Sangai

The sangai is an endemic, rare and endangered subspecies of brow-antlered deer found only in Manipur, India. It is also state animal of Manipur. Its common English name is Manipur brow-antlered deer and the scientific name, Rucervus eldii eldii McClelland. It lives in the marshy wetland in Keibul Lamjao about 45 km from Imphal. Its habitat is located in the southern parts of the Loktak Lake, which is the largest freshwater lake in eastern India. It is also one of the seven Ramsar sites of international importance. The habitat of the sangai is now protected as the Keibul Lamjao National Park. The sangai is also the state animal of Manipur.

The brow-antlered deer or the dancing deer is found in its natural habitat only at Keibul Lamjao National Park over the floating biomass locally called “phumdi” in the south eastern part of Loktak Lake. It is located between 24°27’ N and 24°31’ N latitude and 93°53’ E and 93°55’ E longitudes. The park covers an area of 40 km2. and the home range of the deer in the park is confined to 15–20 km2.

Phumdi is the most important and unique part of the habitat. It is the floating mass of entangled vegetation formed by the accumulation of organic debris and biomass with soil. Its thickness varies from few centimeter to two meters. The humus of phumdi is black in color and very spongy with large number of pores. It floats with 4/5 part under water.

The number of deer listed in the Red Data Book was only 14 in 1975. After the declaration of the area as a national park and with strict conservation measures taken up by the Forest Department, the fear of its extinction has been greatly reduced.

The brow-antlered deer is a medium-sized deer, with uniquely distinctive antlers, measuring 100–110 cm. in length with extremely long brow tine, which form the main beam. The two tines form a continuous curve at right angles to the closely set pedicels. This signifies its name, brow-antlered deer, the forward protruding beam appears to come out from the eyebrow. The antlers of the opposite sides are unsymmetrical with respect to each other. The beams are unbranched initially whereas curvature increases as length increases and they get forked also. The sexes are moderately dimorphic in body size and weight. The height and weight of a fully grown stag may be approximately 115–125 cm at shoulder and 95 to 110 kg (210 to 230 lb) respectively. The height and weight of the female are shorter and less as compared to the male counterpart. The length of the body from the base to the ear up to the tail is about 145 to 155 cm in both sexes. The tail is short and rump patch is not pronounced.

The brow-antlered deer is a medium-sized deer, with uniquely distinctive antlers, measuring 100–110 cm. in length with extremely long brow tine, which form the main beam. The two tines form a continuous curve at right angles to the closely set pedicels. This signifies its name, brow-antlered deer, the forward protruding beam appears to come out from the eyebrow. The antlers of the opposite sides are unsymmetrical with respect to each other. The beams are unbranched initially whereas curvature increases as length increases and they get forked also. The sexes are moderately dimorphic in body size and weight. The height and weight of a fully grown stag may be approximately 115–125 cm at shoulder and 95 to 110 kg (210 to 230 lb) respectively. The height and weight of the female are shorter and less as compared to the male counterpart. The length of the body from the base to the ear up to the tail is about 145 to 155 cm in both sexes. The tail is short and rump patch is not pronounced.

Rutting takes place in the early spring months between February and May. Males compete with each other to gain control of a harem of females that they can then mate with. After a 220 to 240-day-long gestation period, normally a single calf is born. The young are spotted at birth; these spots fade as the animal grows. The young are weaned at 7 months of age, and becomes sexually mature from 18 months of age onwards.

Culturally, the sangai finds itself imbedded deep into the legends and folklore of the Manipuris. Based on a popular folk legend, the sangai is interpreted as the binding soul between humans and the nature. The slaying of the sangai, an unpardonable sin, is conceived as the rude breaking up of the cordial relationship between humans and the nature. When humans love and respect the sangai, it is respecting nature. In the sangai, therefore, humans find a way of expressing their love for the nature. Socially, the sangai is the symbol of a prized possession of the state.

It is believed that the name sangai (sa “animal” and ngai “in awaiting”) was coined from its peculiar posture and behaviour while running. By nature, the deer, particularly the males, even when running for its life stops occasionally and looks back as if he is waiting for someone and hence the name.

According to a Manipuri folklore, a legendary hero Kadeng Thangjahanba of Moirang once captured a gravid sangai from Torbung Lamjao for a gift to his beloved Tonu Laijinglembi during an animal hunting expedition. However, as fate would have it, he found his beloved married to the king on his return. The heartbroken hero released the deer free in the wild of Keibul Lamjao. From that time onwards the place became the home of sangai.

The life-cycle of the phumdi involves floating on the water surface during season of high water as in the monsoons. In the lean season, when the water level reduces, the biomass come into contact with the lake bed and they secure the required nutrient from there. When the rains come again and they become afloat, the biomass have enough ‘food’—the nutrients—stored in their roots and their life continues. What is happening now, according to local scientists who are studying the phenomena, is that with continuous high water in the lake throughout the year much of this process of ‘feeding’ on the nutrient in the lakebed had discontinued. The result—the biomass are losing weight and getting thinner by the year. Around January last week in 1999, it was reported that a large chunk of the biomass in the northern part of National Park had broken up into pieces and had drifted freely from the park area. This was a bad sign for the sangai habitat. It spelled out very clearly that the beginning of the end of the sangai habitat had begun. There are reports of local people cutting up the phumdi into sizable pieces and then towing away these with dugout canoe for ‘selling’ to fish culture owners. This is another potential danger to the sangai habitat. It meant humans are now aiding the process of annihilating the habitat area, supplementing to the rapid degeneration of the habitat.