The blackbuck generally avoid the hilly terrain and stay in the plains grazing in the fields. | Photo: Sumit Chakraborty
In 2010 I visited Bhetnai, a little known village in Ganjam district of Orissa. We started our journey from Balugaon and as the fields faded into more fields, the roads took us deeper and deeper into an interior that is far away from the hustle and bustle of towns. Soon we reached the sleepy, small village of Bhetnai with its open plains nestled in the foot of the hills. As our eyes scanned the horizon, some black dots caught our attention. Cattle? No, on closer inspection, the dots revealed themselves as blackbuck — hundreds of them, grazing in the open fields!
The story goes that long ago, Bhetnai and adjoining villages were drought prone. Consequently no cultivation and no crops were seen in the area. This was the condition till one day two blackbuck walked into the village. From the very next day, it began to rain and the following months saw the parched land turn into a fertile one. It was this incident that led locals to revere the blackbuck. Those creatures were the harbingers of the rain, crops and good fortune for the locals — the gift from the gods. Thus no one in the village killed them or even injured them because it was believed that such an act would bring misfortune upon them. When the population of the blackbuck increased slowly, they would often invade fields, feeding on crops. One day a farmer poisoned and killed one of the blackbuck and it is said that the very next day the person developed leprosy.
One can find a hundred and one such stories coming from people about the blackbucks that graze in their backyards fearlessly. The locals have even formed their own ‘Blackbuck Protection Committee” and anyone caught poaching or injuring the blackbuck is reprimanded by the committee.
Except during monsoon, this place is reminiscent of the African savannah — semi-arid, low, rocky hills and scrub jungles forming a matrix here and there. The blackbuck generally avoid the hilly terrain and stay in the plains grazing in the fields. It was amazing to watch the male blackbuck going along with their harems as well as the occasional fights between male blackbuck over a harem as their antlers clash in fierce bouts. The does, on the other hand, are placid and move around in herds. If one is very cautious, one can actually go very close to the herd and observe them, but a slight betrayal of presence leads to drama — the blackbuck shoots into the air as if its feet are struck by madness. That scene will remain etched in my mind’s eyes forever — the black, shining body against the backdrop of the hills and the blue sky. It seemed like the sun’s rays were reflecting rainbows from the blackbuck’s lean, muscular contour.
However, people’s tolerance is being put to the test by the rising blackbuck population. Devoid of predators, save the feral dog and occasional wolf, the blackbuck roam around freely invading croplands.
How much more tolerance will people show? In an age where Bhetnai youth want to migrate to the urban world, what is the existing lifespan of this isolated piece of cultural tolerance for the blackbuck? Bhetnai reminds us of a certain past that many people think of as highly romantic — a past that showed tolerance to our fauna. Is this tolerance not the reason we still have a variety of canids and felids in spite of an escalating human population whereas the eestern countries, despite preaching conservation, hunted many native fauna to death? In an age of rapid globalisation, let us then pause to decide how much more we will allow our cultures to be eroded.