blackbuckThe blackbuck is an antelope species native to the Indian Subcontinent that has been classified as near threatened by IUCN since 2003, as the blackbuck range has decreased sharply during the 20th century.

The blackbuck is the only living species of the genus Antilope. Its generic name stems from the Latin word antalopus, a horned animal. The species cervicapra is composed of the Latin words capra, she-goat and cervus, deer.

Blackbucks generally live on open plains in herds of 15 to 20 animals with one dominant male. They are very fast. Speeds of more than 50 mph have been recorded. Their chief predator was the now extinct Indian cheetah. They are now sometimes preyed upon by wolves and feral dogs.

The diet of the blackbuck consists mostly of grasses, although it will eat pods, flowers and fruits to supplement its diet. The maximum life span recorded is 16 years and the average is 12 years.

Males and females have distinctive coloration. Male blackbucks are dark brown, black, and white and have long, twisted horns, while females are fawn-coloured with no horns. Blackbucks closely resemble kobs.

Body length: 3.3–4.6 ft
Shoulder height: 2.10–2.76 ft
Tail length: 3.9–6.7 in
Weight: 55–88 lb

The horns of the blackbuck are ringed with one to four spiral turns, with rarely more than four turns; they can be as long as 31 in. A trophy blackbuck is greater than 18 in. In the male, the upper body is black (dark brown), and the belly and eye rings are white. The light-brown female is usually hornless.

Albinism in blackbuck is rare and caused by the lack of the pigment melanin. The animal looks fully white due to the lack of melanin in its skin. Wildlife experts say the biggest problem with these albinos is they are singled out by predators and hunted.

The main threats to the species are poaching, predation, habitat destruction, overgrazing, diseases, inbreeding and sanctuary visitors.

Large herds once roamed freely on the plains of North India, where they thrived best. During the 18th, 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, blackbuck was the most hunted wild animal all over India. Until India’s independence in 1947, many princely states hunted this antelope and Indian gazelle, the chinkara, with specially trained captive Asiatic cheetahs. (Asiatic cheetahs became extinct in the 1960s). It once was one of the most abundant hoofed mammals in the Indian Subcontinent, so much so that as late as early 1900s, naturalist Richard Lydekker mentioned herds of hundreds in his writings. Today, only small herds are seen, largely inside reserves. The chief cause of their decline is excessive hunting. Though the royal sport had ended, farmers of the expanding areas of cultivation saw it as crop-raider, further leading to its decline. Eventually, when in the 1970s, several areas reported their extinction, it was listed as a protected animal under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The blackbuck is hunted for its flesh and its skin. Although Indian law strictly prohibits the hunting of these endangered animals, occasional incidents of poaching still occur. The remaining populations are under threat from inbreeding. The natural habitat of the blackbuck is being encroached upon by man’s need for arable land and grazing ground for domesticated cattle. Exposure to domesticated cattle also exposes them to bovine diseases.

Its protected status has gained publicity through a widely reported court case, in which one of India’s leading film stars, Salman Khan, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for killing two blackbucks and several endangered chinkaras. The arrest was prompted by intense protests from the Bishnoi ethnic group, which holds animals and trees sacred, and on whose land the hunting had taken place.

In another notorious incident of criminal poaching, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi also killed a blackbuck,  and then absconded as a fugitive. He finally surrendered only when the case was transferred from the criminal court to a special environment court, where he would face lighter sentencing.