Sojourn at Jayamangali Blackbuck Conservation Reserve
Updated: Oct 10, 2021
'The buck stops here!', as I first came across the corkscrew-shaped horn under molten golden sunlight in the rugged ecosystem dotted with open grassland, I knew that I would return again with that affirmation. Full of Eucalyptus and Earleaf acacia, known as Akashmoni in Bengali, Jayamangali has been a pristine discovery in Karnataka-Andhra border few years ago where I came across this endangered horned animal in its full glory – blackbuck, the fastest running wild animal of India who can clock and sustain speeds of 80 km/h, so much so that Mughal emperor Akbar kept Asiatic Cheetahs for hunting Indian gazelle and blackbuck when Cheetahs roamed from the Indian subcontinent to the shores of the Red sea and throughout Africa. With both conversant in habitat of low rugged hill and rocky tracts, bordering on wastelands and terrain with tall grasses, Akbar took it upon himself to train the fastest land animal on earth (Cheetah) to hunt antelopes.
In the beginning of the eighteenth century, during the reign of the Maharana Sangram Singh, naturalistic paintings were made to commemorate hunt of the previous century with portrait of Shah Jahan on the horseback while his trained Cheetah making a kill of blackbuck, the only predator they cannot possibly outrun. And yet, juveniles and
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ill old ones get preyed by Indian gray wolves, golden jackals and even stray dogs. With their anxious disposition and underdeveloped sense of smell and sound, blackbucks need to heavily rely on their eyesight for survival. So abundant still was their presence in India that Emperor Jahangir while travelling to Agra from Delhi never lost sight of this animal. However, widespread habitat destruction and poaching made their condition extremely worrisome over the time.
The earliest mention of blackbuck is dated from 1900 BCE, where its long twirling horns were depicted on a shallow earthen dish of Late Harappan period. McIntosh and Van der Geer suggested that blackbuck might have been a source of food in the Indus Valley civilization (3300–1700 BC) and bone remains of blackbuck have been discovered in sites such as Dholavira and Mehrgarh. With a small population now surviving in arid Nepal plains and only an introduced population in Pakistan where it became extinct as a free-ranging animal, nearly 95% of natural blackbuck population are found in India, which is just 1% of its original population!
In the agriculture-dominated landscape of Deccan Plateau, measures were taken to protect this then near-threatened species and the conservation centre at erstwhile Mydanahalli, Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve, is a testimony of that effort. Good news is currently they are moved to the 'Least Concern' category in IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) list. And they are not restricted to Mydanahalli alone. Listed as a Schedule I species under the Wildlife Protection Act, blackbucks here roam around 26 surrounding villages for food and fodder.
Touch of the golden hour
During my first visit in 2014, I missed the golden hour. So this January I planned in advance with my friends and left Bangalore at the wee hours of dawn to relish the apricity along with the sight of this elegant creature in the landscape of open meadows. I like places that can humble Google map or technology as a matter of fact, and this protected area is one such place where it would be beneficial for visitors to know the native name (Krishna Jinka in Telugu and Krishna Mriga in Kannada) of blackbuck as map will misguide you during the last leg of the journey and you need to ask locals for direction once you reach Kodigenahalli village.
Jayamangali has the largest contiguous population of blackbuck in Karnataka apart from Ranebennur Blackbuck Sanctuary, which is also inhabited by the highly endangered Great Indian Bustard. Except in Thar desert where blackbuck is not found, the distribution of blackbuck more or less overlaps with this large bird. Villagers claim that they have seen Great Indian Bustard in Jayamangali in the past, but no conclusive evidence has been found. Be that as it may, we were welcomed by morning chorus of Shrikes, Indian Rollers, Indian Silverbills, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-larks as soon as we started approaching the grassland.
6:46 AM was the expected sunrise and we reached the locality 15 minutes before. So instead of approaching further to get in through the muddy track, we took time to get down from the car and enjoy hot tea from a roadside stall as we watched flocks of Grey Babblers and Laughing Doves fidgeting their way out from various trees.
It was amazingly soothing for the senses amidst chill to feel and see the jungle coming alive bit by bit from the envelope of sheer darkness through warm crepuscular rays. The birds became chirpier for a moment, the trees turned from spectre to spectacle and the whole atmosphere vibrated with a glimmer of hope.
