farm was allowed to continue inside the park with a few riders, which included that no new constructions would be made, the flock would be restricted to less than 1,200 and for grazing the sheep would be taken to the Dagwan meadows and not the upper reaches of the park.
The decision was revisited recently, and the government decided to shift the sheep farm from the national park.
The wildlife protection officials say the decision to shift the farm is important to conserve the Hanguls, yet nobody is sure what actually ails the deer population whose numbers have been dwindling at alarming proportions.
'The number fell to an alarming low of 170 in 1971. In 1994 the number of Hanguls inside the park was just 150, but in last March the population rose to 218.
'Before the outbreak of separatist violence the number had risen to 515 which was the highest in recent times', said a senior official of the wildlife protection department.
Besides human interference, which has been shrinking the Hangul habitat, encroachments have eaten up the natural borders of the park. The rare deer were victims to extensive poaching during 1990s for their valued antlers and skin.
On the Mulnar village, the official said: 'The Mulnar land was allotted to people under the grow more food programme essentially for agricultural purposes and not for residential habitation.
'Over the years the vast agricultural fields bordering the park have metamorphosed into a village,' said the official.
While wildlife protection officials say the sheep farm needs to be shifted, the sheep husbandry officials argue that the farm does not interfere with the Hangul conservation. They maintain they are being targetted though the Hangul population has come due to other reasons.
'It is giving a dog a bad name and shooting him. The farm, the village and the Hangul can and must coexist as humankind has done through centuries.
'If the farm is interfering then the village is a bigger interference and so is the fish farm and the contingent of paramilitary forces posted on counter insurgency duties and VVIP duties inside the park', said War.
(Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
©Indo-Asian News Service