The British often came to know about hill stations in India through hunting expeditions. Hunting was so rampant in the Nilgiri hills that, by the end of the 19th century, a visitor remarked:
I have scarcely met a single Englishman on these hills, who does not possess a strong propensity for field sports.
Over time, even the hunters realized that they had killed too many. Many animals had declined in numbers dramatically, in particular, the Nilgiri Tahr. Then called the ‘ibex‘ (after a similar-looking species of mountain goat that is common in Europe) it was known as the only goat south of the North Temperate Zone.
Along the Western Ghats in South India, the Tahr could be found perched atop high, rocky outcrops. Hunting it was perilous – for they are highly agile on the steep hills. In 1875, a British hunter named “Mr. Butcher” was killed while hunting the Tahr, as he fell down the Paikara side of the Nilgiri Hills. The local tribes, such as the Todas and the Badagas, were not prominent hunters. The British arrival in 1830 saw guns arrive in the local hills – and the birth of a thriving meat industry.
Places like Palani hills had up to 30,000 Tahrs before the British arrived. By the late 19th century, there were only around a hundred altogether. Even before arriving in Ooty, the British were known to hunt and eat the Tahr, as the following excerpt, cited in a Tamil Nadu Forest Department publication, demonstrates:
During the military manoeuvre of Arthur Wellesley against Tippu Sultan, the British army marched from Cumbum to Coimbatore through Devamalai High Ranges. En route, it has been recorded that the soldiers killed and ate the Tahr, as herds were so tame that they were stuck with bayonets (Zacharias, 1999)
Ironically, it was the very same hunters who killed the Tahar that banded together to save it. The Nilgiri Game Association (NGA) was formed in 1877 to limit hunting in the region. They drafted the Nilgiri Game and Fish Preservation Act of 1879 – limited hunting to license holders and setting a maximum threshold for hunting the tahr and other species. It wasn’t very effective, as British planters continued to hunt (claiming the need to defend their crops), the Wellingdon Army personnel were indifferent and the region continued to be poached by Indian plainsmen hunters who felt no endemic ties to the Nilgiris.
The Act had one important benefit – involving hunters in game preservation. By the 1950s, the permit system made it difficult to even enter these regions. The famed conservationist, E.R.C. Davidar, got his entrance by joining the NGA. In the course of his life, he brought the issue of the Nilgiri Tahr to prominence.
He began by enlisting hunters to his cause, starting his research on the tahr in 1963. Then, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 gave a huge boost to conservation in India. In 1975, he released the first count of the Tahr population in the Nilgiris – 2,200. Soon after, it entered the Red Data Book of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), where it is now listed as an endangered species.
Davidar retired from his job in 1981 to focus on conservation. He found a unique way of telling the Tahr’s story – illustrated children’s novels.“The Toda and the Tahr”, is the fictional story of a Toda tribal boy who adopts a wounded Tahr, and the lifelong bond that formed between the goat and the Todas as a result.
It is only half-fiction, as Davidar sprinkles the narrative with the carefully-observed behaviour patterns of the Tahr, from their friendly nature to their deft navigation of the hill slopes and cliffs when in danger (a leopard falls to its death trying to pursue a Tahr in the novel).
Tahrs can grow up to a metre tall and bear magnificent antlers – which males use to butt each other with when competing over a female. These battles can last hours.
It’s not known exactly how the Tahr came so far South from the great mountain ranges of the North. Davidar surmises that the Himalayas were once connected to the Satpura range in the last glacial age, and the goats travelled South, following the hills. Whatever the history, for both the Todas and the Tahr, the Nilgiris is the only home they know.
Tahrs are intelligent, and their herds set guards to warn against predators. The alarm sound, as Davidar describes it in his novel, is a whistle –
– not a clear whistle but it sounds as if the whistler were wheezing while whistling. Although the whistle is not loud it carries far in the stillness of the Toda country, warning everyone within hearing range of danger.
For the nature-lovers of the Nilgiris, the Tahr is one of the most charming creatures around. But despite conservation efforts, its number is in decline, with only around 2,000 mature individuals remaining. Their range has been cut to a tenth of its historical value, with a great part of their land being lost to the local tea plantations.
The Nilgiri Tahr is a Schedule I protected animal under the Wildlife Protection Act. Offences against animals under this schedule are punished with the highest possible penalty – with a proposal underway to raise the penalties up to Rs. 50 lakh (around $78,000).
The tale of the cliff goat may be coming to an end. Conservation in the Western Ghats hinges on the zoning of vast parts of it as “Eco-Sensitive Zones” – a move states feel will affect livelihoods. Barring national and state-level intervention, one of India’s greatest biodiversity hotspots remains at the mercy of human settlements, climate change and politics.
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