A legend goes that well over a century ago, a long drought hit a few villages in the Ganjam district of Orissa. When the drought was at its worst and all hope was given up, a herd of blackbuck (Antelope cervicapara) appeared out of nowhere — and soon after their arrival came life-giving rains. The locals have since worshipped and protected these antelopes with their lives. Such was their love that when a Maharaja came to shoot them, he was stripped and paraded. Lesser mortals would have had to give up much more than just their clothes and self-esteem.
This gratitude towards the animals, which are called 'Krushnasara Mruga', continues to this day. The Blackbuck Protection Committee, led by Honorary Wildlife Warden Amulya Upadhyaya, was felicitated by the state government with the first Biju Patnaik Wildlife Conservation Award, in 2005. The number of blackbucks in the area has now crossed 1,600, and the animals are distributed over 60 to 70 villages.
Except in the monsoons, the area bears a semi-arid look and consists of low, rocky hills with scrub jungles that harbour wild boar, barking deer, hare, hyenas, a few wolves, jackals, foxes, etc. The blackbucks, being animals of the plains, avoid the hills and graze in the fields. They have little fear of humans. One can watch the bucks clashing in short, fierce bouts over their harems. Sometimes the immature bucks, still brown and looking more like chinkaras, try challenging the seasoned adults, and it is amusing to watch them change their minds and flee after an incomplete start! The does, on the other hand, are placid and frequently seen in large herds. Their fawns can be found hidden in the crops, perfectly camouflaged. Then there are the bachelor herds of young bucks. As the day heats up, they start resting in the shade.
In the monsoons the area is bathed in hues of green and the antelopes congregate in impressive numbers — mating being the order of the day. Since they are under strict protection and in the near absence of natural predators, their numbers continue growing.
Save feral dogs, jackals and the occasional wolf, the blackbucks have no worthy predator. Although the canines manage to kill a few fawns now and then, the real blackbuck hunter — the cheetah — is long-extinct, and the wolf is following. The locals usually ‘rescue’ the few fawns that are attacked, and even the males that are sometimes fatally wounded after fights.
But this increasing population is now leading to new, inevitable problems. Their numbers are beginning to tell in crop losses and farmers, who earlier believed that the ‘holy’ antelopes’ grazing on their fields ensured bumper crops, are beginning to now feel the pinch. The crop raiding nocturnal wild boars in the area don’t help either. Some people have begun urging that the antelopes be relocated elsewhere.
But how? Such attempts have failed elsewhere, and where else will they get such protection? In most places, they will only be looked upon as easy protein. Should some be culled instead? However, crop losses notwithstanding, the people of Ganjam will never allow that.
Upadhyaya urges that the government should, instead, expedite the passing of proposals to give this area Community Reserve status. These files have been gathering dust in government offices for the last five years. This will not only let the government compensate the farmers for crop losses, but also provide funding for creating watering holes; planting fallow land with fodder to lessen the antelopes’ dependence on cultivation; and bring in organized tourism, which will, in turn, bring in revenue and employment, etc.
But, to achieve this, competent and devoted officers need to become serious and make sure that red tape and bureaucracy do not get in the way, like they have been over the past five years. They need to realise that this is the least that the people of the rest of India can do to thank the people of Ganjam for protecting such a legacy.
As published in the Tehelka, 20, December 2008
Text and image © Aditya Chandra Panda, 2009. All rights reserved.