We needed to take the same car inside as no forest vehicle, guides or safari option are available here. This time I didn't even find a guard at the entrance. There was nobody to ask for any entrance fee or camera charges. I am not sure whether this is due to the pandemic. In the total absence of any formalities, it became altogether more easy to just indulge our senses in nature. We again got down to bask in its early glory. I told the driver to slowly follow us as we intended to walk on the forest track. I saw both of my friends' faces beaming with wonder and joy. Nobody's talking, everyone got lost to admire everything from the top canopy to ground flora while the collective hum of arboreal species was creating music.
And just like that. it was a new day! I look at the forest floor to see one community of living organisms replacing the other. I think, for a moment, we all forgot about blackbuck sighting.
No 'chase a target' mindset works in forest if one has to take in its natural essence with heart's content. Our to-do lists could wait! A different kind of reverence and trance-like state had set in. Even while in a group, we all started meandering in different directions of our own accord for sometime by the pull of its wild beauty. A friend who always vouch for not being ever able to practice meditation turned unconsciously meditative! This is the magic of forest.
The trees, the trail, the leaves, the sun - we were soaking it all in from all directions just like this Eurasian Hoopoe, considered sacred in ancient Egypt and known for its fascination for sun-bathing.
I observed a Long-tailed Shrike (rufous-backed shrike) sitting quietly on a dried up branch, perhaps pondering about capturing a flying insect or a small snake for today's breakfast. 14 different species of snakes have been recorded here along with 125 different species of birds.
This Ashy Prinia decided to keep things lively with tee-tee-tee call. We were smiling without knowing not why.
A solitary Laughing Dove was intently looking at the ground from atop, perhaps setting sight on some plant for seeds. The mauve-pink patch around its neck looked sublime.
A stocky Indian Roller was also perching on a neghbouring wire. We came across Black Drongos aplenty nearby.
A pair of Red-vented Bulbul looked at us while stopping to feed on their diet of fruits and insects.
Suddenly temperature dropped as mist has engulfed the surrounding. Everything was turning into a muted blur. As if earth was exhaling early morning breath! Breathe in, breathe out...now, let go of who you are, and become who you can be!
A distant wind picked up the translucent current. Last night's troubled sleep stood in seaming defeat in front of this cold gray air which took away the last twinge of tiredness from my face. As imagination got drawn to a nebulous distance, we were oblivion of the fact that we were being watched all along. They always got to watch us before we 'spot' them.
Blackbucks! A juvenile and fawn were looking at us through soft wreaths of misty silver while another fawn (one outside the frame) was grazing on the low grasses. The mature males only have the dark brown/black and white colour contrast in their coats, while females and juveniles come with caramel colour or light yellowish tan. Females are also lightweight in comparison and some of them can develop spirally-twisted horns like their male counterparts, but generally females don't have horns. Males have horns that are diverging, cylindrical, spiral, and ringed throughout. Even the few females that have horns lack the rings and spirals that characterize the male blackbuck horns. They possess a short tail which is compressed.
Rutting peaks are coming, I murmured in my mind, though they breed throughout the year. Males mark territories by rubbing black secretions from facial scent glands onto vegetation as well as using dung middens and urine.
We got to see faraway glimpses of two males on the other side of the track.
Males vigorously defend territory intrusion by other male in a courtship ritual strategy called 'lekking' during mating season, with the strongest male occupying a territory with most resources to lure females in. Adult male blackbucks typically defend small clamped territories and emit loud grunts and don't shy away from taking any competition head on. They experience fierce competitive aggression associated with dense aggregations. This extreme clustering of territories by competing individuals are different from other territorial systems and herding. It's perhaps the most complex behaviour demonstrated in all vertebrate mating systems. Why males aggregate and choose to defend small display territories located in close proximity from one another to invoke female mating bias?
A curious model proposed that leks are formed when less attractive males establish territories around popular males to try to intercept females traveling to popular males. I have often seen this behaviour in Hindi movies! Jokes apart, the most important and immediate benefit to males defending clustered territories is high mating rates. While most other ungulate species exhibit resource-defense polygyny, harem-defense polygyny, monogamy, or dominance hierarchies within herds, different populations may adopt different mating systems, and even within the same population mating strategies may be variable in lekking species. Territory clustering might be opted for because clusters are better able to retain estrous females than are solitary territories. However, there are several compelling theories and hypothesis around lekking.
Shall we pass the buck?
'Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.' : I remembered this John Muir quote as we kept on walking on the uneven soiled track when the forest got up from its slumber. For the next few hours, we saw many blackbucks. Unlike my last visit, this time I couldn't find them in large herd. They were mostly reclusive and scattered. But they rarely live in isolation and form an average group size of 10-30 individuals. In suitable habitats, herds having more than 100 individuals can be seen. Their distinctive social organization includes all-male bachelor herds, all-female herds, territorial or harem herd with one territorial male and females of all age and mixed herd formed by males and females of all age groups.
