Hare today, hopefully not gone tomorrow

share this article

Because it is a prolific breeder, the Indian hare is currently a ‘least concern’ species on IUCN’s endangerment scale. On the other hand, the incidence of poaching or hunting falls heavily on Lepus nigricollis, which has its own share of wild predators to deal with.

The black-napped hare can freeze as well as kick up dust at 80 kmph when it senses danger from predators or hunters. | Wikipedia

Strolling through a tea field in Munnar as a teenager some time in the late 1950s, I was once taken aback when a large, drab-looking stone about twenty feet ahead of me suddenly metamorphosed into a hare that sped away. Its camouflage was so realistic — it had flattened itself to the ground — that even a ‘jungle-wise’ predator would’ve been fooled. It was my first encounter with the Indian hare (Lepus nigricollis) and the start of an abiding interest in this fleet-footed denizen of the wilds.

The Indian hare is also called the black-naped hare because of the patch of black fur that runs along the nape of its neck. It is endemic to South India and Sri Lanka and is said to have been introduced into Java, Mauritius and Seychelles. It’s generally found where large tracts of bush and jungle alternate with farmland. In addition, hilly regions are also its preferred habitat.

Measuring 40 to 70 cm in length and weighing between 1.5 to 7 kg, the Indian hare, like other hares, has long prominent ears and large hind feet which are well-furred. The female generally tends to be larger than the male. They breed throughout the year, with reproduction tending to rise during the monsoon. Up to eight young — called leverets — can take birth after a gestation period as short as 41 to 47 days. Birth is usually in a hollow made in the grass, and the young are kept hidden from predators in dense vegetation where they remain very still and unnoticed — a key trait that enables them to survive later as adults. Hares are usually solitary creatures except during the breeding season, and they are believed to communicate with each other by drumming their feet. They are also basically nocturnal and crepuscular in their habits.

A confirmed herbivore, the hare’s preferred diet can vary. During the monsoon, the abundant short grasses are much sought after while during the dry season (when grass is scarce), flowering plants are favoured. It also feeds on crops and germinating seeds. At my son’s residence on the outskirts of Munnar, I often espy a couple of hares warily nibbling on the grass on the lawn in the moonlight.

Hares are often considered pests because of the damage they do to young trees and crops. In the tea estates in the vicinity of Munnar, workers’ vegetable gardens (growing carrots, beetroots, cabbage, cauliflower, beans and peas) are often plundered by hares when other food sources run out — and also as a welcome change of diet! The tea fields here, incidentally, provide the hare with ideal cover against predators besides sheltering its burrow against the elements.

A fairly prolific breeder, the Indian hare is not a conservation concern currently, given the fact that a female can produce up to three or four litters in a year. As a result, the IUCN has listed its conservation status as being of ‘least concern’.

However, it should be borne in mind that the hare is often targeted by poachers, an ever-present threat that haunts virtually every species of wildlife in India. The hare’s fur is used to make felt and to line gloves and its meat is relished as a delicacy. Indeed, it is said that the hare was introduced to the Seychelles basically to provide food for plantation workers.

In some parts of rural Tamil Nadu (especially Virudhunagar district) poaching is believed to be rampant. In 2011, forest officials there apprehended as many as 39 people involved in illegal snaring and seized more than 50 hares. Their initial investigations revealed the existence of a well-organised poaching and trade network driven by regular demand. What was surprising — if not disquieting — was that college students were also found to be actively involved.

Forest officials found that a ‘high-tech’ snare, consisting of a conical-shaped net equipped with searchlights and buzzers to attract the quarry, was being used. The contraption was believed to cost around ₹3,000 apiece and indicates the extent to which poachers are prepared to go.

Such well-organised poaching leads one to suspect that besides the meat, no doubt served as a delicacy in high-end hotels, the skin of the hare and its body parts are also much sought after. If left unchecked, this disturbing trend could well put the Indian hare on the endangered list sooner rather than later, belying the IUCN’s optimistic classification of its conservation status.

One method of poaching popular in Kerala and elsewhere in the south at one time (and probably still in use) was to sit atop a car or jeep with a shotgun to mow down hares as they scampered away illuminated by the vehicle’s blinding headlights. Nothing, of course, could be more unsporting for the quarry becomes practically a ‘sitting duck’ in such a situation. Some poachers also cunningly position a snare just outside a burrow so that the unsuspecting hare virtually walks into it.

Besides humans, the hare has to contend with a slew of predators in the wild. These include the fox, jackal, wolf, wild dog, leopard, wild cat, eagle and hawk. Of course, its fleet-footedness — it can achieve a speed of up to 70 to 80 km/hour — plays no small role in its ability to outrun its pursuers. Sometimes it conceals itself in a cave or the hollow of a decaying tree to outwit them.

Camouflage is a reliable ruse that the hare falls back on from time to time. The colouring of its fur — a patchy brown and grey — enables it to blend in well with its surroundings, making it almost unnoticeable to a predator. Sometimes, to avoid detection, it flattens itself on the ground or on vegetation. Or, sensing imminent danger, it may just freeze, looking more like a large but inconspicuous stone, and continue to remain absolutely motionless unless one approaches too close for its comfort (as I did as a teenager), and it is forced to make a sudden and swift dash to safety.

Sadly, in India poaching continues to be a major problem for the survival of our diverse wildlife, both endangered and non-endangered. It’s odd how man’s dormant hunting instincts are aroused at the mere sight of a wild animal. It perhaps explains why, despite the stringent blanket ban on hunting, many find the temptation to kill defenceless species on the sly irresistible. More often than not, mercenary considerations too play a very decisive role in this sordid state of affairs: there are many who simply cannot resist the temptation to calculate the value of a wild animal (or its body parts) in monetary terms.

To put it plainly, as far as wildlife is concerned the concept of ‘live and let live’ appears to be losing its appeal and relevance.

share this article
  1. Comments will be moderated by The Hindu editorial team.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.