A female four-horned antelope. Photo: Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi.
We had walked only a few hundred meters from our house when a four-horned antelope broke cover from a tiny bush and darted toward the distant thicket of trees. Its golden fur stood out as it flew across the green wheat fields. The deep green colour of the wheat crop on the left side of the path was a stark contrast to the exposed black of the fallow field on the other side. The air still felt warm and sparse from the afternoon sun. In a few days, the wheat will mature and the gold of the goat-sized antelope will melt in the gold of the dry wheat stems.
The sudden appearance of the golden antelope startled Tara, our five-year-old daughter. She asked me if that was a unicorn that magically appeared out of nowhere. It took my wife and I a long time to convince Tara that the animal was an antelope. When I told her that this particular species has four horns, she found it easier to believe in a one-horned unicorn; “even rhinoceros and narwhals have horns like a unicorn, there are no animals with four horns!” she added.
It was just then that we crossed paths with a large bull nilgai. Its bluish coat was taut, and the muscles on its back were flexed. At first, Tara was convinced that this was Badal, her grandfather’s horse. The nilgai ran away at the first sound we made. I was hoping that Tara would have noticed the two horns. She had, to my relief, but she was convinced that it was a horse with two horns – “not like a regular unicorn”. It was up to us to convince her that this animal, which stood nearly six feet tall and weighed over 250 kilograms, was also an antelope.
This conversation was not going anywhere so I thought of distracting her by pointing out some blackbucks that were feeding in the fallow fields nearby. When she heard me say the word antelope one more time, she gave me this look, which suggested that she had lost faith in her father.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that followed presented us the opportunity to stay with my parents who live on a farm in our village, only a few kilometres from the two-thousand-year-old monuments of Ajanta in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra.
I have spent a part of my childhood here. The house is on the highest point in the land, surrounded by fruiting trees of tamarind, mango, jamun, papaya, amla, and guava; maize and wheat are grown in the black soil on the flat parts of the lands. A path leads downhill to a small village pond with teak forest on one side in the backyard. We felt fortunate that we could still go out for evening walks when much of the urban world was forced indoors. That day, Tara held my hand and we waltzed down the hilly path.
“Hop over this rock, sidestep the next one, longer stride now,” I led and she followed as we communicated just through our hands. My calm exterior masked my exultation at being able to share my childhood haunts in the fields and forests of Ajanta with my own daughter.
Three antelope species unique in their own ways
These are three of India’s six species of antelopes. These species are similar to each other, for they are all antelopes. But all three are unique in their own ways. At two feet in height and twenty kilos, the four-horned antelope (Tetracerus quadricornis) is small and skittish; it is mostly solitary and lives in areas with tall grass, thickets, and open dry-deciduous forests. The four distinct horns of the male are perhaps its most unique feature. No other wild herbivore has four horns, which does make it a unicorn, I suppose.
Contrast it with the nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), locally known as Rohith, which is the largest antelope in the world. The young males live in small groups, while the females and dominant males form large herds of up to fifty animals. Dominant large bulls defend large harems of females. A lot has been said about how its name – nilgai or blue cow – has helped it flourish in India. But locally, the males are likened to horses.
The male that we saw ran with a gait that was a blend of the grace of a deer and the power of the horse. He held his head high to see over the bushy and grassy vegetations and his hooves danced with the knees rising high to step over the tangle of low bushes. The females’ soft cream coat with their long ears and long necks do give them the appearance of a cow but only when they are waddling leisurely. When alarmed, they assume the lithe of a track-athlete.
Blackbuck (Antelope cervicapra) is the quintessential antelope. Often referred to as Krishna-Mriga in Sanskrit text on mythology, perhaps because it draws the chariot of Lord Krishna. For me, watching a male blackbuck with his dark and beautiful coat, surrounded by a herd of females, is reminiscent of my grandmother’s stories of the handsome Krishna surrounded by his admiring Gopikas. It is not surprising that small herds of blackbuck are regularly seen in village common pastures – just the habitat where you would expect Krishna to be entertaining Gopikas while grazing to his cows.
All three of these antelopes are the only surviving species in their respective genera and have distributions that are restricted to south Asia. They all prefer different microhabitats but are commonly found in dry-deciduous habitats across much of peninsular India. Interestingly, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists agriculture as a major threat to the survival of the Vulnerable four-horned antelope, but the nilgai–assessed as a species of Least Concern– is considered a pest for agriculture.
It is true that the nilgai is reportedly responsible for significant damage to crops across large parts of northern India. It is indeed true for my village. However, “it is a matter of staying vigilant for a few days when maize shoots are still young and juicy,” said my cousin, who has been farming here for the past thirty years.
He was quick to add that different wildlife species like to eat different crops at different times of the year. The peafowl – India’s national bird – likes to pick the pods of moong and urad (split black gram) before it ripens fully. Wild boars like to uproot maize crops when the shoots are fresh. The langurs like cotton fruits when they are still green and maize kernels when they are ripe. On one of our walks, I overheard an older farmer advising his younger neighbour to be gentle when driving away the nilgai; ‘its the trampling which is more damaging; it’s okay if they feed a little,’ he said.
On the way back, Tara was dozing off as she rode piggyback on me. The breeze had cooled off and the sprinklers watering the wheat fields had come on. Every droplet was shining in the white light of the fresh moon. The chuk-chuk-chukrooooo of the nightjar instantly teleported me back in time. The scene had transformed from a hot and dusty afternoon of my mid-life to a dreamy night from my childhood.
I am grateful that this backyard and its birds, plants, and animals have enabled my daughter and me to share some precious moments of our childhoods even though we live thirty years apart. In her essay A Handful of Corn, Helen Macdonald argues that our gardens and backyards are the special zones that span the imaginary boundary between nature and culture, the shared spaces that both humans and wildlife consider home.
I recently learned the term solastalgia – coined by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht – to mean the emotional distress that one feels when we do not recognise our home surroundings because of environmental changes – mourning the loss of a familiar naturescape. But we will mourn a landscape only if we genuinely love it. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to experience my home through its natural surroundings and to see it survive, for me to share it with my daughter. But this is an opportunity that only a few kids of Tara’s generation seem to have.
Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi is a wildlife biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation.