The sad saga of the Sambar

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In the overall interests of maintaining the crucial balance of Nature, it is imperative that the sambar population be stringently protected from poachers.

The vulnerable sambar deer could do without human poachers, given that it is an integral part of the natural ecosystem in Munnar. | C.V. Subrahmanyam

On the sambar falls the unenviable task of serving as the staple prey of Munnar’s carnivores, notably the tiger, panther and wild dog. In fact, wild dogs are known to cyclically decimate the sambar population in these hills, judging by the number of skeletons found in the wilds. Further, wild dogs are believed to start feeding on a sambar voraciously even before it is dead. Adding to the ungulate’s woes is the fact that its meat, known as venison, is much sought after locally, sending poachers on its trail.

It is on record that as early as the 1880s the sambar was hunted by Munnar’s pioneer British tea planters in a novel blood sport euphemistically termed ‘stag sticking’ — much like the British aristocracy hunted foxes with a pack of hounds in England in times long past. Deploying packs of hounds specially bred for the purpose, a stag would be scented, pursued and eventually brought to bay with the hardy hunters following on foot. Then one of them would give it the coup de grace. The story is told of a novice who was given the privilege of knifing a stag. “Quick! Where do I stab it?” he cried breathlessly as he stumbled up to the grounded quarry. “Here!” said a veteran, pointing to the region of the stag’s heart — and the excited youngster promptly drove his knife through the man’s fist.

Laboriously stalking a stag before shooting it was another blood sport popular with the British planters and passed down to their Indian successors when hunting was permitted. Shooting was strictly regulated then, with open and close seasons. Only stags with antlers measuring above 32 inches were allowed to be shot while all hinds were scrupulously protected. It is on record that a visitor who was given permission to shoot a stag and ended up killing a hind was never allowed to hunt in the district again. Incidentally, sambar meat (or venison, to use a British term) continues to be in demand.

 

We should realise that by allowing poachers to target the sambar indiscriminately, the carnivores will be deprived of their natural prey. If left unchecked, this will result in the progressive depletion of the sambar population, forcing the carnivores to prey on livestock — or, worse, humans.

 

Specimens of the stags culled in those distant days can still be seen in local planters’ clubs as well as in Munnar’s unique tea museum, in the form of majestic-looking taxidermied heads with their impressive antlers, some sporting as many as 6 tines. These exhibits are proof of the Brits’ hunting prowess in a bygone era when the adage “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” was taken seriously.

As a teenager growing up in Munnar, I recall several instances where sambars, pursued by a murderous pack of wild dogs, sought shelter in housing colonies in tea estates in a desperate bid to escape certain death. These fugitives were ‘coralled’ in empty firewood sheds and watered and fed for several days before being sent back to the wilds, their fear of humans alleviated to some extent.

One evening several years ago I found a stag drowsing, quite literally, in a clump of vegetation in a secluded valley, its ears flicking away some troublesome flies. Fascinated, I crouched and watched it unnoticed for several minutes before I accidentally stepped on a dry twig which snapped crisply. What a graceful sight it presented as it shot to its feet and bounded away effortlessly!

Another time I chanced upon a huge stag browsing in a tea field. On seeing me it froze, rock-like, perhaps hoping I hadn’t noticed it. I played along and kept walking as though I hadn’t seen it. After rounding a bend I stealthily retraced my steps and spied on it unseen. It was a truly magnificent specimen, it mane thick with coarse bristles and its impressive antlers branching out gloriously. The epitome of alertness, it must have sensed my presence without seeing me, for it suddenly cantered off, leaving me awestruck.

 

 

On yet another occasion I was privileged to see the stately outline of a magnificently antlered stag silhouetted against the sunset as I returned from a tiring hike in the hills. It was a really captivating sight that perked me up and dispelled all my weariness in a jiffy.

Shy and nocturnal by nature, the sambar (Rusa unicolor) is mainly active at twilight or at night. It is extremely alert, freezing when disturbed and sometimes stamping a foreleg to signal danger. An adult stag may weigh between 150 to 300 kg and stand about 150 cm at the shoulder. Only the stags sport antlers, which may measure up to 120 cm. Besides being displayed as trophies and sold as souvenirs to tourists, the antlers are often powdered and used in native medicine as an aphrodisiac, making the stag the target of poachers.

A herbivore, the sambar feeds on various types of grasses, foliage, water plants, herbs, bamboo shoots, bark and stems. It is a good swimmer and seeks the safety of water when pursued by wild dogs. It swims with its body fully submerged and only its head visible above the water. In summer herds of sambar often congregate near jungle lakes to wallow in the water, with an egret or two stealing a ride on their backs.

Sambar stags are known to spar with rival males by locking antlers and thrusting fiercely at each other. Sometimes they rear up on their hind legs and clash downwards into each other. A British planter once found two sambar stags dead in a tea estate near Munnar, their antlers inextricably locked in mortal combat.

The average lifespan of a sambar is between 16 to 20 years. It breeds mainly during the months of November and December with the hind usually giving birth to a single fawn after a gestation period of 8 to 9 months. During the rutting season, the belling of stags — which sounds something like ‘toink-toink’ — can be heard in the remote valleys of Munnar’s tea estates and the Eravikulam National Park.

Sambars have a sex ratio predominantly favouring females due to the high mortality of males. This is largely because of predation by the carnivores as well as the depredations of poachers who generally target the stags. Interestingly, when cornered by wild dogs, stags are known to put up a very spirited last-ditch stand with their deadly, sweeping antlers and flailing hooves before being hamstrung by their wily attackers and grounded ­— the prelude to an agonising death.

 

 

The sambar is classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN. Besides carnivore and human predation, habitat loss and fragmentation have also significantly contributed to the decline in its numbers. However, its flesh being one of the most sought-after wild meats, poachers are perhaps its greatest threat, judging by the seizures reported by the Forest Department from time to time in the southern States. Knowing the sambar’s weakness for salt, some poachers lure it to specially laid-out ‘salt-licks’ where it becomes virtually a sitting duck. Or at night they use powerful flashlights or vehicle headlights to blind it into stillness before shooting it.

In this context I am reminded of an egregious case of poaching in Munnar in the mid-1990s. Hearing a gunshot near his bungalow late one night, an Indian tea planter went out to investigate and found two poachers fleeing in a jeep. Though alone, and with total disregard for his personal safety, he hotly pursued the culprits in his jeep and finally caught up with them to find — besides the carcass of a sambar — that one of them was a custodian of the law! While the planter was rightly honoured for his exemplary courage by a local NGO committed to wildlife conservation, quite predictably the cop got away with it.

More recently a local bigwig was arrested by Forest Department personnel for poaching a sambar, highlighting the urgent need for stricter vigilance. We should realise that by allowing poachers to target the sambar indiscriminately, the carnivores will be deprived of their natural prey. If left unchecked, this will result in the progressive depletion of the sambar population, forcing the carnivores to prey on livestock — or, worse, humans. This, of course, will inevitably bring them into conflict with man and all that it implies.

In the overall interests of maintaining the crucial balance of Nature, it is imperative that the sambar population be stringently protected from poachers. Regular patrolling at night by mobile squads of the Forest Department would go a long way in effectively ensuring the safety of the sambar and other wild animals. Additionally, licensing of firearms and sale of buckshot-loaded shotgun ammunition should be meticulously monitored and restricted in areas known to shelter the sambar.

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