Many state animals remain highly threatened in the present day with diminishing hope of survival. While Hangul suffer from a skewed sex ratio, fishing cat is beaten to death. The Alpine musk deer is an endangered species mercilessly killed for the musk pod of the males. Many other state animals like the clouded leopard of Meghalaya, Nilgiri tahr of Tamil Nadu, Phayre’s langur of Tripura, red panda of Sikkim, sambar of Orissa, wild water buffalo of Chattisgarh, and the Sangai of Manipur are also highly threatened.
In the 1970s, wildlife in India experienced a rebirth following the implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Two centuries of colonial rule had almost finished off India’s top predators like lions and tigers. Cheetahs had vanished. Many more species were on the verge of extinction due to the oppressive policies of the British Raj. Under such dire circumstances, independent India’s policymakers and wildlife experts understood the urgent need to revive the people’s connection with their wildlife. Thus, India got its new national animal, the tiger (that replaced the lion), in 1972, and the states chose their state animals over the years. However, although the national animal secured its place in the hearts of most Indians, many state animals remained on pen and paper, defying the very reason for their existence.
The declaration of state animals was not a random act. It was supported by logic. It was believed that as state emblems, these animals would garner public attention and pride that would aid their conservation. Yet, many state animals remain highly threatened in the present day with diminishing hope of survival.
Today, the critically endangered Hangul, the state animal of Jammu and Kashmir, number only around 261. Once, this subspecies of Asian red deer roamed the moist temperate forests of Kashmir and its surroundings in the thousands. Poaching for meat, habitat fragmentation, overgrazing by livestock, etc., alarmingly reduced the numbers of this endemic animal to only 180 in 1965. In the 1980s, it was made the state animal with the hope of attracting national and international conservation attention. Yet, two decades later, there is little hope for its survival. The deer remain confined to the Dachigam National Park protected area in Kashmir and suffer from a skewed sex ratio and innumerable threats.
In West Bengal, people are largely unaware of the existence of their state animal – the rare, elusive, and beautiful fishing cat. An endangered animal with the same protection status as the national animal as a Schedule I species, the fishing cat continues to be robbed of its life in the state. Cases of the state animal being poisoned or beaten to death are many. Moreover, the land mafia is taking over the wetland habitats which these wild cats call their home. The few conservationists in the state focused on protecting the species complain about the inadequate measures taken to protect the fishing cat in the state. But their concerns are hardly registered.
In Uttarakhand, a state known for its natural bounties and good conservation practices, the state animal is on the verge of extinction. The Alpine musk deer is an endangered species mercilessly killed for the musk pod of the males. This sweet aroma-producing musk pod fetches a high price in the international black market and is used for its alleged pharmaceutical and cosmetic properties. It is often the locals involved in this animal’s poaching as it descends the slopes in winter in search of food in the harsh landscape. Forest department staff who are assigned to save the animal complain about the extreme challenges they have to face. Lack of funding, difficult terrain, a small workforce, and poor conservation plans all catalyze the loss of the Alpine musk deer.
Many other state animals like the clouded leopard of Meghalaya, Nilgiri tahr of Tamil Nadu, Phayre’s langur of Tripura, red panda of Sikkim, sambar of Orissa, wild water buffalo of Chattisgarh, and the Sangai of Manipur are also highly threatened.
However, there is some good news as well. For example, Assam has made exceptional progress in increasing the population of its state animal – the massive and majestic one-horned rhino. Today, the state hosts the world’s highest population of this rhino species, with its Kaziranga National Park alone hosting over 2,500 rhinos! Moreover, in 2021, only one rhino poaching case was recorded in the state, the lowest figure in 21 years!
In Gujarat, people’s pride for the state animal, the Asiatic lion, has guaranteed its survival in the state. While wild lion numbers dropped to a mere 177 in 1968, today, Gujarat hosts over 650 lions! And most interestingly, significant numbers exist outside protected areas where the people and their pride, a major predator, co-exist.
Madhya Pradesh has also made commendable efforts in saving its state animal, the elegant barasingha or hard ground swamp deer. By 1967, this swamp deer subspecies had only around 66 animals living in the wild. Determined to bring it back from the brink, the Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve launched a robust conservation program to save the animal. Successful captive breeding, habitat protection, and population monitoring helped revive the numbers of the barasingha to nearly 1,000 today.
Several states are also taking positive steps to cater to the conservation needs of their state animals. Like, for example, Himachal Pradesh recently conducted a population estimate of its state animal, the snow leopard. The first of such surveys using scientific tools, yielded a figure of 73 snow leopards in the state, creating a base for future population monitoring and conservation management of the species. Meghalaya is also drafting conservation action plans to save the clouded leopard and has selected it as the mascot for the 39th National Games to be hosted there in 2023.
Thus, the conservation stories of India’s state animals are riddled with setbacks and achievements. Some states have performed better at protecting their state symbol than others, but no animal is free of threats inflicted by the growing human population and aspirations. Even state animals enlisted as “least concern species” by IUCN, like the blackbuck of Haryana, Punjab, and Andhra Pradesh, and the chinkara of Rajasthan, are subject to poaching and habitat loss. The Indian elephant, India’s national heritage animal and the state animal of Kerala, Jharkhand, and Karnataka, is also a victim of growing human-wildlife conflict cases.
History has revealed time and again that conservation of a species is only possible when people actively participate in saving it. Thus, if the government and people of each state execute the responsibility of protecting their respective state animals, it will be possible to save many threatened species. Securing the future of these animals will also protect their habitat and other species sharing their space. And all this is quite possible because there is always a way where there is a will.
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About the author
Dr. Oishimaya Sen Nag is a wildlife conservation writer and editor at World Atlas, Canada. She has written several articles on issues related to wildlife conservation and interviewed renowned wildlife conservationists, wildlife biologists, and forest department officials working to protect wildlife across the world.