On their toes, literally

CONSERVATION

Tucked in the North-eastern state of Manipur is Loktak lake, home to a curious herd of deer. These mammals earn their distinction not just because they are found nowhere else in the world, but also because their home and natural habitat is a floating mass of vegetation on the lake, the Keibul Lamjao National Park (KLNP), the world’s only floating national park. But the deer are not happy anymore in their one-of-a-kind home.

Natural calamities and man-made devastations are rapidly changing the composition of the critical biomass, leaving the deer with little to live on. Chances are, the deer as well as their unique home, may sink into oblivion pretty soon.

Sangai deer of Manipur are known by many names, Eld’s deer, brow-antlered deer and the scientific name Cervus eldi eldi. But one name that indicates in the best way the species relationship with its home is the name dancing deer.

Balancing their hooves on the wobbly surface of the floating biomass called phumdies, these deer hop, skip and jump on the surface like graceful ballerinas. The deer were in fact declared extinct in 1951, but were rediscovered in this secluded location which necessitated declaring this reserve park area as a national park.

From a small herd of 14 in 1975, Sangai deer population was reportedly 155 in 1995, but dropped to 92 in 2008. It is a critically endangered species, according to IUCN, and even the slightest manmade errors can indeed send it rapidly back into the list of extinct animals.

It is not that Manipur does not take pride in the existence of this species. Sangai deer is the state animal. Much folklore too is woven around the animal; about how it was brought to its present home by a young prince who wished to gift the deer to his beloved. Tragedy struck when he found she was already married and thus released the deer on to the phumdies.

Ironically, what concerns environmentalists today is the modern-day tragedy that has affected the species. From global warming, pollution and poaching to threat from exotic species, the delicate phumdies are receding at an alarming rate and thus aggravating the threat to the deer’s existence.

Floating homes
Phumdi is a Manipuri word meaning floating mats of soil and vegetation. Scientifically, phumdis are a heterogeneous mass of soil, vegetation and organic matter in different stages of decay. Although there are many such phumdies on the Loktak lake, the largest among them is the Keibul Lamjao National Park.

Experts fear the size of the biomass has been decreasing over the last few years and its buoyancy and thickness too is getting reduced by the day. At many places, according to environmentalist R K Ranjan, phumdies have become less than one-metre thick and if a Sangai steps on this biomass, it will drown.

Manipur’s Deputy Conservator of Forests L Joykumar Singh says that because of the restricted movement of the deer, there are other problems that have increased. In-breeding within a herd has risen and competition with other wildlife for food in a particular area has increased too.

Shrinking habitat
The main reason for the declining swamps, according to biologists, is the hydrological changes in the eco-system which occurred after the water level in the lake was kept at a higher level for NHPC’s hydro-power project. “This increase in water levels has brought the phumdies farther away from the ground making it difficult to draw nutrients from the river bed and support vegetation,” N C Talukdar, Director of Institute of Bio-resources and Sustainable Development, says. Talukdar warns that global warming will further reduce the biomass as they will decompose quickly due to the heat.

Pollution is yet another problem for the deer. According to a report by Wetlands International, the inflow of pesticides, chemical fertilisers and domestic sewage is lowering the quality of the water of the lake complicating births and even giving rise to deformities among the deer.

Increasing human encroachment and poaching is cause for grave concern too. Another enemy of the species is the para grass, a species that was not earlier found in the area. The grass spreads very quickly leaving no space for the endemic plant species. Thus, the deer is also not getting enough supply of its staple food because of the invasive plant. “Para grass expands very quickly and prevents the growth of other plants. The species is invading fast and the more area it covers the less food will be left for Sangai,” warns Ranjan.

Technically, the world’s only floating national park is spread across 40 sq km, but the area deemed safe for the Sangai is only 9.5 sq km. Statistics therefore clearly point out that it will be really very easy to destroy the natural habitat and eventually kill this species of deer. What statistics also show conversely is that it is also relatively simple to protect, preserve and save this small piece of land. Simply put, unlike man-made changes that can be halted, if this unique ecosystem is lost once, it will be lost forever, taking with itself the last of the dancing deer.

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