Situating Nilgai in Delhi

Amit Kaushik

Culling wildlife in contested spaces has been a new form of land acquisition in human-wildlife co-habitants.  In India, after the incorporation of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, hunting was banned, and several wildlife types were listed under several categories. This gave them legal protection to wildlife based on their status. Several species like mice, house crows, fruit-bats, termites, etc. were listed under Schedule V which declares them as vermin and allowed people to freely kill them without any legal approval. As per Section 62 of the Wild Life Protection Act, the Central Government may, by notification, declare any wild animal other than those specified in Schedule I, and Part II of Schedule II to be vermin for any area and for such period as may be specified therein and so long as such notification is in force, such wild animal shall be deemed to have been included in Schedule V.

Nilgai in Sanjay Van. Photo by Amit Kaushik

The Nilgai is the largest antelope in Asia and it comes under Schedule III of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 of India. In 2015, the Bihar government got approval from the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEF) to cull the nilgai in 31 districts. The reason considered by the ministry was agricultural losses to farmers. Recently, several state governments, such as Maharastra, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, etc. have submitted their applications for listing the Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) under Schedule V. Several scholars and activists have questioned these applications and have challenged their legal positionings.

The return of wolves in German cities; the presence of wild boars in Rome; mountain lions in Los Angeles; Leopard in Mumbai; hyenas in Harar has made news recently for the return of the wild to cities. The history of urban ecology is not very old, and it was only in the 1960’s when urbanites first shifted their focus from conventional concerns of conservation of a so-called ‘pristine’ ecosystem to the novel conservation of city ecosystems. The initial focus was towards clean air and water, open space, outdoor recreation, and quality of the human environment (Dasmann, 1966). Over time, between the 1960s to 2010s, cities have expanded exponentially and drastic landscape-level changes have occurred. This has reduced the habitats of wild populations, and in most cases, habitats have been fragmented. As a result, new urban dwellers in the form of these animals are increasingly interacting with humans compared to before. Thus, urban wildlife has become stakeholders in urban planning. The ecological functions of some of the urban faunal species have been recently understood. For example, coyotes in America, and leopards in India. However, the ecological role of some large herbivore mammals in cities like Nara in Japan, New Delhi in India, and London in the United Kingdom is not clear.

A deer in Nara, Japan. Image by Mstyslav Chernov
Nilgai in New Delhi. Image by Vipin Kumar

In Delhi, Nilgai is the state animal and is heavily protected by law. Nilgai in Delhi is found either on the city’s fringes or in hamlets of Delhi’s urban forests.  In these hamlets, the population/populations of nilgai is/are fragmented and isolated. These urban forests are protected under the law because of the ecological functions they perform and ecological services they provide like providing cooling to the urban heat islands, absorbing stormwater, improving oxygen levels, etc. Hence, the big animal, Nilgai is protected inside the ‘big walls’ of these urban forests as per law!

When an animal is declared as vermin, it is either culled or translocated. Both these strategies have been attempted also in India. Specifically, in India, culling has been allowed without any proper ecological or socio-ecological study of the animal, case in point being the culling of Rhesus macaques in Uttrakhand and Bihar. Without such detailed studies, culling has resulted in the extinction of Nilgai from the neighbouring countries of India. In India, the species has existed, maybe due to religious sentiments of Hindus and legal protection under the law. In some states, farmers don’t kill the animal even after getting legal permissions because they fear lynching or boycott from local society. So, they prefer forest departments to kill the animal.

In Uttar Pradesh, the forest department makes constant efforts to tell local people that Nilgai is not a gai (cow). Some state forest departments also plan to change its name due to the same reason; for example, the Haryana government plans to change it to Roz. Some forest officials argue that a simple change in name would transform this animal into vermin so that people would resolve human-wildlife conflict issues themselves. In another interesting case in Rajasthan, the Vasundhara Raje government in 2014 developed a sport of darting nilgai to sterilize them. The sport invited youth or enthusiasts to experience the ‘modern day’s game’. In urban fringes of Delhi, people practising agriculture differ in their opinion and support a population control over the species. To complicate matters, they also have religious sentiments attached to the ‘cow’ in its name. Most of these events and news get reported from either rural areas or urban fringes in India.

Whereas in Delhi’s core areas, most people do not practice agriculture, and therefore, are not harmed by nilgai directly (in monetary terms). It is not uncommon to see the animal being fed by hands or freely foraging on roadside garbage. On the other hand, there have also been some instances of the nilgai colliding with vehicles on the road. Recently, the presence of nilgai was reported at Gangotri Enclave in south Delhi’s Alaknanda, at North Block area near the Parliament, at Hauz Khas village, and so on.

When a male adult Nilgai was spotted inside NIPCCD (National Institute of Public Co-operation and Child Development) colony in Hauz Khas, the Indian Express reported:

Children looked at it in wonder, their parents were worried, and youngsters took out their phones for selfies”.

It signifies that people culturally and socially accept its presence to an extent, or within a controlled behavioural range. The Forest Department of Delhi provides forage to the nilgai populations timely, to ensure their population survives within the Sanjay Van City forest.

So, how does one position a species like a nilgai which weighs 120-240 kgs, has a body length of 170 to 200 cm, feeds mostly in urban parks, agricultural fields, and dumping sites, in a city? How do these large antelopes adapt to a city? What ecological and cultural role(s) of nilgai exist within a city and outside of it? What if there are no nilgai populations left inside Delhi? Do the populations in Delhi interact with those in neighbouring states?  What role do they have in an urban forest community? What do they eat? Do they have a relationship with invasive species in a city? How does plant-herbivore interaction take place in a city?   Why should such large herbivory species stay inside in city? When it comes to the Nilgai in Delhi, endless questions can be asked!

Perhaps the surprise and accompanying curiosity of encountering a supposedly wild, less-acquainted species (as compared to rock pigeons or mynahs and crows) in urban areas provide protection to these large antelopes. In turn, these animals get embedded in cities. Unsurprisingly, the conditions in which these animals survive in cities are completely different from their natural habitats (Tryjanowski et al. 2015). But then again, the urban habitat might not be as unnatural, as species adapt to a well-suited environment. On one hand, these wild animals constitute a sort of diaspora in urban environments, existing amidst the city’s congestion, protected from predation and food security, thereby rendering them as urban residents. Some studies even suggest that the nilgai is a shy animal. But instances like people feeding nilgai in Delhi might change their behaviour over time. It needs to be questioned because nilgai might not be wild anymore; it may convert them into another form of gai roaming around the city. Thus, the importance of these creatures in a city largely indicates how these creatures are made to survive for ascetic and cultural values. But, I still wonder how to look at what is wild in an urban context!

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