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‘Cosmetic Changes’ Spur Blackbuck Deaths in Chennai’s Raj Bhavan

‘Cosmetic Changes’ Spur Blackbuck Deaths in Chennai’s Raj Bhavan

Representative image of a couple of male blackbucks. Photo: Hari K Patibanda/Flickr CC BY 2.0

  • The Raj Bhavan complex in Chennai and the Guindy National Park are important conservation spaces for the blackbuck, an Indian antelope.
  • However, 20 blackbucks have died in the past five months – a drastic jump from the 10 that died between 2017 and 2020.
  • Experts said that the Raj Bhavan’s decision to replace native grass with an alien Mexican variety is directly responsible for the deaths.

New Delhi: An alarming number of blackbucks have died, apparently due to starvation, inside Chennai’s Raj Bhavan in the past five months, with experts linking the development directly to the decision to replace native grass with an alien variety of Mexican grass, according to the New Indian Express.

The newspaper reported that in the past five months, nearly 20 blackbucks have died. In comparison, just 10 blackbucks died in Raj Bhavan between 2017 and 2020.

The blackbuck is an Indian antelope that was abundant at the beginning of the 20th century and found in grasslands across the country. Extensive hunting and loss of habitat have seen their populations reduced to a handful of national parks. The species was added to Schedule 1 of the Indian Wild Life (Protection) Act, which lists rare and endangered species to provide legal protections and prohibit hunting.

One park that hosts blackbucks is the Guindy National Park, which is an extension of the Raj Bhavan’s grounds. The park, though small in area, has proven to be an important biodiversity reserve. A recent census found that only 77 blackbucks were left in the park and Raj Bhavan forest complex.

The recent deaths in Raj Bhavan occurred after the governor’s residence replaced native grass with an alien variety of Mexican grass in the Star Garden. This is one of two open grasslands and blackbuck habitats on the campus, the New Indian Express reported.

Experts told the newspaper that the alien variety is “non-palatable to blackbucks and spotted deer” and “the link between the developments is hard to miss”.

“Blackbucks, unlike spotted deer, feed on select varieties of fresh grass, herbs and shrubs. Cosmetic changes like replacing native grass with alien varieties and poor maintenance of open grasslands can threaten the survival of blackbucks,” R.J. Ranjit Daniels, a trustee of the biodiversity research foundation Care Earth, told the newspaper.

He added that the Raj Bhavan should remember that it is located inside a reserve forest and prioritise wildlife welfare. “The grasslands need to be urgently revived and a wildlife management plan should be prepared,” he told TNIE.

While the newspaper was in possession of photos and video showing grass being replaced, the Under Secretary to Governor – in response to RTI queries on what grass was used in the star garden and polo ground and whether any changes had been made in the last five years – replied: “Information not available from the office records.”

Sources told TNIE that said that three blackbucks that died recently were fawns abandoned by their mother last December. While they were rescued by forest department officials, they were too weak and succumbed. “… the post-mortem report showed they had nothing in their stomachs,” TNIE quoted a source as saying.

Additionally, the 30-acre polo ground, the last remaining blackbuck habitat in the Raj Bhavan complex, has become uninhabitable for the antelopes due to an “overgrowth of thick and tall vegetation”, the report said. Since 2016, the Raj Bhavan has not allowed the forest department to maintain the ground for “security reasons”.

In a separate report, TNIE also said that the Raj Bhavan has added 11,315 square metres of built-up area without any clearance from the forest department.

Since the complex exists on land that was declared a reserved forest in 1978, any construction requires prior clearance from the Union environment ministry. The newspaper, in an RTI application, asked the Raj Bhavan to provide details of any construction that occurred after 1980. The response showed that the first addition came in 1997-98, while the most recent was in 2013.

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