Sunday, September 28, 2008

Vanishing Species - The Blackbuck

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Blackbuck
Antelope cervicapra

Vehicle of the Moon-god (Chandrama) it is one of the most graceful and the fastest of the Indian antelopes.
The Indian Blackbuck Antelope is the sole representative in India of the genus Antilope. Its striking colour and its beautiful spiralled horns, which may reach the shoulder height of the animal, give it an elegance hardly equalled by any antelope. This exclusively Indian animal is perhaps the most beautiful of all its kind. Races in India include: cervicapra, rupicapra, rajputanae and centralis.
The fastest of the Indian antelopes, they move off in a series of amazing leaps and bounds when threatened and then break into a lightening run. Blackbuck, common name for an antelope, mainly of India but with other small populations in Pakistan and Nepal. The blackbuck has ringed horns that have a moderate spiral twist of three to four turns and are up to 70 cm (28 in) long.
Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) is the only representative of genus antelope found in India. It is one of the most graceful animals and used to be seen in thousands at the beginning of this century all throughout the plains of India except the Western coast. Due to extensive poaching and habitat loss, blackbuck populations have been reduced drastically. Now they can be seen in a a few protected areas like the Guindy National park and IIT campus at Chennai, Point Calimere and Vellanadu Sanctuaries in Tamil Nadu and Rollapadu (Andhra Pradesh), Velavadar (Gujarat) and Chilka (Orissa) other than few parts of Rajasthan, Hariyana, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
The adult male stands about 80 cm (about 32 in) at the shoulder and weighs 32 to 43 kg (71 to 95 lb). The body's upper parts are black; the underparts and a ring around the eyes are white. The female, light brown in colour is usually hornless. Males are dark brown. The males darken at maturity and the most dominant male in the herd has a black coat. White highlights the eyes, ears, chin, under parts, and rump. Even fawns have these markings. They are brown but turn tan after about a month. Grown males have ringed horns spiraling in a V at least 33 cm above the head. Record trophies exceed 50 cm.
Habitatat & Diet
Black Buck are found all over India except the northeast. You can find them in Panjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat and central India. It does not live in dense forest but in open plains. It is one of the fastest animals on earth and can out run any animal over long distances. Open plains, which allows it to move fast, are therefore needed to protect it from predators.
The black buck mainly feed in grasses. Pods, fruits, and flowers supplement are among the diets of black bucks. Few black bucks live longer than 12 years, and their maximum life span is about 16 years.

Pic by Rajashri Banerji

The social units of the blackbuck are female groups, mixed groups of both sexes, bachelor groups, and territorial males. Since territorial males monopolize prime grazing, female groups frequent their territories. Each territorial male commands about 3 to 40 acres. Territorialism facilitates breeding by giving the male a clear field for courtship. If a doe tolerates following, the "mating march" changes into circling, with the male in a "nose-up" display. The average interval between births is six months, with gestation comprising approximately five months. The single fawn can be born at any season. Initially, the fawn lies in the grass between nursing sessions. Then it gradually joins the mother's group. Between six months and one year old, increasing harassment from territorial males, plus the zest for sparring, sends young bucks to bachelor groups. Males mature sexually by eighteen months but take about 2½ years to reach physical maturity. Females can conceive as young as eight months, although most first-time mothers conceive at around seventeen months. Females mature physically by one year.

According to the Hindu mythology Blackbuck or Krishna Jinka is considered as the vehicle (vahana) of the Moon-god or Chandrama. As per Garuda Purana of Hindu mythology, Krishna Jinka bestows prosperity in the areas where they live.MiscellaneousThe blackbuck, known as Krishna Jinka in Telugu language, has been declared the state animal of Andhra Pradesh.

Species of Indian deer and antelope were brought to the United States, specifically Texas, during the early part of the 20th century for the purpose of hunting and breeding. Some of these included Blackbuck, Axis Deer, or Chital Deer as they are called in India, Barasingha, and Nilgai. These species, plus many others, can now be found on private hunting ranches and freely roaming the Hill Country and surroundings areas in Texas. Game ranch raised blackbucks are so thriving and plentiful that specimens were shipped from Texas to India in order to repopulate certain areas. In 2007, a blackbuck hunt in U.S.A. for a male trophy ranged in price from $750 - $2,500 USD depending on quality and outfitter.

