PRERNA SINGH BINDRA details the incompetent and corrupt callousness that has led to the near-extinction of a majestic species
HER NAME IS Asha. Hope. Appropriate, since she’s the one on whom rests the last hope of a dying species. Asha is believed to be the only female of the only known population of the critically endangered wild buffalo in India.
She might belie her name, though.
I can see her now, standing somewhat timidly in an enclosure in Udanti in Chhattisgarh, in the heart of India and Naxal country. She is tiny, lacking the sturdy build and wide horns characteristic of the wild bovine. We inch into the enclosure — after all, wild buffaloes are known for their bad temper. But this one inches forward too… and tentatively rests her muzzle on my thigh. Hope dies: her physical characteristics and behaviour bear little resemblance to her wild origins. The last possible female wild buffalo, by all accounts, appears to be a runt; to put it more kindly, the product of a mix between a wild and domestic buffalo.
Perhaps the most serious threat to the wild buffalo is hybridisation with its common domestic cousin. According to experts, the central India population is of pure strain, now concentrated only in Udanti, which, along with Sitanadi, has recently been declared a tiger reserve.
Yet, at last count, there were just seven wild buffalos here. Was this the end of the road for the animal? Have we, in our infinite indifference, caused the extinction of yet another magnificent mammal, the progenitor of the ubiquitous domestic water buffalo?
Massive clearance of habitat and hunting for trophy, meat and retaliation for crop raiding led to its extinction in most of its range. The remaining population in Assam in Kaziranga, and to some extent Manas, is a victim of genetic swamping.
The central India population represented the only hope, albeit a faint one. In 1993, Udanti had a population of 93, 14 in Pamed and 26 in Bhairamgarh sanctuaries, while the Indravati Tiger Reserve held 125. The situation has deteriorated, almost to the point of no return. Pamed might have a buffalo or two. In Indravati, there are reports of two small herds, but who is to know — the reserve is besieged by naxals. Officials fear to tread there. In Bhairamgarh and Sitanadi the buffalo has gone. Forever.
And Udanti is following suit.
It starts before my journey — the scent of extinction. The numbers look hopeless: seven animals, including one female of doubtful origin and her equally dubious calf. How can we hope to retrieve this species? Why wasn’t anyone concerned? How did we let it happen?
In my visit I found my answer — it’s called the cancer of apathy.
The buffalo was surviving precariously in a few fragmented habitats when Chhattisgarh was formed in 2000. For long, the Chhattisgarh government didn’t bother to find out the exact numbers of wild buffaloes it had. And if they did, the numbers were inflated to save face and not be blamed for declining numbers.
In 2000, there were about 60 buffaloes in Udanti — which should have been warning enough, but the state was complacent. The government made the token move of declaring it the state animal, before “consigning it to the bin”.
Not my words, but those of a concerned official who spoke anonymously, and admitted that “neither the government nor seniors officers were bothered.”
VIRTUALLY UNATTENDED, the reserve fell prey to illegal smuggling of timber, which continued over years with the involvement of local politicians. With 12 villages in Udanti, and over 10,000 cattle within and around the park, the biotic pressure is immense. Besides degrading the habitat and reducing animal densities, they can carry infectious diseases.
Hunting went unchecked. This vital habitat, the last refuge of a near-extinct species, is under the territorial wing of the forest department, whose mandate is commercial forestry. Mismanagement is another malaise. Huge pools were constructed over shallow natural ponds where the bovines wallowed, making the habitat unsuitable, and the buffalo were herded with beats — much like the shikars of yore — to ensure ‘sightings’, disturbing them immensely.
The Supreme Court stepped in, in response to a PIL against the terminal decline. State officials did not bother to attend the meetings organised by the Central Empowered Committee, constituted by the court. On April 12, 2007, the CEC stated it was imperative “that steps be taken on a war-footing to protect the small and rapidly declining population of wild buffaloes in and around Udanti” — and detailed a plan. This included mapping the genetic profile of the population, round-the-clock monitoring and patrolling, and relocating the 600-odd population of domestic buffaloes in and around the reserve.
One year on: nothing has been done. So what if the Bubalus bubalis stood at extinction’s door?
Still, I am assured of my sighting. Why not, with four, or more than half the total population, in the caged custody of the forest department? The buffaloes are enclosed for a captive breeding programme, the necessity of which cannot be stressed enough. Yet, where’s the wisdom when the genetic purity of the only female and her calf are in question? Why, though she was brought into captivity a year ago, is her DNA testing yet to be done? How have we let a robust, wild population be reduced to caricatures in a cage?
Nothing, however, breaks my heart more than Jugaadu — so named because he frequents the village of Jugaad, bordering the reserve. He is amidst a domestic herd, not 10 feet away. Ordinarily, we would have kept a distance, the wild buffalo is described in shikarhistory as a “one-and-a-half tonne mass of fighting force”. But Jugaadu isn’t concerned by our presence, concentrating on the task at hand, ardently pursuing a domestic female. He has no option: there are no wild females in the forest. Is the paucity of numbers changing the very behaviour of this wild bovine, forcing him into close proximity with humans? Was the future of this buffalo: to be no longer wild but bound in captivity, or amongst its servile brethren?
That is, if it has any future at all.

To Save the wild buffalo

· Genetic analysis of the captive female, and the rest of the population.
· An immediate survey of Indravati and the adjoining Kopela-Kolamarka forests in Maharashtra Pamed, Sunabeda tiger reserve in Orissa, contiguous to Udanti to ascertain the exact status of wild buffaloes in these areas.
· Translocating any possible females from the above areas for a systematic captive breeding programme with the best expertise available
· Simultaneous recovery of habitat, especially Udanti for eventual reintroduction of. Bubalus bubalis in the wild. This will entail rehabilitation of villages from within the core area and replacing the domestic buffaloes around the reserves, better monitoring and protection especially since naxals are a growing concern.
· Declare Kopela-Kolamarka a sanctuary

Tehelka, Vol 5, Issue 50, Dated Dec 20, 2008