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 hasn’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 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. Today, the sangai survives in a unique habitat within Manipur. Survival of the phumdi is extremely important for the long-term survival of the sangai, and a second home for this deer needs to be established in the state,” says Ravi Singh, secretary general and CEO, WWF-India.
The reed bed where we moored was a phumdi. Tall reeds, grasses and other plants grow on a mat of dead or decaying vegetation, and this mat floats on the lake, with approximately one-fifth of it above the surface. “Phum or phumdi is a mat of organic matter in which reeds and grasses grow, often up to 15ft or more. It is subdivided into phumdi arupa (sinking) and phumdi ataoba (floating),” writes Gee.
It is impossible to see the deer in the phumdis; they are extremely shy and wary of humans. So it is important to reach the vantage point provided by three hillocks in the middle of the national park—Pabot, Toya or Chingjao—at the break of dawn and as quietly as possible.
Many say the barrage has hit the ecosystem in another fashion too—stopping the natural process of removal of old phumdis, which used to flow out of the lake into the Manipur river.
Threats come from without too. Forest officials say the park is surrounded by water and fish farms, and the absence of clear boundaries means that confrontations are commonplace between park staff and villagers on resource extraction, grazing and encroachment. Poaching and illegal fishing is said to be rampant.
Conservationists have a tough task on hand. Protection and population estimation is difficult since it involves navigating thick and unstable phumdis. WWF-India has suggested the camera-trap method to monitor deer. A study will be conducted by the WII and Manipur University, in collaboration with the state forest department. Plans are still being firmed up.
What’s clear is that the rare sangai is in desperate need of a safe home in the wild.