Blackbuck Sanctuaries

Abohar wildlife sanctuary *Bandhavgarh National Park *Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary *Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar Chhapar, Churu, *Black Buck Santuary, Corbett National Park *Gir National Park *Guindy National Park *Kanha National Park *Maidenahalli Blackbuck Reserve, Tumkur District, Karnataka *Pilikula Biological Park, Mangalore, Karnataka *Ranthambhore National Park *Rehakuri Sanctuary, Ahmednagar District, Maharashtra *KrushnaMruga Abhayaranya, Ranebennur,Karnataka

Pic by Prakash Babu


The main threats to the species are*Poaching * Predation *Habitat destruction * Overgrazing * Diseases * Inbreeding The Blackbuck is hunted for its flesh and its skin. Although Indian law strictly prohibits the hunting of these endangered animals, there are still occasional incidents of poaching. The remaining populations are under threat from inbreeding. The natural habitat of the Blackbuck is being encroached upon by man's need for arable land and grazing ground for domesticated cattle. Exposure to domesticated cattle also renders the Blackbuck exposed to bovine diseases. Once large herds freely roamed in the plains of North India, where they thrive best, but no longer. During the eighteenth, nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, Blackbuck was the most hunted wild animal all over India. Until India's independence, many princely states used to hunt this antelope and the other local Indian gazelle, the Chinkara with specially trained pet Asiatic Cheetah. With their habitat of vast grasslands converted into farmlands due to human population explosion, the Asiatic Cheetahs are now sadly extinct in India. Fortunately the population of blackbucks is still stable with 50,000 native individuals, with an additional population introduced in Texas and Argentina.

Bishnoi Community

It is perhaps the extreme harshness of the environment that has made the local people of the Thar desert especially the Bishnois very conscious about wildlife conservation and maintenance of the area's ecological balance. Bishnoi communities are well known for the sacrifices they have made to protect nature and wildlife since their Guru Jambheshwarji Maharaj (popularly known as Jamboji ) launched this sect way back in 1542 AD. Born in 1508 AD, in Pipasar, a village near Jodhpur in Rajasthan, Jamboji was a man of great foresight. When he was just seven years old there was a severe drought in his village, during which he realised that mankind was heading towards a major catastrophe. Later, he preached twenty - nine principles from which the name Bishnoi (Bish-twenty and Noi -nine ) was derived. These principles preach various aspects of brotherhood, fighting social evils, reserving rights for women, wildlife preservation and kindness towards animals. Bishnois treat these principles as a religion and follow them with utmost devotion. Thanks to his teachings, the Bishnois who inhabit this area, have never allowed anyone to kill any living being or cut any green trees. So successful have their efforts at conservation been that the desert tract is covered with the trees like Khejri, Jal, Rohida, Aak, Ber, Kair etc. making it as the world's greenest desert. Also, the Blackbucks and even the normally shy and wary Chinkaras can be seen roaming freely and fearlessly in large numbers in the area. Unfortunately, very little record is available on the sacrifices made by the Bishnois to protect nature. In 1661 AD, two women namely Karma and Goura from a village called Ramasari in Jodhpur district sacrificed their lives to protect Khejri (prosopis cineraria) trees by clinging on to them. Khejri is a hardy tree, and known as the lifeline of the desert because of its multiple uses. However, Bishnois protect all trees and resist their destruction.

A major sacrifice recorded in the history of the Bishnois was in 1787 AD, when Maharaja Abhay Singh, the king of Jodhpur.The king sent his minister Girdhardas for fetching wood. The King's soldiers reached a village called Khejarli and started cutting Khejari trees near a house. The lady of the house Amrita devi came out and requested the soldiers not to cut trees. When her request fell on deaf ears, she and her three daughters clung to the trees and were killed by the soldiers. In all 363 persons ( 69 women and 294 men) laid their lives to save the trees. On hearing of this mass sacrifice, the Maharaja himself came in the village and promised the Bishnois that he would not cut the trees in future. Every year, in the month of September, a Shaheed Mela is held in the village Khejarli, to commemorate this great sacrifice. The Chipko movement started by Sunderlal Bahuguna in the Garhwal region was perhaps motivated by the above incidence.The Bishnois have, no doubt, played a major role in conserving the blackbucks in India. They present a classic example of man and animal living together in perfect harmony. Even today they share their crops with wild animals and the incidences of adopting an orphan blackbuck fawn by a Bishnoi woman and breast-feeding it along with her own child are not uncommon.

Like most wild animals, the Blackbuck is in principle protected in India by the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Its protected status has gained publicity through a widely reported court case in which one of India's leading film stars, Mr. Salman Khan, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for killing two black bucks and several endangered chinkaras. The arrest was prompted by intense protests from the Bishnoi ethnic group, which holds animals and trees sacred, and on whose land the hunting had taken place.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Vanishing Species - The Striped Hyena

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Striped Hyena
Hyaena hyaena

Scavenger by profession with a weird, laughing chatter.

