The Curious Case Of The Goatbuck

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 43 No. 2, February 2023

By Peeyush Sekhsaria

I was on a photography assignment for a book about Ellora Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. We had a 10-day schedule, with one day off, the day of the week when the caves are closed to visitors. The book’s author, Roger Vogler and I, decided to visit the caves of Pithalkhora, a site even more ancient than Ellora and just a couple of hours by road. It was a late winter morning and the roads, though not in good shape, were empty and we were making good progress. We were passing through an agricultural landscape with nothing special of note. Halfway to the caves we stopped for a break. The driver and I stepped out of the car to stretch our legs while Roger remained inside. As I was absent-mindedly scanning the nearby fields, I saw a very unusual sight, which took me a second to process – a blackbuck fawn amongst a herd of goats walking casually at the edge of the field!

The blackbuck Antilope cervicapra is a beautiful antelope that has become increasingly rare. The landscape we were in was dominated by agriculture, but there were still patches that were open, dry and grassy, dotted with some trees and shrubs – the kind that could have had blackbuck.

The blackbuck Antilope cervicapra is a native species of antelope found in India and Nepal. Males sport a handsome dark brown to black coat, while females and juveniles are yellowish-fawn to tan in colouration. Photo: Illustration by Bhargavkumar Kulkarni.

But seeing a blackbuck fawn as part of a herd of goats wasn’t normal. After informing the driver and Roger that I would need 10 minutes, I left the road to follow this unusual sighting. By blackbuck standards the fawn was still quite young, though in size it was on par with the goats. Delicate, with its beautiful sad eyes and long lithe limbs, it seemed to be a part of the herd and also lonely at the same time. I had not seen a blackbuck up close other than on a visit to Tal Chhapar Sanctuary in Rajasthan, where you can see them in large numbers, in the occasional zoo, and on television. But I had seen goats jumping around.

I couldn’t help thinking that its behaviour was rather goat-like, the way it foraged for leaves amongst the shrubs and the way it moved. I was hoping to come across the herder soon. At a distance, I could see an old man with a wrinkled, weathered face accentuated by a silvery-white stubble, and a white cloth tied nonchalantly around his head. He was sitting on his haunches at the end of a little path in the shade of shrubs, watching casually over his herd. I walked over to him, greeted him and struck up a conversation.

I explained why I was there, “I saw you have a kalvit (Marathi for blackbuck) fawn in your herd. That is very unusual, which is why I wanted to talk to you.”

He shrugged. “Yes, there is this young fellow. What could I do? I found him, so small and abandoned… if I had not taken him, he would have died! Are you from the Forest Department?” he didn’t seem too happy with my questioning. The blackbuck is afforded the highest level of protection in India and any wildlife, even this little fawn the goatherder had found and saved, has to be reported and handed over to the Forest Department.

The region of Marathwada through which we were travelling, with its low rainfall, was good grassland country, that supported significant numbers of blackbuck, chinkara, wolves and in the past, even possibly cheetahs. Now largely cultivated, some populations of these beautiful antelopes are still to be found (not, of course, in the hands of a local goatherd!) The famous Bishnoi of Rajasthan’s Thar desert are known to be fierce protectors of wildlife and will go to any lengths to protect chinkara, blackbuck and other wildlife. You can easily find images and stories of Bishnoi women breastfeeding newborn fawns. All the same to see this fawn part of a herd of goats was unusual.

The blackbuck Antilope cervicapra is a native species of antelope found in India and Nepal. Males sport a handsome dark brown to black coat, while females and juveniles are yellowish-fawn to tan in colouration. Photo: Peeyush Sekhsaria.

The unique behaviour of blackbuck fawns
When I talked to Dr. Sumit Dookia, who specialises in desert antelopes, he said that what I had seen is unfortunately not so rare. Amongst communities that share a habitat with blackbuck, you will find fawns being brought up by people. They find the fawn completely abandoned and rescue it.
The blackbuck mother and young fawn have a very peculiar behaviour. Though blackbuck live in herds, a mother leaves to give birth in a sheltered area that she has identified. Shortly after birth, the fawn is licked clean by the mother to ensure that the smell of placenta is completely eliminated. Within a few hours, the young one is able to stand up and move around a bit on its spindly legs. It stays at the location it was born in, while the mother returns to the herd, coming back at intervals to feed it.
While the mother is away, the defence mechanism of the fawn is to lie on the ground, curled up as if dead, with its eyes slightly open. The fawn doesn’t budge even if you come very close and will only move if prodded. With its colouration, behaviour and the fact that it has been licked clean of any smell, often a predator walks right by without even noticing it. Sometimes, people working in blackbuck habitats find a fawn and presume it is abandoned and defenceless and therefore bring it home. The goatherder’s story seemed similar. Ideally, if one finds a fawn in the wild, it would be best to let it be and quickly move away without drawing attention to it.

When the goatherd saw I was not an authority figure, he said to me, “See, some people told me I should report the animal to the Forest Department, but you know they would just take the helpless animal and might even have fined me, though I saved its life. Instead, I chose to care for him and fed him with goat’s milk. Now he is like my child.”

I was moved by the man’s simple love. We sat there without saying anything. I kept watching the fawn and the herd. I noticed that the goats barely tolerated him. They did not let him get close to them and at times, when he seemed to have found a tasty leaf, they would drive him away. I felt bad for him.

Though I wanted to stick around longer, I was aware that I was well past my 10 minutes and knew that my colleagues would be wondering where I had wandered off to. Moved, I expressed my deep appreciation to the old man and walked away, taking a couple of last looks at the fawn. I couldn’t but help wonder what this chap would grow up to be – a goatbuck?


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