Up close with the endangered brow-antlered deer floating on Manipur’s Loktak Lake
The dugout canoe glided through a narrow water channel, surrounded by tall reeds. We were a small group of birders, perched precariously on the canoe as the boatman negotiated the bends and the reeds. Bird calls filled the air, though we couldn’t see any through the thick sea of grass. It wasn’t just birds that we were there to see, however. We had travelled to the far end of the North-East, a corner of Manipur’s iconic Loktak Lake, the Keibul Lamjao National Park (KLNP), to see a rare deer.
The Keibul Lamjao, the only floating national park in the world, is home to the last of the brow-antlered deer (Rucervus eldii eldii), one of the most endangered deer in the world. It’s not certain how many survive in the 40 sq. km KLNP. A head count in April last year put the number at 204. This year, according to the park’s field director, there haven’t been enough funds for a proper count. The Wildlife Institute of India believes the figure could be much less. In 2006, 2007 and 2008, it estimated the deer population at 90, 88 and 92, respectively.
The brow-antlered deer, or sangai, is the state animal. The word is ubiquitous—it can be found on shop signage, cafés, clubs, a regional daily newspaper, even at an annual tourism festival. “The sangai is an integral part of the sociocultural and economic life of the Manipuri people but ironically, the deer is not protected,” says Dinabandhu Sahoo, director, Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD), department of biotechnology, Imphal.
The animal is, in fact, in danger of losing its home—most of the phumdis, or floating swamps, are unable to sustain its weight. A barrage has changed the hydrology of the lake area; the vegetation is changing and choking its food supply. Farming is eating into its space.