Rajasthan has a new blackbuck problem. And it's not Salman Khan
- Blackbuck & Chinkara population in Tal Chhapar is growing
- The number has risen to 2,492 from 1,763 in 2006
- This is good news for the \'Near Threatened\' blackbuck
- Due to the state\'s apathy, this growth has become a problem
- The sanctuary has thrice as many deer as it can hold
- Deer stray outside the protected area for food, get killed
- Seven were killed road accidents this year, many fell into salt wells
- The sanctuary shrunk from 820 hectares to 719 after a part was set aside for salt production
- State wants to shift excess deer to Jaswantgarh, but doesn\'t have a plan
- A project to divert the highway bisecting the sanctuary is stuck
Over the past decade, the Tal Chhapar Sanctuary has witnessed a steady growth in the population of its most famous resident - the blackbuck.
Anywhere else, this would be exciting news. Not in Rajasthan.
Here, in fact, the rise in their number has put the blackbuck, classified as 'Near Threatened' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, at risk. And the responsibility lies squarely with the state's apathetic wildlife department.
Since 2005-06, the deer population of Tal Chhapar - it's home to the Chinkara as well - has grown from 1,763 to 2,492. Of these 867 are male, 1,191 female and 434 fawn.
The blackbuck was introduced to Tal Chappar by Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner who used it as a hunting ground. He had brought two dozen bucks from Hanumangarh in the 1920s.
In the years thereafter, hunting and poaching drastically reduced the population of the species. It was only after the government imposed a complete ban on poaching in 1962 that the numbers began to recover.
Since 2005-06, the blackbuck and Chinkara population of Tal Chhapar has grown from 1,763 to 2,492
Besides deer, the sanctuary hosts migratory birds like the Demoiselle crane and several species of harriers. They fly in from Central Asia in September-October and return via Pakistan in February-March.
Other birds like the skylark, crested lark, ring dove, brown dove and blue jay is seen throughout the year. The sanctuary is also home to 19 reptile species.
Seeking a greener pasture
A deer needs about a hectare of pasture for grazing. Tal Chhapar, located in Churu in northwestern Rajasthan, was originally spread over 820 hectares, but shrunk to 719 hectares after a part was allocated for salt production.
This means the sanctuary has nearly thrice as many deer as it can ideally accommodate. The overcrowding is forcing the deer to venture as far as 10 km outside the protected area, exposing them to accidents and poaching.
"We are facing a shortage of pasture for four years now. We brought fodder from outside. We cultivated 34 types of grass in the area," said Assistant Conservator of Forests Surat Singh Punia. "Yet, the deer population has increased to the level where their shifting is necessary."
Only, the state doesn't have a concrete shifting plan.
A thorny issue
The only viable alternative home for the deer is Jaswantgarh, which is 10 km from Tal Chhapar and has similar conditions.
Six months ago, local authorities had chalked out a proposal to shift the deer there in phases. First though, they needed to grow the grasses that the deer feed on and cut down thorny bushes.
Little has been done so far, however. The proposal is gathering dust in some government file.
"We are faced with overpopulation of the deer. Their shifting or expansion of the sanctuary has become necessary. The plan to shift them to Jaswantgarh has not yet been finalised," said Forests and Environment Minister Rajkumar Rinwa.
But while Rinwa's government overcomes its apathy, if ever, the deer are paying the price.
The 3-km-long Nokha-Sikar highway that bisects Tal Chhapar has become a death trap for them. Seven bucks were run over on the highway in 2014-15, one more than the previous year.
The blackbuck was introduced to Tal Chappar by Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner, in the 1920s
The state had constructed four speed-breakers along this stretch sometime ago, but that hasn't completely curbed the deaths.
Five years ago, then chief secretary V S Singh had ordered the PWD department to build a diversion road. It's yet to be laid.
PWD Additional Chief Engineer Shivlahiri Sharma claimed the diversion project is stuck for want of consent from the local population.
Salt in the wound
Apart from the 'killer highway', the deer are falling prey to the 60-70 wells dug for salt production. Straying out for food, many bucks stumble into the wells and die.
In 2009, after the death of scores of deer in a cyclone caused outrage in Parliament and outside, the central government sent a Wild Life Institute of India team to Tal Chhapar.
The team found the deer had grown weak due to shortage of food and thus could not withstand the calamity.
To deal with this problem, the team suggested measures to check overcrowding of bucks.
One was sterilisation of the stags. The sanctuary officials, however, dismissed it saying deer are quite sensitive and sterilisation could kill many of them.
Another suggestion to introduce natural predators in the area was also rejected on the ground that it would endanger livestock of the local population.
As for expanding the sanctuary, it wasn't feasible; the project would have required nearly 1,000 hectares of land, but no more than 77 hectares were available.
That only left the option of shifting of the bucks elsewhere. It's still awaiting implementation.