One of the commonly misidentified groups of animals is the antelope group, often erroneously called deer. So what are antelopes? They are a group of even-toed ungulate species within the family Bovidae. And unlike the antlers that are shed and grown annually by deer, the horns of antelopes grow continuously and do not regrow if broken. Antelope horns, unlike deer antlers, are not branched. There are a few more morphological differences between these two groups of mammals.

Of the six species of antelopes found in India, three — Chinkara aka Indian Gazelle (Gazella bennettii), Blackbuck aka Indian Antelope (Antilope cervicapra), and Chousingha aka Four-horned Antelope (Tetracerus quadricornis), are found in Karnataka. The Nilgai aka Blue Bull (Boselaphus tragocamelus), though thought to be locally extinct, has been making some surprise appearances in recent years. In general, very little is known about the distribution and population numbers of antelopes in Karnataka.

The dainty Chinkara

Habitat preference – Shrub land, grassland, desert, woodland savannah

Distribution – India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran

IUCN status – Least Concern

March end, 2015 – It was just the second day of our camera trapping in Bukkapatna Reserve Forest and its surroundings, a dry woodland savannah habitat in Tumkur District in south interior Karnataka. On the very second day, I was in for a surprise when we downloaded the images from our camera traps – there was a picture of the Chinkara aka Indian Gazelle, the dainty antelope perhaps never recorded from southern Karnataka. A few months before this, the tawny brown antelope had been reported from Bilgi in Bagalkot District, by the Karnataka Forest Department.

Currently, Bukkapatna is possibly the southernmost range for this species in the country. Chinkaras have restricted distribution due to their preference for certain habitat types. They are facultative drinkers and can hence survive in very dry, arid areas, and obtain moisture solely from their forage.

A male chinkara camera-trapped in Bukkapatna Chinkara Wildlife Sanctuary.

Female chinkaras can be distinguished by their smaller antlers.

Bukkapatna is perhaps the only documented place in Karnataka to have all three species of antelopes found in the state. From statistical analysis, we estimate that Bukkapatna has as few as 30 chinkaras. Based on this data, as well as information about the other large mammals found here, we were able to get this area (148 sq.km) notified as Bukkapatna Chinkara Wildlife Sanctuary, in May 2019.

The sacred Blackbuck

Habitat preference – Grassland, desert, shrub land, agricultural margins

Distribution – India and Nepal. Extinct in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

IUCN status – Least Concern

The most widely found antelope of Karnataka is perhaps the blackbuck. It is found across the plains of several districts including Raichur, Bidar, Gulbarga, Gadag, Koppal, Haveri, Chitradurga, Tumkur, Chamarajanagara, Kolar, Chikkaballapura, Chikmagalur, and others. Though they are widespread, their scientific estimates are known only from Basur Amrutmahal Kaval Conservation Reserve (7.3 sq.km) in Chikmagalur District, where there are an estimated 190 blackbucks. This is one of the most conflict-prone wildlife species in the state.

Grasslands, the natural habitats of blackbucks, are severely threatened by man-made degradation.

Blackbucks also survive in agricultural landscapes due to the loss of their natural habitats, leading to conflicts with humans.

Chousingha: the antelope of the woodlands

Habitat preference – Dry deciduous forests and shrub land

Distribution – India, Nepal

IUCN status – Vulnerable

The Chousingha (Four-horned Antelope) is the only animal in the world bearing four horns. However, the small front pair of horns is rarely visible in the subspecies found in South India. This shy antelope is perhaps not abundant, but not rare.

In 2007, when I noticed several dung piles of chousingha in Rangayyanadurga Reserve Forest (77 sq.km), another savannah woodland habitat in Jagalur Taluk, Davanagere District, I was overwhelmed. A three-year campaign by us along with the forest department and local conservation enthusiasts, Ravi Kumar and Srinivas, resulted in getting this area notified as the first Four-horned Antelope wildlife sanctuary in the country.

This small, light brown, beautiful antelope is found in several protected areas including Nagarahole, Bandipur and BRT Tiger Reserves; Cauvery, MM Hills and Bhimghad Wildlife Sanctuaries; Bannerghatta National Park, and a few others. However, in August 2014, the documentation of Four-horned Antelopes in camera traps set by the forest department in Bhimghad, a semi-evergreen habitat, turned out to be a startling revelation. It indicated how wildlife could surprise us.

Four-horned antelopes often have two calves.

Four-horned antelopes have very large ears, possibly helping them in better hearing and thermo-regulation.

To me, the surprising fact was their wide range of distribution even in the smaller reserve forests of Karnataka. We have documented them in Tumkur, Ramanagara, Mandya, Chamarajanagara, Mysore, Chikkaballapura, Shimogga, Chitradurga and Bellary districts. Researchers from Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) have also reported the chousingha from Gadag District. I am sure there are a few other districts that harbour chousingha and we are unaware of it.

Nilgai: present or absent?

Habitat preference – Grassland, shrub land, deciduous forests

Distribution – India, Nepal and Pakistan. Extinct in Bangladesh.

IUCN status – Least Concern

The most interesting antelope that’s “extinct” from Karnataka is the Nilgai. Considered a pest in many parts of North India, it is the largest antelope in Asia. In July 1941, Captain W.F. Brett wrote to D.N. Neelakanta Rao, the Game Preservation Officer of Mysore Palace, about sighting a female nilgai near Bandipur. Not much else was documented about this species.

However, surprising sightings of this antelope have been reported from Karnataka in recent years. In March 2018, the staff of Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR) reported a male nilgai from the Muthodi area of Bhadra Tiger Reserve. In November 2018, the animal was found dead near Hippala, in Muthodi range, supposedly eaten by a tiger.

A screen grab from a video of a male nilgai spotted by the JLR staff at Bhadra Tiger Reserve in March 2018.

Above: video footage of the male nilgai that appeared in Bhadra Tiger Reserve in March 2018. Video copyright: Muthuraj.

More surprisingly, a young nature enthusiast, Umesh Hebbar, sent me a few pictures of a male nilgai that he said were taken by his uncle, Nagendra Navada, in Nenase village, about 25 km from Sagara town in Shimoga District. In the pictures, the nilgai is seen in a harvested paddy field, and at times, amidst livestock. Umesh mentioned that the nilgai was seen during Nov-Dec 2017, and kept coming close to the livestock corral for about two months, before it disappeared. I am not sure whether this animal and the one sighted in Bhadra Tiger Reserve are the same, but these two sightings of this antelope, long thought to be extinct from Karnataka, are astonishing. Whether these animals were released from a captive stock is also a question worth exploring.

The surprise appearance of a male nilgai in Nenase village, in Nov-Dec 2017.

The male nilgai seen amidst livestock in Nenase village, in Nov-Dec 2017.

Threats to Antelopes

I suspect poaching is a major culprit explaining the low abundance of antelopes in Karnataka. Besides, the woodland savannah habitats that the Chinkara and Chousingha prefer are being destroyed for various reasons including wind energy farms, mining, road construction, modifying woodland savannah to forests, agriculture, and other reasons. The grasslands where Blackbucks are found are lost mostly to agriculture, urbanization, industrialization and other similar reasons. Livestock compete with antelopes for forage, space, and water. With the loss of these habitats, other species that co-exist with the antelopes, like the Great Indian bustard, Indian Wolf, Bengal Fox, scores of grassland bird species, and other fauna, also face a critical future.