The species

The blackbuck Antilope cervicapra (Linnaeus)

[The following account is a modified extract from Menon, R. K. (2000) The quintessential antelope—life of the blackbuck. Resonance—Journal of Science Education 5(11): 69-79.]

The Sun God rides in a chariot drawn by two prancing horses, but the chariot of the Moon God, Chandra, is drawn by a pair of antelopes, the blackbuck. This is possibly due to the white ring around the eye of the animal, which suggests the moon in the night sky. Indians have venerated this antelope from ancient times. To Lord Shiva, this buck was a sign of good omen and blackbuck horns joined together at the base, their sharp ends shod in iron, became the weapon of religious fakirs. In Kim, Rudyard Kipling describes such a fakir with a staff of blackbuck horns. The blackbuck has been known to Europeans since the time Alexander the Great invaded India around 326 BC and was presumably part of the animal trade. The animal has received protection in many areas of India due to its sacred associations.

With its black and white coat and magnificent spirally twisted horns, the male blackbuck stands out in any collection of animals. The blackbuck is an antelope and not a deer, although it is sometimes mistaken for one. Unlike the antlers of deer, the horns of blackbuck are not deciduous, that is, they do not fall off once a year to grow again—they are permanent. It is a small antelope, with pronounced sexual dimorphism. The adult male, standing about two and a half feet tall and weighing about forty kilograms, is larger and more strikingly coloured than the female. While the male is dark brown or almost black on its upper parts, starkly contrasting with the white around the eyes and on its underside, the female is light fawn above and white below. Albino blackbuck, rarely seen, are white with pink-tinged eyes and horns, which may occasionally show malformations.

Young males have a pelage colour like the females, but can be distinguished by the presence of horns. The horns appear as small spikes on the head in the yearling buck, but begin to develop spirals in the second year. Unlike deer antlers that grow from the tip, the horns grow from the base. A well-formed pair of horns on a mature blackbuck male may reach two feet in length and have a nearly equal spread between the tips.

The blackbuck is endemic to the Indian subcontinent. Small populations are known from parts of Nepal and Pakistan, but the bulk of its range of distribution falls within India. The animal was once seen throughout India except in Malabar and Deltaic Bengal. Today they are restricted to Central Peninsular India, the eastern seaboard, and parts of North Western India. Like many African antelopes, the blackbuck is essentially a species of open habitats such as grasslands, savannahs, and semidesert. Forests and hills are not for it. In fact, in Tamil, the blackbuck is called veli maan, which means antelope of the open areas. Open country, offering high visibility to detect predators and flat terrain to escape from them at top speed when attacked, is the ideal habitat for blackbuck. It is well adapted to this semi-desert habitat and can tolerate relative extremes of heat and drought.

The species boasts of a long and manifold cultural association with people. Yet, in many areas, blackbuck populations have declined. Today it is an endangered species, placed in Schedule I of India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, and survives mostly in sanctuaries.

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