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PRERNA SINGH BINDRA
WILDLIFE

We’ve watched as they left us one by one

was going through an old issue (September 1979) of Cheetal — a wonderful journal published by the Dehradun-based Wildlife Preservation society of India — when an article caught my eye, 'Tiger Census in Gujarat, 1979'.

In 1979, Gujarat had tigers. For those interested, that particular census indicates seven tigers, six of which were in Dangs district. Legendary forest officer M.A. Rashid writes, "it appears quite obvious that the tiger in Gujarat is struggling for survival and its population in the state is on the decline."

Today, a little over three decades later, there are none.

At the time, Gujarat must have been the only state to have the three large cats of India: the tiger, the lion, and the leopard. If you went a little further back in time, say in the 1930s or 40s, you could have counted the Asiatic cheetah as well. As we well know, the cheetah has been lost forever, wiped out of India.

The extinction of the tiger in Gujarat is a telling example of local extinctions taking place across India, of not just tiger but various other species. Endangered species, rare animals quietly dying away...not a mention of their passing, not a cry of protest, not a tear shed in grief.

The tiger's last cry in Sariska was heard, albeit when it was too late, but who knows that the Great Indian Bustard ceased to exist in a sanctuary created for it, the Son Chira Sanctuary in Karera?

There were tigers in Mumbai (it was Bombay then, and these were the real guys, not the political variety that exist there now!). The last tiger is believed to have been shot in the vicinity of Vihar Lake on January 22, 1929, by a J.J. Sutari. M.S. Gill, the former Sports Minister rues the fact that tigers have been wiped from his home turf, Shivpuri. "There were too many of them once, you would bump into them all the time, and I am talking of my lifetime," he told me once, "now, they are almost gone..."

elhi had lions—though of course that was way back during the Mughal empire when Palam (the site of the airport now) was the hunting grounds of the Leo Persica, confined now to a tiny forest in Gujarat. Since we are talking airports, old records show that the site where the Hyderabad airport stands today was once where the Great Indian Bustard thrived. This bird, amongst the rarest in the world, has been wiped off all over its range, until about 300 remain today. The critically endangered gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) is now confined to a very small portion of its original range — in fact it is extinct in the Ganga, from where it derives its name, and in the Mahanadi river, a sole representative lives its lonely existence in Satkosia Wildlife Sanctuary, a sanctuary earmarked for the preservation of this animal. The one-horned rhino has been relegated to one corner in Assam, mainly Kaziranaga, with small populations elsewhere, though once you could find it in plenty in the Terai (the Himalayan lowlands) into what is Pakistan today. The hangul, the rare red deer, struggles for existence in its shrinking — and only — refuge, Dachigaam near Srinagar, though once it extended upto Chamba in Himachal Pradesh. The Siberian crane, that lovely winter visitor to India, no longer visits Bharatpur.

The much maligned wolf has been persecuted in India and across the world. I remember sitting with the Maldharis (nomadic herdsmen), in the Little Rann of Kutch, chatting about their way of life and the animals around them. The wildlife they used to see was disappearing, as were the pasture lands, and their way of life. Wolves, said one, had vanished. "We smoke the dens," he said, "to kill the pups." While the wolves did not harm them, they ate the herders' sheep and goats.

The list is depressingly long, endless. Of local extinctions, not just of the grand fauna, but the smaller, non-glamorous animals that have suddenly vanished from the map. Jackals for instance; I remember being woken up by the mournful call of the jackal one night. This was in Ahemdabad, but you could say the same for most cities across India, Delhi included. Their call has vanished even from many forests as urbanisation takes over, and the creature is killed for their tail, which I understand is used in some black magic. Extinction is real, it's happening. It's not the obsessive cry of doomsday pundits. And extinction is forever.

 
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