Dancing Deer of the Floating Park : Sangai

Kh. Shamungou *

Sangai : The endemic, rare and endangered Manipur Brow-antlered deer  in February 2009
Sangai : The endemic, rare and endangered Manipur Brow-antlered deer in February 2009

The Manipur brow-antlered deer or the Dancing deer of Manipur, lovingly called Sangai (a deer awaiting and looking at you) is a flagship species of Manipur State. Today, around 200 heads of them (another 200 heads in 15 Indian zoos) are being conserved on the floating morass of vegetation known as phumdi in Keibul Lamjao National Park (KLNP), Manipur as the most endangered deer of the world. The phumdis are very spongy and springy due to the presence of air and water that fill spaces inside. Walking on the phumdi needs a unique experience because of its regular pulsation.

Keibul Lamjao National Park : The KLNP (40 sq km) is situated near Moirang (a cultural capital of Manipur) in Bishnupur district, 45 km south of the Imphal, Manipur. It stretches from north to south along the southeastern fringe of Loktak Lake (286 sq km at 768.5m water level). The Loktak itself is a priced Wetland of International Importance under IUCN's Ramsar Convention, 1990 or a Ramsar Site. The KLNP on its lap is the only 'Floating Park' in the world and Sangai is the pride of this floating habitat.

Flora and Fauna : The KLNP is a sea of grass. More than 135 species of grass including several economically important varieties grow on the phumdi and trees are found on the Pabot, Chingjao and Toya hillocks. The park accounts for 54 species of fish, several forms of amphibians, snakes, turtles and tortoise and 150 species of birds including wintering water birds. The Sangai shares the habitat with hog deer (Axis porcinus) and wild boars (Sus scrofa).

Sangai Legends : A prince of Luwang clan of Manipur had transformed himself into a majestic deer to be known as Sangai. The ancient royal boat (Hiyang Hirel) had the decoration of Sangai head on its head part.

According to Moirang Kangleirol (Folklore of Moirang), a legendary hero called Kadeng Thanjahanba, once brought a gravid female as a loving gift for his beloved Tonu Laijingrembi and released the deer free in the wild of Keibul Lamjao, thence-forth the place became the only abode of the Sangai.

Sangai Species : The Sangai or the Manipur based Eld's deer is the only deer, which is adapted itself on a swampy habitat. A fully-grown male measures about 125cm at the shoulder. The dark-brown or dark-chestnut color of male during the cold and rutting season becomes earthy-red during the hot season. The females are lighter and uniformly reddish throughout the year. A male Sangai bears an impressive pair of 'arc' shaped antlers, as crown on its head and it is the most spectacular feature of the deer.

Sangai Subspecies : The Eld's deer were once distributed throughout much of the Asia but of late due to continued hunting and poaching, habited destruction and fragmentation, they have been extirpated from much of their historical range and now persist only in small and fragmented population in Manipur (India), Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Hainan's island (China). Today, four subspecies of brow-antlered deer are designated.

Sangai or Manipur brow-antlered deer : Rucervus eldii eldii
Thamin or Myanmar brow-antlered deer :Rucervus eldii thamin
Lamang or Siamese brow-antlered deer : Rucervus eldii siamensis
Hainan brow-antlered deer : Rucervus eldii hainanus .

Memorable Dates of Sangai :

1842 : McClelland described the species
1916/1931 : Manipur State Game Rules protected the species
1950 : Sangai considered extinct.
1953 : About 100 survivors discovered by E.P.Gee in Keibul Lamjao area.
1954 : Keibul Lamjao Wildlife Sanctuary born.
1977 : Keibul Lamjao National Park gazetted.
1989 : Declared as 'Manipur State Animal'.
1989 : Recognized as 'Species of the Year' by Nandankanan Zoo, Orissa.
1990 : Honoured as 'Our Sangai', by Mysore Zoo.
1992 : Launched a programme 'Conservation of Your Sangai is Now Our Business Also' by British Airways.
1999 : Named, Ningthem (Mascot), by 5th National Game, Manipur.

Sangai population : Manipur that once boasted of its prized possession of Sangai on her lap only and nowhere else in the world is today frantically looking for its last refuge in KLNP. The deer has so far thrown into a gloomy population. Their existence is vulnerable ecologically, and in the event of a political expediency or a natural calamity their last abode along with the remnant and isolated population could be destroyed or reduce it to such a miserable size beyond revival. The Thangbral-yangbi, Pabot and Toya are the ecologically sensitive areas and during the recent past they were at their best to provide as the place for Centre of Activity of the deer. Today, the situation is remarkably changed. Following Loktak Project, these areas can no longer be a safe place for rutting activities.

Sangai Status : Sangai is listed as highly endangered species in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), critically endangered deer by the International Union for Conservation of Nature or World Conservation Union (IUCN) and Schedule I species of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (IWPA)

Needs of the Hours : Three basic requirements that need to be strictly preserved in KLNP are :
to maintain the thickness of phumdi in the home range area at 1 - 2 metres;
to avoid human presence in the Thangbral-yangbi (breeding ground area) during rutting season (February-March) and to preserve the fodder and cover grasses in a proportion of 1:1.

Uncontrolled phumdi fire; the replacement of fodder grass by weeds and the overgrowth of an exotic paragrass (Brachiaria mutica) are other important aspects affecting Sangai's survival in KLNP. A phumdi less than one metre thick is injurious to the animal as it fails to hold the weight of an adult deer. But in many places of the park the thickness of phumdi has been reduced below the desired scale which is truly alarming .

At this rate, if an urgent and forceful steps are not taken up soon, this endemic species and its habitat will soon be wiped out. In this context, therefore, the park should be recognized as being one of the national highest priorities for conservation of Sangai. Also there is a need to implement strict measures to check the slowly crumbling population structure in term of sex ratio and others, and the rapidly declining habitat conditions of the park, which is a very unique place for this rare species 'Sangai'.

It is a national shame that just a majestic deer, which is alone in this world in Manipur being left to kill itself by drowning in the water of the Loktak Project. We can hope some sort of Sariska's tiger-intervention by PM, Manmohan Singh to save the Sangai deer from early extinction.

It would be a terrible mistake for the generation to make the species extinct. Let's save Sangai for our future. Let our generations to come be happy to see the dancing deer on the floating habitat.

* Kh. Shamungou wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition)
The writer is a Member, IUCN/Deer Specialist Group/Species Survival Commission
This article was posted on November 23, 2013.

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