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Cervus duvauceli should not be called Barasingha

There are two subspecies of the swamp deer, one inhabiting swampy ground and marshes in the Terai, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and the Sunderbans, which has somewhat spongy and splayed hooves and a comparatively larger skull.

M Krishnan |

In Kanha, they call their own distinctive variety of the swamp deer Cervus duvaucela branderi, the Barasingha. Using the name for this deer in correspondence with some authorities I have, apparently, caused eyebrows to be raised, and in the replies, I received the name was put within quotation marks ~ “Barasingha”.

The Kashmir stag is also called the Barasingha, and evidently the contention of some people is that the name should be limited to that animal, and not be applied to Cervus duvauceli, which should be called the swamp deer. There are two subspecies of the swamp deer, one inhabiting swampy ground and marshes in the Terai, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and the Sunderbans, which has somewhat spongy and splayed hooves and a comparatively larger skull, scientifically distinguished as Cervus duvauceli, and the other the branderi of Madhya Pradesh which lives on hard ground and has compact hooves and in the old stags, darker antlers.

In both subspecies, the number of times carried by the adult stag varies, but is generally twelve on each antler, which is why the animal is called “Barasingha”. The Kashmir stag (which is a cousin of the Scottish red deer) has also often twelve points, but more often more, and is also called the Barasingha. Both deer have other vernacular names.

In the circumstances, I am unable to see the force of the argument that only the Kashmir stag should be termed Barasingha. On the contrary, there is something gained by calling the Kashmir stag the hangul (one of its standardized names), and the hard-ground subspecies of Cervus durauceli the Barasingha ~ the name swamp deer can then be applied to the other subspecies. Anyway, the alternative, hard-ground swamp deer is a contradiction in terms.

In a note to follow, I shall discuss the decline of this noble deer in Madhya Pradesh and possible schemes for reviving it, here I shall merely record what I saw of it in May last in the Kanha National Park.

There were two main herds, consisting of hinds and a few small stags, about 80 animals in both herds together; in one herd there were 3 young fawns and 2 in the other, the objects of peculiar interest and importance, for they represented the future of a dying race. Apart from these two herds, there was a party of five big stags, all in hard horn; among them was a fine animal which carried what were probably the most magnificent antlers of the tribe, and although I never saw him, I heard that there was another lone stag in a grove near the lodges even more impressive in build and antlers. There are only about a hundred Barasingha in all in Kanha today.

During the day the two main herds could often be seen lying down in the open, very relaxed and chewing the cud. Occasionally I saw a deer lying down with the head flat on the ground at the stretch of the neck, a posture that would render it very hard to see even in low, thin cover. Sometimes a stag ran around with a lot of grass entangled in his antlers, and people said this was the silly animal’s attempt at camouflage. Actually, it is no such self-conscious effort, barasingha stags clean their antlers mainly by thrashing the grass with them, and this carrying of grass on the horn is merely the result of this instinctive habit.

What impressed me most was the seeming lassitude of the deer. Swamp deer (of both subspecies) are highly gregarious, more gregarious than any other Indian deer, and where they flourish they go about in vast herds, the herds keeping fairly close to one another. There is a survival value in vast numbers, and apparently, these deer, like other deer of the cold North and some birds, are rather dependent on their sheer numbers.

However that might be, the two subspecies of the swamp deer are less unapproachable than say, sambar or chital (chital have become rather tame in places, and I refer only to chital where they are still very shy). Making allowances for all this, I still thought the Barasingha of Karnha rather simple. I do not know if this lassitude is the result of some debilitating infection or not, but the deer were definitely less wild and wary than the swamp deer I had seen in Assam and UP.

A thing that caused much concern to the authorities of the park was that in recent years the breeding of the deer had been infructuous, too many young being still-born. It was heartening to see young fawns in both the main herds.

This was published on 16 February 1969.