By Lucy Gibson
Loktak lake is considered the lifeline of the State of Manipur. It is the largest natural freshwater lake in the north-eastern region of India and plays an important role in the ecological and economic security of the region. Large populations, both human and non-human, living in and around the lake depend on the lake’s resources for sustenance.
Loktak Lake is famous for phumdis (naturally-occurring masses of floating vegetation formed by the accumulation of organic debris and biomass with soil) which are a specialised habitat for many biota. Phumdis is the most important part of Loktak Lake’s habitat, and its thickness varies from just a few centimetres to two metres thick.
These numerous floating lands cover a variety of habitats and therefore they can sustain rich biological diversity. In terms of flora, approximately 233 species of aquatic macrophytes belonging to emergent, submergent, free-floating and rooted floating leaf types have been reported in the lake. A total of 425 species of animals have been recorded including a number of rare animals such as Indian python, sambhar and barking deer. It is the breeding ground of several riverine migratory fishes and continues to be vital as a fish habitat. In addition, Loktak Lake provides refuge to thousands of birds, including migratory birds who have travelled far from different parts of the northern hemisphere beyond the Himalayas.
However, of most interest to this article is the largest of all the phumdis. One which covers an area of 40km2, is home to Keibul Lamjao National Park.
Keibul Lamjao National Park is the only floating national park in the world.
Located in the southern part of Loktak Lake, Keibul Lamjao National Park is a unique floating wildlife reserve and the only natural home of one of the world’s most endangered deer, the brow-antlered deer (Cervus eldi eldi), locally called Sangai, that was once thought to be extinct.
The Sangai, also called the dancing deer, is has uniquely distinctive antlers which can measure up to 100-110cm in length. The home range of Sangai in the park is confined to 15-20km2, in the south-western part of the lake where the phumdis is thick. The vegetation of phumdi is also critical source of food plants for the Sangai, such as Zizania latifolia and Saccharum munja.
A census conducted in 2000 in the park showed that there were just 162 deer. With reports of unbridled poaching, and their home, Keibul Lamjao National Park, at risk, the Sangai population is feared to drop and they find themselves on the IUCN Red List with population numbers decreasing.
The Sangai’s home is at permanent risk of flooding, which can be attributed to the construction of the Ithai Barrage, and the resultant effect on the thickness of phumdis. The construction of Ithai barrage has led to changes in hydrological regimes, thereby affecting ecological processes and functions of the wetland. This has disturbed the natural cycle of floating and sinking of phumdis which is used to maintain the National Park and therefore the growth of vegetation on phumdis and their thickness are decreasing. The concern is that at some stage the phumdis may not be able to support the number of Sangai in Keibul Lamjao National Park.
Additionally, the construction of Ithai barrage has caused the inundation of agricultural lands and the displacement of people from flooded lands. Water quality of Loktak Lake is also decreasing as a result, as pollutants from towns and agrochemicals from farming drain into the water.
Over time, public awareness, and local support for have evolved for conserving the Sangai and concerted actions have been initiated to stop encroachment of the park and security arrangements have been made to stop poaching. This fact was soberly presented in a children’s magazine called Chandamama, which gave a first-person narrative by the affected Sangai itself.
“‘Thanks to these youngsters who live nearby’, he said. I was happy and felt indebted to the youngsters for saving our lives.
My friend added that these people really loved and respected the Sangai deer. They believed that killing the Sangai was an unpardonable sin. According to a Meitei legend, the Sangai are the link between humans and nature. So, killing us would mean breaking a bond.
My friend informed me that people concerned about animals like us have formed a group. They teach others to protect animals, too.
The news that people are trying their best to save the phumdis, deer like me, and the Loktak Lake, infuses new hope in me. ‘How nice of them!’ I thought”.