Habitat type and resource availability broadly dictate the herd size. With very less time invested for individual vigilance, predator can be spotted faster when blackbucks stay in a large herd, optimizing the time devoted towards foraging activities. Dilution of resources forces dispersion. Herd size is usually smaller in summer due to the dearth of resources but here in the month of January, we saw the biggest group of 8, quite alienated from one another. And that's concerning. Still their graceful yet alert gait, shy yet bold gaze, tactile yet distant manner didn't fail to enthrall as usual in a fields where jowar and millet are cultivated by and large along with other wide variety of pulses and cereals.
My camera could never admire them as much as my eyes did. At the same time, I felt concerned looking at their unprotected state in a agrarian landscape. Their lifespan must be affected by the presence of fertilizers, chemicals and pesticides abundantly present in this landscape to grow watermelon, green chilly seeds and tomato. They require open grass lands with intermittent tall grass or bushes for delivery, fawn nursing and to seek protection against predators as well as the rain and wind. But cultivation, cattle grazing, pressure of human habitation, accidental fires majorly affected their state with habitat degradation. The number of vine yards and fencing activities that I saw this time frankly appeared quite troublesome. A conservation success story needs to be closely monitored and continuously maintained.
On the other hand, neighbouring villages are also affected by their presence as blackbucks would invariably attribute to crop loss and damage, causing major strife for local farmers. Ecological imbalance and economy have struck a strange and complicated dynamics in this country. This place clearly exposed why. It screams for a need to establish a community conservation centre instead of working on fragmented cross-purposes. But first and foremost, it's of utmost importance to enhance the vitality of the natural grassland and not use it as a wasteland. This landscape, on the contrary, is rapidly turning into a full-fledged farmland and many developmental activities are around.
They forage for a long time, select succulent grasses, tender shoots of crops and plants which help them to maintain water balance in their bodies. Foraging activity is subjected to several considerations like seasonal fodder availability and its quality, the sun elevation during day and temperature of the area. Blackbucks have evolved mechanisms for water conservation and when deprived of water, they can increase the concentration of urea in their urine and reabsorb water from their faeces.
Increasing population of feral dogs along with chemicals and fertilizers used in this cropland were perilous for fawns. And then, as male being targeted for its attractive skin and horn, it is more prone to poaching. Even smuggling of blackbuck skin has been recorded in this area. The decline in the number of adult males disturbs the reproductive behaviors and in turn internal breeding has its own adverse effects on the diversity and viability of the population.
According to mythological texts, blackbucks were employed in the chariots of Lord Krishna. They are considered auspicious in India and Nepal. According to the Garuda Purana of Hindu mythology, it bestows prosperity in the areas where they live. Some communities of the Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh believe that hailstorms will not destroy fields on which blackbuck have feasted. The Bishnoi community of Rajasthan and parts of Punjab believe that crop yield increases in fields where blackbuck have grazed. But this sentiment among villagers is not universal. Many farmers feel antagonized, specially in agricultural belt where monsoon-driven single-season crops are cultivated like at Nannaj village in Solapur district around the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary in Maharashtra where blackbucks are also present.
Heart stopped looking at their every leap. Though we nurtured some panglossian thoughts for a moment or two about coming across a stray leopard, I knew that was just a wishful thinking. However, Jayamangali has other smaller mammals in the form of Indian wolf, Indian fox, jungle cat, small Indian civet among others. We didn't come across any of them.
We also didn't see a single species among the 67 different species of butterflies sighted in this area. But that didn't stop us to appreciate the shimmering golden glory of the terrain and its biodiversity.
After spending over six hours exploring the grassland, we prepared to leave in forgetfulness of all ill in the world like these babblers. However, I couldn't shake off my concern for the future easily. The success of any conservation programme creates unregulated population rise if kept unchecked and that will only augment man-animal conflicts. Criss Jami said, "The unyielding optimist will pretend that the forest is not burning either because he is too lazy or too afraid to go and put the fire out.” Can we really pretend that this conservation attempt in isolated pockets will suffice to protect these strikingly distinct Indian antelopes while retaining the ecological balance and addressing other practical concerns in times to come? Can we blame the farmers if they increasingly grow intolerant towards crop damage? Where is a sustainable model? Shall we visit, enjoy, photograph and pass the buck?