Can’t the Brow Antlered deer be saved from extinction?

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Dr AK Chishti

The Brow Antlered Deer or Sangai as known locally is a very rare and beautiful subspecies found only in Manipur. Its antler and biological niche are really unique.

Unfortunately, however its beauty has become its own enemy. Hunters, whose passion for killing, dies hard, never spared this charming animal. Because of this, mainly and other factors like flood and draught, and deforestation partly, the Sangai is today the most unfortunate and destitute victim. Needless to emphasise, this priceless animal demands immediate attention and prompt action to rescue the few remaining, otherwise it is sure to become extinct. Only 14 Sangais are left now according to the latest survey report. Only 14 now! How is this? Can’t they be saved at all from extinction? My presentation of this paper is in fact concerned with the answers to these questions.

Since time immemorial Sangai has been known to the people of this land. The name “Sangai”, it seems to us, has been given after the peculiar posture it shows to the onlooker. ‘Sha’ means animal and ‘ngai’ means in waiting. The animal, that remains in waiting. Its antler is indeed note-worthy. There are stories based on this antler like, “Sangai kaibuba eigee paitukhao thadabrimm-O”. Children love this story very much. It has also been the proud possession of the elders and particularly the man of position. They use the antlers beautifully fitting into a wooden or clay model of the head of the animal.

To the zoologist however, the antler is unique because of its peculiar style of setting in the head. Such mode of setting is not seen in any other type of mammal so far. The antler is set in the head at right angle to the pedicles and the curve of the brow tines is continuous with that of the beams. Antlers on the opposite sides are asymmetrical with each other. Each beam is forked terminally. In the older stags forward bend makes a distinct “L” in the beams while in the young stags the curve is more continuous like “C”.

But to the hunters it is particularly for the flesh and heroic kill. None of them knows the importance and value of this animal. To them it is correct, Sangai is a game like other, deers, hares and wild animals and birds. Only 14 means to them oh! no more to be hunted further. To the encroachers why not, none should be spared, finish them, we are more important than Sangai, why should they occupy Keibul Lamjao. It should be converted into paddy field. Alas! poor Sangai how have you been pulling on and how long in such a vicious circle?
Today the home of this species is confined to only Keibul Lamjao an area of 10 ½ sq. miles and located at the south eastern corner of the Loktak Lake. Since when they settled here is not exactly known to us both from the adaptive characters they possess, it can be well said that it must be since long years back. The habitat of this kind is really rare and curiously enough Sangai has been the only deer to occupy such a habitat. Incidentally, the Keibul Lamjao is also the only floating Sanctuary in the world. They have perhaps chosen this area because of its tall and thick weeds without much creeper so that they can hide here permanently from the vision of predators like tiger. At the same time enough food and water are also available here. When the phumdi is flooded they have the Thangbrel-Yangbi, a long elevated area of land running from eastern to the western end of the Sanctuary in the middle part as their shelter. Keibul Lamjao thus became the safest home land of Sangai in due course.

But how long? Keibul Lamjao has become rather the paradise of the hunters. They have been taking the full advantage of this station of the animal. Penetrated deep into the heart of this area, they are caught by either shooting or trapping. Now it is no more the safest place for them; water almost all around how to run farther for life. During rainy season it is still more disadvantageous to them. When over-flooded they are brought still nearer to the villagers around. Only a few returned safely after the ordeal. This number (14) has been perhaps the smallest so far. Though of course there had been reports of the animal facing several threats to its existence,in 1881 (as reported by one Aban Wilson) the then King declared Sangai a protected animal. Then again in 1937 the State Durbar discussed the plight of this animal and took up action to protect it. But during the period from 1947 to ’55 Sangai faced the worst threat, it was declared extinct. Fortunately some survived to be noticed again. In March 1961 the World famous naturalist E.P.Gee made a spot study of this animal and reported the presence of 100 Sangais. So, today’s 14 in number is really shaky. Sangai species is thus facing the severest blow ever to its survival.

After the naturalist’s study and advice for protection to our Govt., perhaps the Zoological Society of Manipur was the first to study the fate of Sangai and initiate the discussion on its protection. The Society has been deliberating on this since its formation on 25.12.’73. Then came the Pre-Investigation Survey Team of India and made an aerial survey of this animal in the month of April ’75. Report of 14 is according to this count. Thanks to the Society and survey team the fact is now revealed. Immediate action to save the few left was only then felt so strongly that Center had granted an amount of Rs. 6.40 lacs to this effect.
Inspite of all these, practically satisfactory improvement of the fate is yet to be seen. Though no one has said that the species could not be saved at all from extinction, the recent death of three Sangais in the enclosure maintained by the Forest Office, Keibul Lamjao speaks a lot justifying the apprehension of the people in general and the academicians of Life Science in particular.

This is still the question, “can’t they be saved at all from total extinction”.
What is the wrong with the modus operandi of the save Sangai Scheme? As has been observed, following spots may be pointed out with a view to remove them and improve over the weaknesses.

1. For such big and vulnerable area of 10 ½ sq. miles, the present staff of one Forest Officer and some 20 staff members, is really too small for the job. Above all they are all ill equipped.
2. Protective measures taken up so far is far below the proposed scheme.
i. Only 5 choukees were so far constructed.
ii. Digging of trenches were left incomplete.
iii. Returning of the Thanbrel-Yangbi as mentioned above to the real owners is still to give effect with success.
iv. By far the most important step to protect, i.e. the total stop of killing by any method has not been successfully taken up
v. Another very essential step educating public around the Keibul Lamjao in particular and masses in general, is completely ignored.
Under these circumstances how is it possible to save this rare species of animal is every body’s question with apprehension. It will always remain as a hilarious task to achieve the goal.

Naturally, therefore, to save or not is pertinent to the question of how we approach to the problem. It is not really the dearth of fund that matters, rather it is the lack of knowledge of the biological value of the species and also the lack of love of animal and responsibility, sensibility of the authority. If not what? Nevertheless, this unfortunate species, the love of ours must be saved at any cost.

It can be saved why not, let us take up the following measures immediately.
1) To know the real picture of the species population, recounting should be done as early as possible.
2) Safe enclosure (separate and modern) should be constructed inside the Keibul Lamjao area to keep them intact in their natural environment and to be inspected regularly.
3) A permanent veterinary section under a very experienced Doctor preferably specialised in the particular field should be immediately established.
4) Thangbrel-Yangbi should be immediately returned to them.
5) Trees should be planted on it for their use as shed.
6) A project should be started to study the biology of the animal.
7) Poachers should be heavily punished.
8) Patrolling by trained guards with transmitters and guns in and around the vulnerable area should be done regularly, and started immediately instead of taking up the long term measures like fencing with barbed wire and digging of trenches.
9) High observatory towers overlooking the Keibul Lamjao should be constructed at different but proper sites so that encroachers are checked.
10) Public education particularly around the village should be given about the importance of this and other rare species and also to mobilise the Save Sangai Scheme.
11) Study of wild life particularly this species and salamander should be included in the syllabi of the school, college and university.
12) AIR, Imphal should be used as an agent of bringing awareness and consciousness among the people.

(This paper was presented in the Annual Seminar of the Zoological Society of Manipur held on 28th December 1975 and published in the first volume of the Journal of Zoological Society of Manipur)
(The writer is lecturer in Zoology, DM College of Science)

Source: The Sangai Express

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