A scavenger by profession the hyena seeks its food by scent. Sight plays little part in its search; hearing none at all. They are not hunters. They live chiefly on the carcasses of animals, more truly on what is left of a carcass after a tiger or panther has done with it and the vultures and jackals have eaten their fill. The hyena’s share is then mostly bones and coarse remains. The powerful jaws of the hyena and its large teeth are admirably adapted to bone crushing. These scavengers help clean up the ecosystem by removing dead and rotting carcasses.Striped hyenas usually weigh 30 to 35 kg, and like brown hyenas, stand roughly 70 cm tall at the shoulder. Also like brown hyenas, striped hyaenas are primarily scavengers of a wide array of vertebrate remains, supplemented by fruits, invertebrates, and occasionally garbage from human settlements. Striped hyenas also apparently hunt small vertebrates. Hyaena always forage solitarily, usually at night, but may lie up during the day in pairs or groups of up to four individuals, although such groups never contain more than one adult female . Stories about the hyenas robbing graves or stealing children are greatly exaggerated.

Striped hyena belongs to the Hyaenidae family and is scientifically known as Hyaena hyaena. Strongly related to the Brown hyena, it is basically a solitary creature. The average lifespan of striped hyenas hovers somewhere around 10 to 12 years in the wild. When kept in captivity, they can live longer also.
Physical Traits

The body coat of a striped hyena is covered with grayish-brown fur. Its legs, torso, head and back have black vertical stripes all over, while, muzzle and ears are totally black. There is also a medium sized mane on its neck, shoulders as well as the back. When threatened, a striped hyena erects the hair on its mane, making itself look 30-40 percent bigger than it actually is. This activity is also used in displays against other striped hyenas.
The underside of its neck is covered with a black throat patch. The legs are quite long and the tail is feathery, reaching the hocks. Striped hyena of India may grow to a length of 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.45m). It stands tall at a shoulder height of 2.2 to 2.5 feet (66 to 75cm). Striped hyenas weigh between 57 and 90 pounds (26 and 41 kg). The size of a male and a female striped hyena does not differ too much. Quite similar to a number of other hot climate animals, their ears also radiate heat.
Natural Habitat

Striped hyenas are found occupying the tropical savanna, grasslands, semi-deserts, scrub forests and woodlands. In the Indian subcontinent, they inhabit open country, seashores as well as forests. Their geographical range also stretches on from Morocco and Senegal to Tanzania, across Asia Minor, the Arabian Peninsula, all the way to Iran and Pakistan, apart from India. Striped hyenas are believed to have become extinct in Europe. However, they can be sporadically spotted in Anatolia and Turkey.

Striped Hyenas are mainly carnivores, but may eat fruit also. Their prey includes insects and small animals like mice, mammalian carrion, tortoise, porcupine and wild pigs. They may also hunt domestic animals, like goats, sheep, donkeys, and horses.

Striped hyenas are nomads by nature and move from one water hole to another. Still, they never venture more than 6 miles from their previous water hole. Hyenas are not gregarious creatures and live mostly in isolation. At times, one can find them congregating in small family groups. Striped hyenas of India can be frequently seen seizing and shaking each other by the neck in mock fighting rituals.
Mating BehaviorFemale striped hyenas attain maturity when they reach 2-3 years of age. Their estrous cycle lasts for 45 to 50 days and they can mate throughout the year. The gestation period is 88 to 92 days and the number of young ones may be anywhere from 1 to 5. The usual number of cubs is two and they start eating meat after 30 days.
Relationship with other predators

Striped hyenas of India are basically scavengers, which thrive on the kills of other predators. This habit of theirs results in a confrontation with the other predators. In India and the Middle East, the striped hyenas may, at times, enter into a conflict with the wolves also.


Striped hyenas are included in the list of 'Near Threatened' species. The exact population of the striped hyenas of India is not known.

Striped hyena faces no threat from natural predators, since it does not have one. Their main threat is from humans, with whom they constantly come into conflict. Striped hyenas may make human beings, mainly children, and livestock their target. This is the main reason why they are poisoned and trapped by people. Striped hyena of India is also poached since its parts are believed to have curative properties. Last but not the least, it is facing the threat of habitat destruction.
Reference: The Book of Indian Animals by S. H. Prater

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Vanishing Species - Sangai

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Sangai
Cervus eldi eldi

The Sangai, the brow-antlered deer is found only in Manipur and only 162 animals survive.

