Handsome but shy and elusive, the Kashmir stag or hangul, lives in the Jammu and Kashmir Valley. Those who are lucky enough to see the athletic, copper-coloured male of the species will not forget its spectacular, multi-pronged antlers.
Antlers come in handy during rutting season, when stags defend territories for breeding and stave off competition to their harem. Antlers are cast off in mid-March and April, when the stags move uphill to congregate above the snowline for the summer. By September, the antlers have grown back to full size and the stags begin to roar and challenge each other. They descend the slopes to join the females, and the forests of Dachigam reverberate with their roaring calls until late November.
Sadly, the attractiveness of the state animal hasn’t protected it from a grim fate. The hangul is endangered, and the only surviving sub-species of the red deer in Asia. It is more commonly found in Europe and North America. Today, less than 200 of them survive, and their only viable population is in Kashmir’s Dachigam National Park.
About 1,500-2,000 lived around the state until 1947, but since then, “their numbers are dwindling due to loss of habitat,” says Aaliya Mir, education officer at the non-governmental organisation, Wildlife SOS. “The hangul needs grasslands to survive, most of which have been taken over by local shepherds to graze livestock. Diseases transmitted by sheep and cows, and inbreeding are other serious threats to the stag.” Mir has been working towards hangul conservation in Kashmir since 2007.
Where to See: Visit the lower sector of Dachigam National Park near Srinagar, in Jammu and Kashmir, between December and March to observe this graceful animal. The park gate in lower Dachigam is 22km/30min by road from Srinagar, which has the nearest airport and railway station. Travellers can drive to the park entrance, but will have to continue exploration on foot.
Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “Dire Straits”.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.