Written by Chaitanya Krishna, photographs by Sarang Mhamane.
Mention the word “blackbuck” to a city dweller and after just a moment’s thought, “Salman Khan” comes the reply. It is indeed tragic that one of the most beautiful and iconic animal in India today is known primarily from an attempt to kill it. Hopefully one day, the word, “blackbuck” will conjure up the image of the antelope itself and with it, images of wolves, bustards and grasslands stretching away to the horizon.
It is believed that several thousands of blackbuck lived in the open plains of the Indian subcontinent, with thousands of animals in a single herd. It was the most common and visible wild animal, found almost throughout the entire country. It is no wonder that historical texts and paintings are replete with references to blackbuck. In Hindu mythology, the blackbuck are believed to draw the chariot of the moon god. Why the moon god? A good guess would be that the black and white coloration of the male blackbuck is similar to the half moon in the night sky.
The striking colours and the majestic spiralling horns make the male blackbuck easy to spot. The horns are their weapon of choice when jostling with each other. When in the mood to spar, they face each other with a few feet to spare, lower their heads and charge. The horns clash loudly. With their horns locked, they push against each other, testing each other’s strength. Their hooves kick up dust, each animal gains a few yards only to lose them moments later. They break off, step back and charge again. The process repeats itself over and over again till one animal admits defeat.
These bouts mostly occur in the breeding season when males compete against each other to mate with females. They also occur when one male wanders onto another male’s territory. Every adult blackbuck male has a territory. An individual’s territory is prominently marked with piles of dung and with more subtle markings of urine and secretions from the pre-orbital glands, which are located below the eye patch. The territories enclose resources such as food or water. When females visit these areas to access the resources, males attempt to court females with an elaborate display.
The male utilizes almost every part of his body in this display. The head is held up with the horns almost touching the back. The white ears are pointed downwards, while the tail is raised up. Both these actions serve to highlight the contrasting black and white colours. Throughout the display, the male makes guttural sounds. Research has shown that the display in its entirety is very energy consuming. If the male has successfully wooed a female, he gets an opportunity to mate with her. This is the mating system observed in areas where blackbuck populations are small.
“Lekking” is the mating behaviour exhibited by blackbuck in areas with large populations, such as Velavadar National Park in Gujarat and Tal Chappar Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan. During the breeding season, males congregate on small areas, called “leks”. Female blackbuck visit these congregations, inspect the males, choose and mate with one male that is judged to be the best. Much like a swayamvar! This concept, with historical representations in the Indian epics and more recently explored by reality TV shows is practised by a number of animals and birds in the natural world. Perhaps yet another idea we borrowed by observing the natural world?
A specialist of the open plains, blackbuck are incredibly fast. In the past, their survival depended on their ability to outrun Asiatic cheetahs, one of the fastest land mammals. They also show a behaviour typical of antelopes which occur in open areas,they stot. If a predator is detected, the animal repeatedly launches itself off the ground with all its four feet in the air. It is believed that this behaviour advertises or signals the animal’s body condition to the predator. The predator may not choose a physically fit healthy animal in its prime, but would rather single out a weaker individual to hunt. It is sometimes difficult for the predator to focus on a single animal as blackbuck live in groups.
The most common group consists of the light brown coloured females, juveniles and fawns. However, there are no tightly knit bonds within a group. Animals join and leave groups as they please. Adult males that have territories are mostly solitary. Males without territories band together to form “bachelor herds”. They watch, learn and wait on the sidelines for the day when each will have his own territory.
Blackbuck are well adapted to living in dry conditions. They are capable of going without water for up to two days when green grass is available. In the harsh summers, they need to drink water everyday. This dependence on water is a natural population control measure. In the past, blackbuck populations have crashed in times of famine. Nowadays, their survival is threatened by habitat loss and poaching.
Several high profile cases have catapulted the issue of blackbuck poaching into the spotlight. Poaching would have continued unabated if not for the Bishnoi community, who have become synonymous with blackbuck conservation and rightly so. They actively conserve blackbuck due to their religious beliefs and large herds of blackbuck are found around Bishnoi villages. Blackbuck are found around villages in many parts of India. The common grazing areas around villages is often the only habitat available for their needs. In February this year, the Supreme Court ruled that village common lands cannot be diverted for commercial or private purposes. Safeguarding the village commons will enable blackbuck to survive.
Much of the blackbuck’s preferred habitat, the open plains are now agricultural areas. Only small parcels of land unfit for agriculture remain as grasslands today. Even these areas are increasingly being transformed for developmental activities. As fertile agricultural land cannot be diverted for non-agricultural purposes, the last vestiges of Indian grasslands surviving on barren rocky areas are now host to educational institutions, factories and the like. With fewer and smaller natural areas available for their sustenance, blackbuck feed on agricultural crops in some areas. This angers the farmers and unless it is checked, blackbuck face an uncertain future.
However, there is hope. Grassland conservation across India received a much needed shot in the arm recently. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has announced a plan to conserve bustards with specific aims to formulate policies for managing grasslands. Smaller initiatives to help farmers tide over agricultural losses due to blackbuck are equally important. Acting together, these initiatives will ensure that blackbuck will continue to dot the Indian countryside as they have for centuries.
An edited version of this article was published in the inaugural issue of Saevus.