The Sangai was believed to be almost extinct by 1950. However, in 1953 six heads of the Sangai were found hovering at its natural habitat. Since then, the State Government has taken serious and positive measures for the protection of this rare and endangered species. The Sangai is also the state animal of Manipur and is projected as the social and cultural identity of the state..The Sangai lives in the marshy wetland in Keibul Lamjao National Park( 40 sq km). 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 a protected area. The Sangai Forum was formed to protect the Sangai and other wildlife like hog deer, wild boar, Indian otter, civet cat, box turtle, and migratory water birds who have their home in the National Park. Although banned by law, hunting of the Sangai and other wildlife continues. Then again people hunt the deer for its meat. The Loktak Hydroelectric Power Project too has become a threat to the Sangai habitat. A constant high water level is maintained in the lake and this has led to many changes, one of which is the rise in the water level in the Keibul Lamjao National Park during the rainy season. Manipur experiences heavy rains during the monsoon season. So, the Sangai's home is constantly threatened. What happens during the rainy season is that the deer seeks shelter in isolated dry patches in the National Park and poachers lie in wait for such opportunity. Many times the deer drown. One of the duties of the Sangai Forum volunteers is to keep a watch for signs of danger. They organise search parties to locate deer that are in trouble inside the park. They also keep a lookout for the poachers and organise awareness campaigns in villages, stressing on the importance of the Sangai and the need to save it. The villagers are requested to report to the nearest Sangai Forum unit if they have any news of the deer in danger. Forum volunteers also work with Forest officers and forest guards to protect the deer. In January 2003, Sangai Forum volunteers caught two poachers who had killed a Sangai. The poachers were handed over to the local Police Station and a criminal case was filed against them.

Present status:

It is reported that there are only around 162 Sangai deer left in Keibul Lamjao National Park.This last natural habitat of the deer - covering a total of 40.5 with a core zone area of 15, is peculiar by itself as it is mostly made up of the floating biomass locally known as Phumdi. The KLNP forms part of the southern portion of the greater Loktak lake, and so the park is within the water body area of the Loktak. It is for this reason that the park has often been termed as the 'only floating national park in the world'.
The Sangai faces a two-pronged danger to its life. Firstly, its habitat is steadily degenerating by reason of continuous inundation and flooding by high water caused as the result of artificial reservoir of the Loktak hydroelectric power project. Secondly, poachers are out there to trap and slay the deer at the slightest opportunity. In February 1998 poachers trapped two Sangai doe inside the KLNP, killing both female.
In 1983 the 103 Megawatt capacity Loktak hydroelectric power project was commissioned with the objective of ensuring rapid development in the State. One failure of the project has been that it has never been able to provide regular power supply to the villages in the Loktak lake periphery. And a very disturbing effect of the project has been its share of harm to the ecology and the environment of the Loktak, threatening the lake ecosystem, the humans and their lands, the wildlife, and all other life forms dependent on the lake for their living.
A maximum high water level of 168.5 meter above MSL is maintained in the Loktak Lake to feed the reservoir for the hydel project. At this level, much of the land on the periphery of the lake had been submerged under water, rendering huge loss of productive agricultural lands and localised fish culture farms. On the other hand, this high water level had wreaked havoc in the KLNP. The high water level, maintained continuously through the year, had disturbed the natural life cycle of the vegetation growth, the phumdi, upon which the Sangai thrives. The deer feed on several types of vegetation that grow on the phumdi. The vegetation also provides shelter to the deer and other wildlife in the park.
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 nutrient - 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 lake bed 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 KLNP had broken up into pieces and had drifted freely from the park area. This was a bad sign for the Sangai habitat.
Very recently this year, reports came in about local people cutting up the phumdi into sizeable 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.
The Sangai - a jewel in the crown for Manipur - is one of the most unfortunate animals living in the world today. Human activity - read development process - had caused extensive damage to its last natural habitat, threatening its very existence. Humans continue to hunt and slay the deer on the sly in spite of legislation (Manipur Wildlife Protection Rules 1974) and public outcry. There is no State sponsored conservation programme for securing the safety of the deer and its habitat. Manipur is poised to lose this animal wealth, forever, if timely help does not come now.

Second home for Sangai suggested

The Wildlife Institute of India sees a great threat to the lives of sangai populaiton at Keibul Lamjao National Park, says a Sangai Express report. This comes after a detailed study on the survival and prospect of propagating the endangered sangai at its natural habitat.WII has recommended to the Manipur government to look for a second sanctuary for the sangai.WII has been studying the lives of the Sangai and the biodiversity and physiography of the Keibul Lamjao National Park for the last few years. The institute also undertook head count of the Sangai now existing in Keibul Lamjao.In the event of outbreak of any epidemic or any contagious disease in its natural habitat, all the Sangai population may be wiped out as the rare species living in Keibul Lamjao belong to the same stock (in breeding), mentioned a report submitted by the Institute to the State Government, informed a reliable source.The report also recommended an alternative sanctuary where the endangered Sangai can be preserved and propagated. The Wildlife Institute of India is doing further studies into the lives and habitat of Sangai, informed the source.Following the report and the recommendation, the State Forest and Environment Department has started looking for sites where Sangai can be preserved in natural habitat.Earlier the Wetlands International South Asia had surveyed Loktak lake and the Keibul Lamjao National Park. During the survey, it was found that the area under phumdi coverage and also the thickness of phumdis (floating bio-mass) in Keibul Lamjao were decreasing. It also suggested for re-location of Sangai to a favourable alternative place.