Wildbuzz: What’s in a name that we call sambar

A change or amendment in the scientific name will be helpful in Indian wildlife litigation involving Sambars, such as poaching or environmental clearance for diversion of Sambar habitats, says a wildlife expert
A House crow picks ticks from a Sambar’s ears in Chandigarh’s Sukhna lake jungles.(PHOTO: SARABJIT LEHAL)
A House crow picks ticks from a Sambar’s ears in Chandigarh’s Sukhna lake jungles.(PHOTO: SARABJIT LEHAL)
Updated on Jun 13, 2020 10:00 PM IST
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ByVikram Jit Singh

The Sambar is the most widespread deer species of Asia and the largest of the Oriental deer. The occurrence of the Sambar is seemingly common enough in our region and its status does not attract the attention of wildlife conservationists and policy makers. Only poachers seem to pay an unwholesome attention to this species. In its natural state, birds such as the Cattle egret and Rufous treepie associate with Sambars by clinging to them and removing parasites from body parts such as the deer’s ears. The Sambar is also the stock prey of the tiger. But there is much more than meets the eye to the deer’s name, the Sambar’s seeming omnipresence and its perceived conservation status in India’s besieged wilderness.

International scientists changed the scientific or zoological nomenclature of the Sambar from Cervus unicolor to Rusa unicolor to notify the change in genus. This means that while the common English or vernacular name of the species will vary according to the culture and linguistics of the regions where it is found in India, South Nepal, Sri Lanka, South China and South-east Asia, the scientific nomenclature remains the same, Rusa unicolor. For example, in India the deer takes its common name, Sambar, from the South Indian vegetable stew with a mix of spices as the deer’s pelt resembles the colour of that popular dish while in Nepal it is referred to as the Jarao and in China as the Four-eyed deer.

The complications start when we find that the scientific nomenclature of the deer remains unchanged in the official records and wildlife protection laws of India, which persist with the outdated, genus-wrong and taxonomically-incorrect, Cervus unicolor. Not only that, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has placed the species as a “vulnerable” one in its Red List primarily due to its poaching for meat. However, India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, persists with a decades-old placing of the Sambar under Schedule III, which does not reflect the IUCN’s heightened concern over its diminishing population. The IUCN estimated the Sambar to have declined globally by more than 50%. However, the evaluation of the Sambar’s conservation status in India will require an appraisal of numbers, declines and distributions specific to India as the IUCN’s “Vulnerable” status is global in coverage and spans several nations with differing variables on the Sambar’s status.

The remains of a magnificent head of a Sambar stag killed by stray dogs at village Chhoti-Baddi Nagal, Mohali. (PHOTO: VIKRAM JIT SINGH)
The remains of a magnificent head of a Sambar stag killed by stray dogs at village Chhoti-Baddi Nagal, Mohali. (PHOTO: VIKRAM JIT SINGH)

The above discrepancies between Indian laws and an international evaluation of the Sambar’s scientific classification and its contemporary vulnerability were noticed by former Punjab chief wildlife warden and a current member of the IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication, Gurmit Singh. “Our laws need to be amended to bring them in line with the international standards on the Sambar. I wrote to the IUCN’s SSC co-chair of the Deer Specialist Group, Dr Naom Werner. I then brought my correspondence on the above subject with the IUCN to the notice of the Punjab chief wildlife warden, who has promised to take up the issue with Union ministry of environment and forests, which alone can introduce the required amendments in legislation. A change or amendment in the scientific name will be helpful in Indian wildlife litigation involving Sambars, such as poaching or environmental clearance for diversion of Sambar habitats,” Singh told this writer.

Responding to Singh’s query, the Jerusalem-based Dr. Naom Werner, wrote back explaining the change in scientific nomenclature from Cervus unicolor to Rusa Unicolor.

“The sambar has had a turbulent nomenclatural history. While the genus name, Rusa, was already suggested in the mid-19th century, it has not been used continuously and the genus name, Cervus, was preferred until some 15 years ago (with Rusa sometimes being used as a sub-genus). Since 2005, the name, Rusa unicolor, has been in use and recent studies support this separation. I agree with you that following this change, national Acts (such as India’s) should be amended accordingly,” stated Dr. Werner in his email to Singh.

Tailpiece: What’s in name? Plenty of controversy and confusion! It is Singh’s similar and painstaking efforts to get to the root of wildlife technicalities and seek clarifications from authorities on the subject that the puzzle over the change in the common name of Punjab’s State Bird was resolved. When the ‘Baaz’ was declared State Bird in 1989, it went by the common name of Eastern goshawk. Later, it was changed to Northern goshawk by international ornithologists. However, the Punjab government notification persisted with Eastern goshawk till a few years back leading to speculation that there were two distinct species, Eastern and Northern. A section of mediapersons and uninformed critics assailed the supposed “duplicity” of the Punjab Wildlife Preservation department.

So, which one was the State Bird, Eastern goshawk or Northern goshawk? In stepped Singh, who wrote to a world-famous authority on the sub-continent’s raptors, Rishad Naoroji. He wrote back to Singh explaining that the scientific name remained one and the same (Accipiter gentilis) but since the Goshawk was primarily a bird of the northern latitudes, the common name had been correctly changed from Eastern to Northern goshawk!


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