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India Today, April 12, 1999
April 12, 1999



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MEHSANA
Suffering Saviours

Villagers who protected the blackbuck now need protection from the species.

By Uday Mahurkar

The Blackbucks have not only damaged crops worth crores of rupees, but also forced villagers to abandon farming and move to urban areas.

The Blackbucks have not only damaged crops worth crores of rupees, but also forced villagers to abandon farming and move to urban areas.

Twenty years ago, villagers of Kadi in Gujarat's Mehsana district would have said the black buck was an endangered species. Today, they would not be too sure, having seen over the years that the Indian gazelle could turn out to be a dangerous species. Especially in large numbers When a herd of blackbucks came to Vishatpura over two decades ago, the villagers, mostly farmers belonging to the Patel community, not only welcomed them but also risked their lives on several occasions to protect them from ruthless poachers from the criminal Dafer tribe. They have now realised that kindness had played a cruel trick on them. For the black-backed creatures, which now number over 6,000, roam around the fields, destroying crops worth crores of rupees and in the process ruining the livelihood of several farmers in Vishatpura and neighbouring villages.

Yet in an attitude that defies logic the farmers, who belong to the Swaminarayan sect and profess the non-violent teachings of 19th century social reformer Swami Sahajhanand, continue to protect the animals from poachers. They only want them translocated safely. "We shall tolerate the destruction of our crops but won't commit sin by killing the deer," says Vasudev Mori, a schoolteacher and honorary wildlife warden of Vishatpura.

Meanwhile, the farmlands of Vishatpura betray telltale signs of distress: barren fields, destroyed crops and distraught farmers. The villagers have spent many a sleepless night trying to stop the rampage of the blackbucks. They claim the annual loss due to crop damage is Rs 5 crore. To add to their woes, crop yield has also fallen to less than 50 per cent in the two decades. Earlier, two or three crops were cultivated each year, but the blackbucks have forced a change in the crop pattern. "For whom should we grow more than one crop? For the blackbucks?" asks a distraught Ravaji Thakore of Ghughla village. Agony is writ large on his face; the jowar yield from his fields is now less than a third of what it used to be before the blackbuck menace. He has been reduced to borrowing money at high interest rates to eke out a living. Laljibhai Vithalbhai Patel, another farmer, suffered a loss of Rs 15,000 recently when blackbucks overran the standing wheat crop on his farm.

Cash-rich crops like coriander and cumin and pulses like tuvar are no longer grown for they attract the deer. Many farmers have been forced instead to switch over to jowar, wheat and paddy. But there is little gain even in this because the blackbucks actually do more damage running through the fields than by foraging on the crops.

The state Forest Department did draw up a primary translocation plan to shift the blackbucks to nearby sanctuaries without hurting them in deference to the sentiments of the peace-loving villagers. Four of the six blackbucks which were shifted to Indroda Nature Park near Gandhinagar, however, died of shock. Nevertheless, the department is going ahead with its plans to trap the deer and shift them to sanctuaries all over Gujarat or to areas which are mostly non-agricultural. Says Govindbhai A. Patel, chief conservator of forest (wildlife): "Translocation is turning out to be a difficult as well as a costly affair."

Mori wants environmentalists in the country to take up the issue. "They are in the habit of giving unsolicited advice in this country," he says. "We challenge them to suggest a remedy to our problem without causing harm to the deer." However, according to sources, the Forest Department might be forced to issue hunting licenses under the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act for killing the blackbucks as a last resort if other alternatives fail.

This is not pleasant news to a community whose faith preaches jivdaya or mercy to all living beings. But in a village like Vishatpura whose population has halved in two decades as the blackbucks have forced many to abandon farming and shift to urban areas for a livelihood, the peaceful co-existence between villagers and blackbucks is turning into a struggle for existence. And that's when the thin line between man and beast disintegrates.

 

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