As dawn gingerly breaks over the sepia-hued, barren grasslands of Saswad near Pune, there is one resident who shyly peeks out to explore its environment: the doe-eyed Indian gazelle or chinkara (Gazella bennettii). This brown-coloured antelope is as beautiful as it is elegant, and leaps like a ballerina straight out of a Disney movie. The undulating yellow-green hills of this region, from the grasslands of Saswad to Pandharpur, are its natural habitat in Maharashtra. These graceful antelopes are often spotted standing still beside short, thorny acacia trees or leaping gracefully into the air at the slightest hint of danger.
Against the amber glow of the rising and setting sun, the chinkara with its elongated horns looks almost ethereal. Its reddish-brown coat contrasts with the white fur on its throat, belly, and face. The colour of its coat serves more than an aesthetic purpose, allowing the animal to blend in with the grasslands and offering it cover from predators.
Chinkaras are shy animals, so you need to set yourself up at a distance to observe them browsing around the grassland. They are usually solitary animals, sometimes they live in small family groups. On good feeding grounds, sometimes many individuals come together to graze.
While waiting in the grasslands to spot an elusive pack of wolves that had been seen there occasionally, our eyes are continuously drawn towards the chinkara. Sometimes we see one standing regally over a boulder, at other times we see one eating the leaves, twigs, and fruits of the jujube and acacia trees, the main fauna of this area and the chinkara’s primary food. “Seventy per cent of chinkaras are browsers,” says environmentalist Dr Mahesh Gaikwad, author of a March 2016 study on the status of chinkaras in the southwestern Deccan Plateau in Maharashtra.
This early morning browsing also means chinkaras can lap up dewdrops accumulated on the leaves, enough to meet their daily water requirement. The fragile beauty of chinkaras belies their inherent strength — as antelopes from the arid region, they can go without water for days, even a month, with only the moisture from leaves and plants to nourish their thirst.
Chinkaras are found in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. In 2001, their population was estimated at 100,000, with 80,000 living in the Thar Desert alone. Mihir Godbole, a wildlife photographer and member of the NGO, Grassland Trust, working extensively in the Saswad region, has observed chinkaras up close during his forays into the area. “The landscapes they are found in are undulating hills and scrub forests. Nature has given these gazelles some unique features to adapt to this terrain. Chinkaras can pluck leaves from the thorniest of bushes without getting cut — their lips are designed especially for the purpose,” he says.
A Fine Balance
Chinkara often need to be on alert against wolves, hyenas, and even eagles who hunt baby chinkaras that are unable to run very fast. Shepherds and farmers who live near the grassland areas often complain chinkaras come in and destroy their jowar crops by jumping over the fences late at night. This has also caused the chinkaras harm as the animals sometimes come up against electrified fences, that are built around private plots of land, and get injured or killed. Though these electrified fences are illegal, several land owners use them to keep animals away.
At the same time, it isn’t unusual to see a baby chinkara as part of a herd of domestic sheep, with a bell around its neck. Many chinkaras which have strayed away from their herd or have lost their mother often find themselves sheltered with a pastoralist’s herd of sheep and goats, and being fed on goat’s milk. “It’s unusual, but not uncommon,” Godbole says.
As the sun moves higher up in the sky, the arid grassland starts displaying its variety and range. A raptor flies overhead, settling on a nearby tree. It is December, but afternoons are hot and without a hint of winter. Instead, they bring a weighty, sun-parched silence to these grasslands. We spot a gracefully still chinkara, yet it is incredibly alert. Its call when it senses danger is markedly different from its regular call. It sounds like a sneeze and before we know it, the chinkara has vanished, threatened by a pack of free-ranging stray dogs.
With rapid urbanisation, dogs are increasingly becoming a threat to chinkaras. They have been injured or hunted by packs of dogs, chasing them up to fenced areas from where they have no escape, say wildlife experts working in the area. The other threat is plotting, as swathes of land are fenced for construction, obstructing the free movement of the chinkara across the grasslands. Environmentalists working in the area say the forest department has also planted trees without taking into account the natural fauna of the region, which will result in loss of feeding grounds for the chinkara.
Loss of habitat
The chinkara has a symbiotic relationship with the babul or acacia tree and the Indian jujube tree, both common to the grassland habitat, says Dr Gaikwad. These plants form the chinkara’s main source of food. In turn, the small berry like fruits of this plant eaten by the chinkara, help spread its seeds in the grassland area. “The forest department is planting exotic trees like gliricidia in grassland areas. This reduces the suitable habitat of grassland species, and there is a need to have a policy of no plantations in grassland areas.”
Rapid urbanisation results in an isolated and fragmented population of chinkaras. The biggest threats in Maharashtra comes from habitat loss, poaching and dogs. Urban development and agricultural encroachment have meant the fragmentation of much of this corridor, such as the four-lane Solapur-Pune Highway or the Saswad-Baramati Road. “The encroachment has ended their movement corridors and it is a patch-wise population now,” laments Dr Gaikwad. There may be no threat to their numbers currently, but Godbole says we need to sit up and take notice.
“For their long-term survival, chinkaras need access to different populations to keep their gene pool healthy. With large roads coming up, habitats get cut off from one another and herds become isolated, which has larger implication on their number and gene pool,” says Godbole. And while the wildlife community is sitting up and taking note, it remains to be seen if the forest department wakes up to this alarm call.
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