For the average visitor strolling through the forested campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, the sight of a graceful, horned creature hiding behind a clump of bushes offers a rare thrill. About 30-odd blackbucks, or Indian antelope, a near threatened species, are found on this campus, and are monitored closely by the campus administration and wildlife enthusiasts.

However, over the last few years, some campus residents say that the species is being increasingly threatened by the growing population of another much-loved species – dogs.

According to Prakriti, a wildlife protection group in IIT-Madras, there have been an increasing number of attacks on blackbucks by street dogs on the campus – the dogs form packs at night and hunt the threatened herbivore. Dogs also regularly prey on the spotted deer, or the cheetal, which are found in relatively larger numbers on the campus, said members of the group.

More than 40 spotted deer and fawns have been killed by dogs in the latter half of 2016 alone, Prakriti reported. In the last 18 months, 12 blackbuck fawns were killed, of which five cases were reported in October 2016 alone, and two last month, the group reported.

The group admits that this is a rough estimate based on members of the group witnessing these attacks during their regular night patrols, or from reports from other eyewitnesses. But the attacks were becoming more frequent as the dog population in the 600-acre campus has risen to over 150, they said.

“Till very recently, we used to see a number of young fawns roaming around the campus during this season,” said Susy Varughese, a faculty member at IIT-Madras. “But now we hardly see any at all.”

Blackbuck on the IIT Madras campus. Credit: Jithin Devan

A human problem

A little more than 10 years ago, there were only about 12 blackbucks in the IIT-Madras campus. Over time, the administration took several measures that helped raise this population to around 30. Fences were removed around many buildings that were in areas where blackbucks lived, so that the animals did not get trapped when dogs or jackals attacked. The campus also demarcated deer corridors to enable their movement. Open wells were covered so that the animals did not fall into them. “On campus, we pay most attention to the blackbuck to see that they are not affected in any way by our activities,” said David Koilpillai, the dean of planning, IIT-Madras.

However, there has been a visible increase in the number of dogs on the campus, which has heightened the threat to blackbucks on campus, said Varughese. Dogs and blackbucks have been found to inhabit the same grassy, open patches at IIT-Madras.

Varughese said that dogs on the campus have not been sterilised over the last two years with the Chennai Municipal Corporation having stopped picking up dogs from here for sterilisation. Over the past two months, at least 20 newborn pups were found on campus.

“If you keep on increasing the number, where are you heading?” asked Varughese. “One cannot argue that dogs have to prey on these animals since it is their natural instinct. This is under human protection, this is a human error. People have to understand that dogs too have to be taken care of.”

However, Sujatha, a resident of the campus, disagreed, saying that the dogs were being sterilised. But since the campus was not completely sealed, new street dogs found ways to enter. She said that the garbage strewn on the campus also attracted stray dogs.

“This problem has been there for the last 40 years,” said Sujatha. “We need to clean up our act.”

Abi T Vanak, Fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, said that as dogs continue to access food – either because humans feed them or through garbage – the population of dogs will continue to rise. He added that to reduce the dog population through sterilisation, more than 90% of dogs in a particular area needed to be sterilised every year for more than 10 to 15 years. “There is no evidence that they are being sterilised on an ongoing basis,” said Vanak.

Vanak suggested that since sterilisation is a long term solution, immediate measures should be taken. These include restricting the feeding of dogs on campus, implementation of proper garbage management, and removal of existing dogs. “This will ensure that the existing dogs don’t start hunting more blackbuck and cheetal once the food subsidy stops,” he said.

A rare white blackbuck on the IIT campus. (Photo credit: Saarang, IIT-Madras, via Facebook).

Managing the wild

According the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, blackbucks come under the Forest Department’s protection.

However, the case of IIT-Madras is a bit peculiar. The campus was carved out of a natural forest that was part of the adjoining Guindy National Park, and is no longer regarded as part of the forest zone. Hence, in this now urbanised space populated by humans, the campus administration is responsible for maintaining the delicate balance of wildlife.

Over the years, the increasing number of buildings on the campus have chipped away at the open, grassy spaces available to the resident blackbuck and deer. The number of people living on the campus has also increased drastically over the last 10 years.

Under the direction of the IIT-Madras administration, research foundation Care Earth Trust is preparing to conduct a census of the campus wildlife.

“Once we look at the census numbers, we will be able to tell if the deer and blackbuck population is actually increasing or declining,” said David Koilpillai. “There is a concern that dogs are getting aggressive, and we are concerned about the increase in the dog population. They have attacked the deer, no doubt about it. But we will know the impact once we get the census data, and we’ll respond accordingly.”

The Guindy National Park next door is home to around 180 blackbucks, said R Dhanasekaran, a forest range officer. Here, the forest officials see to it that the dog population does not grow large enough that dogs form packs and hunt. “We remove stray dogs, so only few of them are left,” said Dhanasekaran. “If a dog tastes the blood of the deer, it will go after them again and again.”

Spotted deer in IIT-Madras. (Photo credit: Saarang, IIT-Madras, via Facebook).

Compassion and conservation

But even in Guindy, the blackbuck population has steadily declined over the years, said Vanak. “They need open spaces, and these are increasingly shrinking,” he said.

Vanak explained that dogs are not meant to remain on the streets, as they are domestic animals that need to be cared for by humans. The blackbuck too, by law, must be protected by the government by any means possible.

“Ultimately, this is a human problem, and we as a society need to determine if we want to share our spaces with wild animals or just with domestic animals,” said Vanak. “If we make the decision to support the latter, then we need to take responsibility for our companion animals, and not have them roam the streets and suffer from very poor welfare outcomes. This is neither compassion nor conservation.”