- AREFA TEHSIN
- RAZA H. TEHSIN
The fast-declining hare population in India calls for immediate attention, say the writers.
A magician can’t pull out a rabbit out of his hat in India. Neither can Alice follow a rabbit down the tree hole here. Not because an Indian magician is any less magical or an Indian Alice any less enterprising. But because there are no rabbits found in India, only hares. Today, both the magician and Alice will have a tough time getting hold of even a hare as their numbers have reduced drastically in the Indian jungles, which is indicative of the ailing state of our forests. In the open forests and fields around Udaipur alone, other than the wildlife sanctuaries, the hare population is estimated to have dropped by a staggering percentage.
Hares are a staple diet to anyone with canines in the animal kingdom — from sniffing jackals to stooping hyenas, from adaptive leopards to conniving humans. Not to forget the gliding raptors in the sky. Hares breed profusely, competing with rats (and humans) in reproduction, and provide an almost fat-free meat supplement to all those who fail to get their teeth or claws on a bigger, juicier meal. They are an easy prey and a good population of hares in a forest shows their wellbeing. Though they are not a wise choice as survival food because of the low fat content, their protein-laden hopping muscles are a sure way to keep one from starving.
One reason for the decline in the number of hares is lack of food. Hares survive mainly onrajka (green fodder) and doob (soft grass, not the coarse one). Farmers don’t grow muchrajka anymore due to shortage of water. The excessive use of underground water by borewells has led to reduction in water levels causing less capillary rise of water. Since sufficient water doesn’t reach the surface, green fodder and doob don’t grow, as their roots don’t reach deep down. The other reason is hunting and trapping. Hare dishes are sold on roadside dhabas for around Rs.300 per dish, a substantial amount of earning for a small eatery.
Apart from trapping them, humans have adopted many innovative ways, including nets, to hunt hares. One of the easiest is to put a snare and wait for a hare to get entangled in it. Villagers and tribals in Rajasthan sit well-camouflaged in deep shade in a green pasture on a full moon night. Hares come out to eat and one or two invariably graze near the shade. When a hare approaches, the villager throws a stone near it. Alarmed, the hare hops towards the shade and away from the moonlight to avoid detection. As soon as it is within striking distance, the villager hits it with a lathi, killing it on the spot.
Yet another intriguing method is for two men to go out with an erect bamboo mat on a dark night. A lantern is hung in the front and the men walk behind the mat in the shadow to avoid being seen. One holds the mat, and the other a lathi in one hand and ghunghroo (tiny bells) in the other. This creates a strange aura of light and sound. When a curious hare approaches, a swing from the lathi is enough.
With the man-animal conflict on the rise, food chains are breaking, resulting in food shortage and subsequent dwindling of small carnivores.
One needs a bit of will and not a lot of money to solve this problem. In the plains throughout India, after every 10 km, around three or four hectares can be enclosed by a three-foot-high wall. The local vegetation within can be left untouched with a sufficient supply of water and manure to grow rajka and doob. Two or three pairs of hares can be released inside. With shelter, food and no predation, these prolific breeders will rapidly grow in numbers. They can be periodically released in fields and open forests. Apart from breeding them, the authorities should implement strict restrictions on their poaching.
A healthy population of hares will not only decrease the man-animal conflict but also increase the population of carnivores like small cats that depend on hares and provide a fall-back option to larger ones like leopards.
A favourite of goddess Aphrodite, hares and rabbits were given as gifts of love. In Ireland, a hare is associated with a fairy (Sidh). In England, there is a legend of a White Hare that takes the form of a witch at night.
Hares are not only associated with classic folklore but classic recipes as well. Jugged Hare is a delicacy made in England and France in which, traditionally, hare’s blood is used. Now if this jugged hare you ate was White Hare the witch, then you are in deep trouble. Or maybe not. The recipe categorically says: “Catch your own hare!” With the falling hare population in India that is going to be no mean feat.
Arefa Tehsin is an author and honorary wildlife warden, Udaipur.
Raza H. Tehsin is a naturalist and former member, Wildlife Advisory Board, Government of Rajasthan.