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 (Moschus leucogaster).
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 M J 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.”
D V S Khati, chief wildlife warden of the state, says, the protected areas where musk deer can be found receive between Rs 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 opportun ities 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 opportunit ies. 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.
The story was first published in the September 16-30 edition of Down To Earth magazine.