Barasingha - The Elusive Swamp Deer of India
Updated: Jun 18, 2021
Recollections from Kaziranga National Park, Assam, 2018
It was one of those beautifully golden mornings that you seem to only ever find in India, just as the morning mist lifts and the sun grazes the top of the head-high grasslands, when we came across a herd of elegant, gracile deer.
The herd was made up of around thirteen individuals, all females, some adults and some juveniles. These were Barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii), also known as “swamp deer”. Superficially resembling the Red Deer (Cervus elephas), the Barasingha’s antlers actually make it unique amongst all other species of Indian cervid; they can have between ten and fourteen tines, with as many as twenty in mature stags. “Barasingha” in fact means “twelve-horned” in Hindi. The French naturalist Alfred Duvaucel is honoured in the specific name, whilst its English name of “swamp deer” is a translation of its Assamese name, “Dolhorina”, meaning swamp-dwelling.
These aristocratic deer once ranged across north India along the base of the Himalayas. Large populations were found in the Indo-Gangetic plain, stretching all the way from Sind in Eastern Pakistan to the great Sundarbans wetlands in Bengal. These are creatures of swampy, alluvial grasslands and savannah forest mosaics, a common habitat across their historic range. However, relentless sport hunting during the British Raj, followed by poaching for food and the conversion of vast swathes of wetlands into pasture during India’s industrialisation has resulted in massive population declines for this enigmatic species. Suitable habitat now only endures in three isolated pockets, each harbouring the sole population of an entire subspecies.
The western Barasingha (R. d. duvauceli) is the most adapted to flooded grasslands, with wide splayed hooves, an adaptation to running through marshy terrain. Historically, this species was important prey for Bengal Tigers (Panthera tigris) and Indian Leopards (Panthera pardus fusca); sticking to boggy terrain was not just a necessity of diet, but also of predator avoidance. This subspecies persists in Nepal and northern India, with a peak population of just over 2,000 recorded in 2013. The southern Barasingha (R. d. branderi) is also called the Hard-Ground Barasingha. Its last stronghold is the huge Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, one of the largest reserves in central India. Kanha is much drier than the Indo-Gangetic plain, and this subspecies has stronger hooves and legs to allow it to run in dry scrubland. Just over 700 were recorded in 2016, and some of this population have been introduced to nearby Satpura Tiger Reserve. The Barasingha I photographed here belong to the eastern subspecies (R. d. ranjitsinhi), which thrive in the alluvial grasslands of Kaziranga National Park in Assam State. Only around 1,148 remain, confined to just this one park and the surrounding areas.
Fortunately, the Barasingha is now a flagship conservation species in India, and the Kanha population in particular is under thorough study. Satellite data is being used to understand how grassland is being depleted within the park; this time not by agricultural conversion, but by the more subtle replacement by forests, possibly as a result of a lack of megafauna clearing young trees. (Read more about this here). Barasingha are also included as a model species in a study looking at the effect of agriculture, season, and habitat on ungulate density within the park, the results of which provide new insight into the dependence of ungulate species on certain grasslands. (Read more about this here). The species is also being monitored by sophisticated GPS collar-based tracking devices, which are being used to observe its behaviour and migration patterns. This fascinating study is combining position, temperature, humidity, head orientation and light level data to understand Barasingha movements. (Read more about this here).
Most exciting is a feature of this species which you can see in my photos above – the preorbital gland. This is visible as the dark line stretching in front of the eye down the snout. This scent gland is found across artiodactyls, and secretions from it are used in olfactory communication to establish dominance, delineate territorial boundaries and signal aggression. A study of Hard-Ground Barasingha in Kanha observed the preorbital gland opening for the first time in a wild population, and identified two types of opening; sexual and during intraspecific aggression. This intriguing study posits that the state of the preorbital gland may indicate the animals emotional state. (Read more about this here and here).
The Barasingha serves as a poignant reminder of the fragility of fairly generic looking wild species. Neither as eye catching as rhino nor charismatic as a tiger, the Barasingha nonetheless is deserving of protection and plays a key role in maintaining the stability of Indian ecosystems.
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Pluháček, J., Ceacero, F. and Lupták, P. 2015. First records of preorbital gland opening in rare wild barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii) in social contexts may help to explain this phenomenon in cervids. Behavioural Processes. 119,pp.28-31.
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