Tracking the state animal: Abohar sanctuary sees dip in blackbuck count, habitat changes prime concern
While the number of blackbucks in the 2011 census stood at 3,500, in the recent census conducted jointly by the Punjab Biodiversity Board (PBB) and department of forest and wildlife preservation, Punjab, at Abohar Wildlife Sanctuary on June 1 and 2, 2017, the population count stands at 3,273.
The marginal decrease indicates continued peaceful co-existence of this Schedule 1 and near-threatened species with the humans in sanctuary area with the Bishnoi community continuing to protect them as per the tradition of this nature-friendly community. The situation may, however, take a turn for the worse in times to come with rapid habitat changes and other factors.
“There are great challenges ahead as this sanctuary is on the private farm land of the Bishnoi community. They need to take measures to protect their crops that are at times detrimental to the state animal. However, we are making all efforts towards positive intervention,” says Geethanjali, conservator of forests (parks and protected areas), Punjab.
The blackbuck was notified as the state animal of Punjab in 1989 and its presence in the state is confined only to Abohar Wildlife Sanctuary, Fazilka, due to unique habitat of semi-arid plains consisting agricultural fields, intermittent fallow/barren lands, scattered sand dunes, sand mounds and ridges.
The sanctuary, having an area of 186 sq. km spreading across on private land of 13 villages, was notified in the year 2000. The land is mostly owned by Bishnoi community, which is contributing towards conservation of the blackbuck and other flora fauna of the area.
The June census, conducted by adopting worldwide standardised scientific methodology of line transects, records the male/female sex ratio recorded as 35:65 (male: female) and a herd with maximum of 219 members was also seen. The highest density of blackbucks was found in Duttarawali, Rajahwali and Khairpur villages of the sanctuary.
The census teams observed current and impending challenges in long-term suitability of the habitat of sanctuary to sustain viable populations of blackbucks. Senior scientist of the bio-diversity board Gurharminder Singh, who designed the census, says: “The major threats are putting up of barbed wires including deadly cobra wires with bladed edged iron wire mesh on the periphery of agricultural fields to avoid crop damages from stray cattle and Nilgai.”
Another danger zone is the substantial rise in the population of stray dogs, leading to organised hunting by them in packs like feral dogs, targeting fawns/sub-adults and expecting females. The fencing of agriculture fields with the barbed wires also restricts the free movement of blackbucks, putting them under stress, besides causing severe and fatal injuries especially from cobra wires during dog chase incidents.
The injured animals are very easily predated upon by dogs. The district administration recently issued a notification for banning the sale and use of Cobra Wires in the district under section 144 of CrPC for protecting the wild animals in the Abohar Wildlife Sanctuary.
Population of stray cattle in the sanctuary areas is also rising as farmers from nearby districts prefer to abandon their unproductive cattle there due to the protective behaviour of Bishnoi community towards all animals. The growing population of stray animals also competes with blackbucks for the already shrinking open grass lands, resulting in their migration to adjoining areas outside the sanctuary.
The census activity was taken up as a special action-oriented activity to commemorate United Nations proclaimed International Day for Biological Diversity, 2017 in the state, with the support of the National Biodiversity Authority, Government of India.
In the present census activity, total 45 personnel in 13 teams consisting of the officers/officials of Ferozepur Wildlife Division & Punjab Biodiversity Board, expert from WWF-India, selected wildlife photographers/ enthusiasts from Punjab and volunteers from Bishnoi community were involved. A special orientation workshop of participants was also conducted on May 31, 2017, to acquaint them to finer nuances of the census activity. The whole area of the sanctuary was covered through selection and earmarking of 13 transect lines of 5 kms each in diverse habitats.