- As many as 70 villages in Odisha’s Ganjam district in the northern Eastern Ghats have been conserving blackbucks for a century. The shy antelopes share open fields with the villagers here.
- Local communities regard the animal as harbingers of wealth and prosperity. The community protection has led to an increase in the blackbuck population over time.
- Experts said government intervention is not required in Ganjam even as threats from industries, road kills and dogs have emerged in recent years.
Gullu Gowda is a busy man in December and January every year as tourists make a beeline for his village Bhetnoi in Ganjam district to catch a glimpse of the fast-moving blackbucks (Antilope cervicapra), a near-threatened species. Herds of the slender antelopes grace the yellow and brown open grassland areas along the periphery of his village fringed by hills of the northern Eastern Ghats.
Gowda works as a local guide and takes tourists to spot the treasured ungulates that are associated with legends and classical Indian ragas like the Bhimpalasi and Todi. Herbivores like the blackbuck that require large home ranges and have large food requirements due to their herd size are one of the most affected species imperilled by fragmented and shrinking habitats hemming them in altered habitats in small patches.
But in Bhetnoi, the antelopes leap and roam around freely near the villages – grazing on the grass, nibbling on pulse crops and other small plants but are said to shun paddy. They don’t seem to spare a second thought to potential threats lurking around. The large congregation of blackbuck herds in Bhetnoi and 69 adjoining villages in Ganjam district is a result of decades of conservation efforts by the local communities who regard and protect them like family.
The species is listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and is a species of ‘least concern’ in IUCN Red List of Threatened Species category. Their population was not significant in the 1990s but lately, due to consistent protection of the animal through community participation from the area, the blackbucks have thrived in this pocket. According to the blackbuck census conducted by the local forest department, the population stood at 1533 in 2011 which increased to 2809 in 2018 and in 2020 went up to 6875.
Amulya Upadhaya, Bhetnoi’s sarpanch (village chief) told Mongabay-India that in the 1990s the local Blackbuck Protection Committee was formed and later a District Blackbuck Protection Committee, comprising the community members, came up to ensure the protection of the animals. “The villagers never harm the blackbucks even though with the rise in their population, the damages to standing crops have increased. In our farmlands, you can see kids playing cricket on one ground and within 100 feet, the blackbuck herd are roaming and grazing the grass. This is the trust, the animal has developed with the local people here,” Upadhaya affirmed.
On the other hand, the blackbucks are very shy and keep away from humans and don’t entertain human touch. Several tourists who are keen to take a closer picture are flummoxed when the animals leap away at high speed as they see humans approaching. Locals claim that they maintain a distance of at least 100-200 metres from humans. Members of the local community told this visiting correspondent that the blackbucks are considered as harbingers of prosperity and wealth. With an increase in the animals’ population, drought spared the region.
According to the state government’s Odisha Wildlife Organisation, the conservation of the species from the area goes back to a century. “The story goes more than a century ago, there was a long spell of drought in the locality. During this period, a small group of blackbucks appeared in the area after which it rained and the drought spell was broken. Since then, people started protecting these animals devotedly as they feel that their fate is linked with these blackbucks,” information on the website states.
“During 1918, a Britisher known as “Green saheb” and the “Sardar” of the locality, Sri Madeshi Chandramani Dora, took an initiative for the protection of these species and published a notification in the Oriya newspaper Prajamitra prohibiting the killing of the blackbuck.”
The local forest officers also revealed unique traits of the animal in Bhetnoi. “The blackbucks only roam around the fields in herds. They are also very comfortable walking with herds of sheep, cows and others. The main threat to them in our area is from the dogs that attack the fawn; road accidents also endanger them,” said Bhetnoi Forest Range Officer P. K. Sahu.
Sahu’s office hosts a treatment facility for injured fawns and adult blackbucks. “However, we have seen that when we send them back after treatment, the herd doesn’t quite accept the healed animal for a few days after it comes in contact with humans. So we have now started putting a layer of turmeric before releasing them to avoid such rejections,” he said.
The local forest department has also installed a four-storey watchtower to offer a chance to tourists to observe the graceful animals from a height; the watchtower is also useful to the department for monitoring the blackbucks. The forest department also has leased private land near the villages to grow plants that are much sought after by the animal, to avoid damages to the crops sown by the community.
Buoyed by the community conservation of the species, the state Forest Department has decided not to interfere in the protection work but provide hand-holding support to the community for better protection.
“We are satisfied with the community participation in the conservation of blackbucks in Ganjam. We have no plan to legally protect it through any government intervention by declaring this area as a protected area. We have started giving the villagers compensation for the loss of their crops, taking care of the treatment of the blackbucks in cases of injuries and also working towards boosting the site for tourist importance,” Principal Conservator of Forests (PCCF)-Wildlife H.S. Upadhyay told Mongabay-India.
The blackbucks were earlier confined to only Ghumsur South Division which comprises Bhetnoi and other villages but now they have started migrating to other areas like the Ghumsur North Forest Division and Berhampur Division. Blackbucks are mainly found concentrated dominantly in the Ganjam district of Odisha but a few animals have been sent to the Balukhand-Konark Wildlife Sanctuary in Puri district.
Wildlife experts assert that the conservation and revival of blackbuck numbers in Ganjam should be credited to the local community, flagging threats the animals face from hazardous industries. “Blackbuck conservation of Ganjam district is a perfect example of community protection. The government is a least stakeholder here. However an operational stone quarry, a power station and lack of speed breakers on the roads in the blackbuck habitat areas can be a major threat to their safety,” said Biswajit Mohanty, a wildlife expert from the state. He informed about poaching activities by people outside of the community.
Isolated reports of poaching of the animal have been reported from the state. In 2016, three persons were held for alleged poaching and selling blackbuck meat. In 2019 one person was held for alleged poaching of the species.
Arun Kumar Roy Mahato, Senior Scientist at Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology said that the Ganjam model of conservation is unique due to the community-led conservation rather than the involvement of any particular tribe or government which are prominent in parts of the country. “In Gujarat blackbucks are protected in Blackbuck National Park in Bhavnagar district. In Rajasthan, the Bishnois are known to protect the animal but in the case of Odisha, villagers from several rural areas irrespective of their caste and background collectively protect the animal,” he said.
Mahato who did his Ph.D. on Ganjam model of blackbuck conservation under the Zoological Survey of India said that government intervention in form of a protected area doesn’t make sense in this case. “First, there is no need for the government to protect the animals here as the whole community living around them is protecting them and there is no threat to them from the people. Moreover, practically, the whole area is owned by the community and rich in farmlands which is not under the control of the government. The co-existence of blackbuck and humans and subsequent thriving population hint at a good practice which needs to be preserved,” he said.
Banner image: A blackbuck takes a jump on the open land of Bhetnoi in Ganjam. Photo by Rakesh Roul.