A couple of centuries ago, some four million blackbuck roamed the Indian landmass south of the Himalayas from undivided “Punjab to Nepal and probably in most parts of the Peninsula where the country is wooded and hilly, but not in dense jungle”. At the time of Independence, their numbers had fallen to about 80,000 in India, thanks to the love of hunting among the subcontinental royalty and officers of the Raj. The species had disappeared altogether from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and only a handful survived in Nepal.
By the time India enacted the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, to give the blackbuck — or Indian antelope — as much protection as the tiger, their numbers had dwindled to under 30,000. By the turn of the millennium, around the time Salman Khan and four other filmstars allegedly killed two blackbuck near Jodhpur, the numbers of the antelopes had recovered to around 50,000.
The improvement allowed the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the international body that keeps track of endangered species across the world, to alter the status of the blackbuck from ‘Vulnerable’ during the 1990s to ‘Nearly Threatened’ in 2003. A decade after that, the antelope had become so numerous in several pockets of Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, that even without availability of robust population estimates or trends, IUCN was able to further relax the blackbuck’s status to ‘Least Concern’ in 2017.
Three factors helped the species recover. One, the ban on hunting. Two, the absence of two of its most efficient predators — the cheetah is extinct; the wolf is scarce. Three, massive conversion of woodland to farmland largely compensated the inevitable loss of the blackbuck’s natural habitat to development activities. Until, in the garb of animal welfare, a new threat emerged.
The Bishnois have been in the spotlight for taking on Salman Khan and his co-actors for their alleged blackbuck-and-chinkara hunt in 1998. This sect of western Rajasthan does not tolerate the killing of wild animals or the felling of green trees as part of their religious beliefs. In 1730, Bishnois hugged khejri trees to save them from being felled for the construction of a new palace for the Jodhpur royalty. As many as 363 members of the sect lost their lives in the protest, which went on to become an inspiration for the Chipko Movement of the 1970s. No wonder wildlife — including blackbuck — flourished in the safe haven in and around Bishnoi settlements.
While protecting wildlife is a matter of faith for Bishnois, a section of farmers in Odisha value the blackbuck for its role in enhancing agricultural productivity. They believe plants grow thicker and produce higher yields after blackbuck have cropped their tops. So, a cluster of 70 villages in the southern district of Ganjam is reported to have created a special habitat for more than 3,000 antelopes.
And yet, the blackbuck, along with the blue bull (nilgai), has become a major threat to agriculture wherever they have become over-abundant. As early as in 1989, a study estimated that 300 blackbuck had caused a loss of Rs 29,000 to the sorghum crop in Gujarat’s Surendranagar district. In 1990, the Wildlife Institute of India looked into conflict mitigation measures to limit the damage caused by nilgai and blackbuck in Haryana.
Unlike nilgai, blackbuck are yet to be officially identified as pests or vermin anywhere in India. The strong cultural connect with the species dates back to the Harappan era. In mythology, the blackbuck is variously described as the vehicle (vahana) of Vayu (the wind god) and Chandrama (the Moon god). The antelopes apparently also pulled the chariot of Krishna. In Rajasthan, the goddess Karni Mata is considered to be the protector of the blackbuck.
All this is undoubtedly a lot of goodwill to beat. Unless the damage to crops and farmland reaches a tipping point, the elegant blackbuck — along with the sprightly chinkara, the Indian gazelle — will remain a dainty symbol of innocence, which, with a dash of piety, will probably make every hunter appear darker than his act, and justify the sense of vindication felt by many after Thursday’s verdict by the trial court judge in Jodhpur.
Yet, this should also be the moment for a reality check. Today, poaching or hunting may account for only a fraction of unnatural blackbuck deaths in the country. A 2010-11 study in western Rajasthan found that even road accidents (3%) kill more blackbuck than poaching (1%). And it was predation that caused the bulk of the 192 unnatural deaths recorded in the study.
The space that the cheetah and the wolf once occupied has been filled by feral dogs. Often protected by powerful animal welfare NGOs, these packs were responsible for 93% of the unnatural blackbuck mortality reported in the 2010-11 study. The situation is no different for chinkara or other wild herbivore species of comparable size. And that, right now, is by far the biggest threat that these species face.