Chasing chitals in Chinnar

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Aesthetically speaking, of all the wild ungulates in our jungles, the chital is perhaps the most graceful, eclipsing even the stately-looking sambar.

The chital (Axis axis), also known as the spotted deer or axis deer, is found in dense deciduous or semi-evergreen forests and open grasslands across the country.

As a 14-year-old in 1958, while travelling by bus from Munnar in Kerala to Udumalpet in Tamil Nadu, I espied a tribal stalking a chital stag in the scrub jungle flanking the road near Chinnar (which, though rich in wildlife, was not a sanctuary then). As the hunter crept closer and finally raised his muzzle-loader, the bus swung round a bend in the ghat road, cutting off my view. Still, I heard the shot and agonised long over the fate of that hapless stag. For, to me, the chital has always epitomised gentleness and vulnerability — two qualities that seem to be heightened by the trusting and appealing look in its eyes.

Today one often sees small herds of chital in the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary as well as in the adjacent Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary while travelling from Munnar to Coimbatore. Being accustomed to the heavy volume of tourist traffic on this route, the herds sometimes stand their ground out of curiosity, even when vehicles stop and tourists pile out seeing a photo opportunity. This habit could easily render the chital vulnerable to unscrupulous elements who could resort to poaching, especially at night, emboldened by the fact that the forest checkposts here are several kilometres apart. Indeed, in the 1960s and ’70s, poachers familiar with the paths criss-crossing the scrub jungle shrewdly used these rather than the road to spirit away chital carcasses, leaving the forest checkpost personnel none the wiser.

Another area in the south where herds of chital can be viewed at close quarters is the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in the foothills of Ootacamund. The Tamil Nadu Wildlife Department ferries tourists through the sanctuary in its own mini-buses, giving them a ringside view of wildlife. On a visit in 2004, besides other wild animals, I saw several small herds of chital scatter helter-skelter as our bus approached, only to re-assemble again after it had passed. I was told this manoeuvre was a regular feature — a sort of mock safety drill.

 

 

The chital (Axis axis) is also known as the spotted deer or axis deer. Found in dense deciduous or semi-evergreen forests and open grasslands across the country, its coat varies in colour from golden to rufous, dotted with prominent white spots. The average-sized chital buck stands at nearly 90cm at the shoulder with the hind measuring about 70cm. The weight of a male ranges between 30kg and 75kg, while a female weighs 25-45kg. Chital are primarily grazers, feeding on sprouting grass, shrubs and fruit. Sometimes they can be seen standing on their hind legs to browse on the foliage of trees. They are active throughout the day and rest under shady trees when, around midday, the temperature rises.

Only the stags sport antlers, those of the older ones being three-tined and nearly a metre long. The chital’s antlers, though thinner than a sambar’s, are equally impressive in terms of length and sweep. These are used in self-defence against predators as well as to settle scores with rival males, who often lock horns. Antlers are shed annually and the sharp and pointed tips can inflict serious injury when thrust forcefully at a foe. I recall having read, some years back, about an attendant at a zoo in India being fatally gored by an irate chital buck.

Speaking of antlers, several years ago while driving through the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary I noticed a full-grown stag in its prime flaunting elegantly branching antlers — the like of which I had never seen before — slaking its thirst at a waterhole. Entranced, I just couldn’t help stopping and gazing at it in undisguised admiration before it moved away, perhaps concerned about the attention it was drawing. When it comes to sheer gracefulness, the chital buck puts even the regal-looking sambar stag in the shade.

Gregarious by nature, the chital is usually found in small herds numbering 15-20, though much larger congregations have been observed from time to time. Its predators include, among others, the tiger, leopard, rock python, wild dog and mugger crocodile. In the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, crocodiles basking on the banks of the reservoir of the Amaravathy dam are known to seize the unwary chital from time to time. Given the many natural hazards it faces, the chital’s lifespan in the wild is, unsurprisingly, only about 5-10 years though, quite understandably, it’s known to live much longer in captivity.

A prized shikar trophy prior to 1972 when the Wildlife Protection Act was promulgated, the chital was often hunted by Munnar’s former British tea planters. However, it must be said, to their credit, that they never ever shot a hind, culling only the mature buck that is well past its prime. These trophies are on display in most planters’ clubs in South India — relics of the British era when trophy hunting was a popular sport.

I once came across the pelage of a chital in a planter’s bungalow in Munnar. A skilled taxidermist had converted it into an attractive black-bordered mini-carpet that blended well with the furnishings in the sitting room, the white spots standing out conspicuously against the tawny-hued pelt. Yet, somehow the thought persisted that it would have looked far better on a live chital rather than as a rug.

What’s intriguing is that now and then I’ve come across roadside quacks, palmists and fortune-tellers plying their trade squatting on a chital’s spotted skin, obviously to lend themselves a semblance of legitimacy or authenticity. This is a blatant violation of the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. So is the open sale of peacock plumes and feathers by itinerant hawkers — I sometimes find them peddling these to tourists in and around Munnar. If our national bird can be commercialised, then do the chital and other endangered species stand a chance?

Then I understand there’s a school of thought (mainly consisting of ex-shikaris and possibly arms-manufacturers) who, if given a chance, would readily lobby for the re-introduction of culling on the specious grounds that it would help weed out ageing animals well past their prime that continue to sire offspring that aren’t as healthy or robust as they should be. What such advocates conveniently overlook is the fact that old and weak specimens are often the sole source of sustenance for ageing predators whose hunting skills are impaired by the infirmities of age. As such, it’s best to let nature take its own course rather than permit human intervention — which I’m convinced would only turn out to be grossly inhuman towards wildlife. Let our wildlife live out their full God-given lifespans in the wild.

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