Two decades ago, matinee idol and superstar Salman Khan was caught for poaching the blackbuck in the forests of Rajasthan in the company of his co-stars. That is when this endangered antelope species came to the ken of the wider public in the country.
Poaching of blackbucks was rampant in many princely states during the British era. Excessive hunting, deforestation and habitat degradation threatened the antelope species, so much so that, by 1970, it had become locally extinct. However, efforts to protect the endangered blackbuck seem to be heading for success in Odisha. The number of blackbucks in the state has increased to 4,080, according to a recent blackbuck census. As per the last census done in 2014-15, there were 3,806 blackbucks in the Balipadar-Bhetnoi area in Ganjam district. Some blackbucks, it is reported, are being relocated from the Balipadar-Bhetnoi area of Ganjam to Puri-Konark and the Chandaka sanctuary near Bhubaneswar where people can watch the activities of the docile animal. No blackbuck has been sighted in the Bhalukhand-Konark wildlife sanctuary in Puri since 2013, though around 22 blackbucks were believed to be there.
“Official discussions on relocating the endangered species in the state have started. But how the blackbuck will tolerate and survive in the new environment and how its numbers can be increased is a major challenge facing forest and environment department personnel. After proper assessment of the biodiversity, appropriate steps will be taken to relocate the animal around the state capital. It’s an experiment. We will not take any risks which might be detrimental to the survival of these animals. If the experiment is successful, more blackbucks may be relocated in different forest sanctuaries across the state,” said a senior official associated with wildlife conservation.
“If everything goes as per plan, Odisha could become a major tourist hub showcasing the movement of Indian antelopes. We expect that within a couple of years, the state will be known as a wildlife haven for blackbucks,” added the official.
Blackbucks in Ganjam
Blackbucks inhabit grassy and sparse forest areas with constant water supply or resources. The herds travel long distances to obtain water. Cold climates do not suit these animals. Hence, Ganjam provides a perfect environment for these animals.
Villagers in Ganjam have played a key role in multiplying the blackbuck population in the state. Residents of the Balipadar-Bhetnoi area comprising 70 villages helped sustain more than 4,000 antelopes. Most villagers traditionally associate blackbucks with Lord Krishna as the antelopes are called Krishna-saar. The animals grow and multiply by grazing in the fields. Most of the villagers feel the species needs protection, which has greatly helped conservation efforts in the area.
As per historical sources, more than a century ago, Odisha faced a long spell of drought in the south-eastern region. During this time, a small number of blackbucks appeared in these parts and then there was rain and the drought slowly disappeared. The people began protecting the animals as they believed that their prayers had been heard. Educated people started associating drought with the extinction of these animals.
In 1918, a Britisher known as ‘Green Saheb’ and the ‘Sardar’ of the locality Madeshi Chandramani Dora took the first steps for protection of the species and published a notification in an Odia newspaper prohibiting the killing of the black antelopes in the area.
For most of the 20th century, the local populace took care to protect the antelopes. If they caught a hunter, justice was quick. They either levied fines or beat the poachers up. As many as 20 villages in the Ganjam district got together and constituted a district-level blackbuck protection committee in 1997 thus winning the first Biju Patnaik Award for Wildlife Conservation in 2004-05.
“Although we have deployed many people for the protection of this beautiful animal, it is a challenge for the department as these animals mostly roam around farmland near human habitation. So, the cooperation of local populace is vital to help increase their numbers,” said the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF-Wildlife) Sandeep Tripathi.
About the migration of these animals, Tripathi said, “The increase in human population is forcing the animals to migrate to new areas causing problems. Migration to areas other than their habitat can lead to man-animal conflict. But, we have control over their migration and we always try to avoid such incidents.”
“The blackbucks will be a major catalyst for the growth of tourism in Odisha. Just as tourists visit Bhitarkanika and Similipal to see crocodiles and tigers, they will also visit places where they can see blackbucks. Since the species is nearly extinct in the neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Jharkhand, people from these states come to Odisha to see blackbucks,” said Pradipta Kumar, DFO, Chandaka.
Steps were taken to rehabilitate the Indian antelopes in Bhitarkanika wildlife sanctuary in 1985-87 by introducing 14 (nine males and five females) zoo-bred specimens from Nandankanan Zoological Park. They could not adjust to the new surroundings and all of them perished after a couple of months.
“But this time it’s different as the environment has been changing, and the antelopes are making themselves comfortable in the changing surroundings. They have adapted to the Bhalukhand-Konark Wildlife Sanctuary in Puri, so there will be no issues regarding change of environment, though poaching may be a major hurdle in keeping these animals safe. The people residing close to the area need to be more careful about protecting the animals. The villagers in Ganjam have taken care of blackbucks like their children,” said Bhubaneswar based zoologist PK Parija.
The blackbuck is a medium-sized antelope which stands at about 80 centimetres at the shoulder and weighs about 40 kilograms. Blackbucks are sexually dimorphic. The males are brown in colour initially and without horns. However, with the secretion of a sex hormone, males develop a pair of unbranched, ‘corkscrew’ horns on each side of the head and their body colour changes to black. The beautiful spiral horns may grow up to 50 centimetres. The body coat is light yellow in the young and females.
Blackbucks live on fresh tender leaves, grass, crops, cereals, and vegetables. They feed for a long time, selecting succulent grass and tender shoots of crops and plants which help them maintain the balance of water in their bodies. They can survive without water for up to seven days.
The normal life span of blackbucks is about 12 to 15 years. The maximum age recorded so far is 16 years and 10 months.