While the hunting cheetah has now become extinct in India, is it time for the blackbuck to disappear as well?

It's only black and white, yet beautiful; obviously the animal has attracted numerous hunters in the 18th, 19th and first half of 20th century. The remarkable blackbuck was reckoned as the most hunted wild beast all over India. Even until Independence, many princely states sought the Indian Antelope by deploying the fast-footed cheetahs. While the hunting cheetah has now become extinct in India, is it time for the blackbuck to disappear as well?

A lady in her 20s from Bangalore has moved nearly 2000 km from the comforts of the city life to study blackbucks. She has taken up the challenging task of evaluating the essence of the mating rituals of this endangered animal for her PhD research. In a freewheeling interview environmentalist R. Jayabharathy says she prefers to be in the grassland for hours at end in the heat and dust of the desert. With an eagle-eye, she watches the blackbucks' activities in the enchanting landscape of Tal Chappar. Situated in Churu district, Tal Chappar is an unknown sanctuary in Rajasthan that holds an untamed congregation of black bucks.

Is the blackbuck population dwindling in India?

Yes, the blackbuck antelope is an endangered species in India, protected under the Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also lists blackbuck as near-threatened. It definitely needs strict protection.

In how many protected areas are blackbucks found today?

Blackbuck is endemic to the Indian sub-continent and occurs in a wide variety of habitats ranging from grasslands to open woodlands and coastal salt marshes. However, they are found in highest densities in semi-arid grasslands, which are considered to be their preferred habitat. Historically, blackbuck had a pan-India distribution. In the pre-Independence era, these animals reportedly numbered in tens of thousands. For instance, Tal Chhapar used to be a hunting reserve under the Rajput rulers. But over the years, loss of habitat and hunting has significantly brought down their numbers. Viable populations of blackbuck thrive within protected areas and outside as well. Some of the secure sanctuaries today are Tal Chappar in Rajasthan, Velavadar in Gujarat, Nannaj & Rehekuri in Maharashtra, Vanasthali and Rollapadu in Andhra Pradesh and Point Calimere and Vallanadu Blackbuck Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu.

What is the breeding season for black bucks?

Blackbucks breed throughout the year; however, there are two peak reproductive activities that transpire in March-April and September-October. The reproductive method of blackbuck also involves a unique method called lek. It is a specialized mating methodology where the males gather, akin to a bachelor party, and defend the specific spot to attract females. Aggregating males on traditional mating grounds, largely devoid of feeding resources, attract prospective females. In fact, the evolution of lekking throws light on a species with a flexible mating system. This specialty in sexual scheduling at designated territory is only noticed in blackbucks and does not occur in any of the 410 mammal species found in India.

Why are leks called traditional mating grounds?

Because it has a fascinating history of evolution in ecology specific to blackbucks and the same patch of earth has been used probably for decades. This knowledge possibly has been passed from generations to generations and it is vital that scientists study this wonderful ritual at the ‘mating hotspots'. A lek contains a dynamic number of males ranging from 25 to 50 healthy individuals.

How long is your field study and do you use photo evidence in your study?

I have a permission from the Rajasthan Forest Department to conduct my research at Tal Chappar. My work involves identification of specific males showing dominating characteristics that varies from season to season. Photographic evidence, coupled with physicals features like horn morphology of males, will illustrate the behaviour on leks. I plan to use photo options to pinpoint individuals and identify a subset of males that are seen to hold territories on leks.

Why have you chosen Tal Chappar over other sanctuaries?

My research is concerned with male mating strategies on leks. Only the blackbuck populations in Velavadar National Park and Tal Chappar Wildlife Sanctuary are known to follow lekking. While both Velavadar and Tal Chappar have comparable sizes of lek, in terms of the number of males, site suitability is better in Tal Chappar as it encompasses a smaller area. It is conducive to get closer to animals on foot or even closer in vehicle here. These factors make my study logistically and scientifically more feasible.