Unintended consequences of human interference
Perhaps the most peculiar instance of human meddling in the habitat of animals is the affair concerning Eugene Schieffelin and the European starling. In 1890, Schieffelin, an eccentric pharma entrepreneur, introduced 60 European starlings to New York’s Central Park. The next year, he released a few more. Not because the park or the city needed these birds in any way at all, nor because the birds themselves desperately needed a new home. But because Schieffelin wished to see every bird mentioned in a Shakespeare play thriving in the US.
The starling makes an appearance in Henry IV. What followed was nothing short of a tragedy. The birds multiplied in the hundreds and thousands and millions. Over a century later, there are perhaps over 50 million starlings in the US. The aggressive birds not only invade the habitats of other creatures, but also cause great damage to infrastructure and spread disease. They can be a menace to aircraft—in 1960, a plane with 62 passengers crashed to the ground after some 10,000 starlings slammed into the plane’s engines. Everyone on board perished.
Relocating plants and animals across continents and habitats is always a dangerous business. One can never quite say how the new entrants will interact with existing flora and fauna. Often, these importations or invasions can cause catastrophic damage. In 2016, authorities in the UK were placed on high alert after Asian hornets were spotted in the country. Since they were capable of utterly devastating the already fragile native bee population, government agencies not only put out warnings but also organized a special unit to respond to any Asian hornet sightings. When a nest was eventually found in Gloucestershire, and promptly destroyed, it made national headlines. The UK government remains vigilant, and an Asian Hornet Watch app is available for download on both iOS and Android phones.
But sometimes these relocations can prove strangely beneficial. Consider the Indian blackbuck. By some estimates, there were some four million blackbucks across the subcontinent right up to the early 1900s. For centuries, hunting these beautiful beasts had been a favourite sport of local nobility. Mughal princes, minor chieftains and European adventurers, all found the challenge of hunting this swift, cagey animal irresistible. Indeed, the blackbuck was a standard feature of many Indian princely coats-of-arms.
And then its population began to plummet. This was down to a number of factors, including over-hunting and the destruction of the blackbuck’s natural habitat. At the moment of Indian independence, there were perhaps no more than 80,000 individuals in India, while populations in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal had all but vanished. By the 1970s, the number had further plunged to about 22,000. The exact numbers were, and still are, hard to come by. But by this point there was little doubt that the blackbuck was an extremely vulnerable creature in India.
But not so in Texas.
Sometime in the 1930s or 1940s—a date commonly cited is 1932 but this is hard to verify—blackbucks from India were introduced in Texas for the first time. A small population was imported into private ranches in Kerr County. The population grew, periodically bolstered by imports, and by around 1979 there were just short of 10,000 blackbucks in Texas.
Indeed, so enthusiastically had the creatures taken to their new home that on at least two occasions, small numbers of antelopes were exported from Texas to Pakistan in the hope of re-establishing the extinct local blackbuck population.
Texas had not been alone in this experiment. Blackbucks had also been imported into South America and Australia. While the Australian test appears to have failed, the blackbuck thrives in Argentina, where it lives in some of the most massive herds of its type anywhere on the planet.
Even as the animal thrived abroad, thanks to legislation in the 1970s and conservation efforts that followed, the population of the blackbuck in India has undergone a recovery. The most recent estimate in an International Union for Conservation of Nature report suggests that there are at least 35,000 mature adult individuals in India. Yet, somewhat remarkably, many estimates suggest that the US and Argentina together today account for a greater population of the animal than its native home in the Indian subcontinent. What explains this strange phenomenon?
As abhorrent as trophy hunting might be, the sole reason for the thriving herds of blackbucks in the US and Argentina is the fact that much like the India of yore, the animal in these parts is a prized target for recreational hunters.
Consider the services offered by one ranch that pops up online when one googles for blackbuck hunting packages in Texas. Punters can book a “Blackbuck Antelope Hunting Deer Package” that includes a fully guided hunt and “transportation to meat processor and taxidermist”. Shooting down an actual “trophy antelope” will set you back an additional $3,000 (there is no discount if you just wound the animal). This revenue both incentivizes preserving the herds and funds that preservation.
Seen in the light of recent developments in India, and human decency in general, these packages seem absurd and insulting. But the brutal truth is that by taking the exact opposite tack on the issue of blackbucks—India outlaws their killing, while US and Argentine entrepreneurs market it—the animal today perhaps enjoys greater hope of survival overseas than it does at home.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview
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