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19 May, 2016

Bangalore’s missing grasslands

By Ameen Ahmed

A version of this story 'When city was a jungle' was published in the Deccan Herald, Bengaluru (Nov 18, 2014)
The blackbuck is an indicator species of the grasslands. There are numerous hunting records of this mammal in and around today's Bengaluru (Bangalore).
Today’s Bangalore is much different from the small town it was in 16th century, when Kempe Gowda founded it. Akin to any settlement in India those days, it was surrounded by farmlands, grazing fields and wilderness areas like wetlands, grasslands and forests. As time progressed the city grew, attracting the attention of its rulers. While its mud fort was enlarged and rebuilt with stone by Hyder Ali in the 18th century, the British after capturing Mysore Kingdom in 1799 made this town their new headquarters of the Kingdom. They preferred it for its elevation as well as ‘its position on the high road from Madras to Mysore’. Among others Lt-General Colin Mackenzie,C.B., a British officer, in his book ‘Storms and Sunshine of a Soldier’s Life’ (1884) described the city’s weather as ‘one of the finest in India’. Lewin B.Bowring the former Commissioner of Mysore province wrote in his book Eastern Experiences (1871) “The English soldiers are in the habit of playing cricket on the parade-ground for eight months of the year without any ill effects.”

With the new found love of the British for the town and the establishing of a cantonment nearby, Bangalore’s urban settlements began expanding rapidly with traders flocking to it. Its growth pace hastened after the civil administration of the Mysore province was transferred to the place following British takeover of the Government from the Maharaja of Mysore in 1831 citing farmers’ unrest.  In 1864, when the railway was opened, the town became a huge centre for trade in the entire British India with its population being second only to Chennai (then Madras) in the whole of southern India.

Moray Brown.J in ‘Shikar sketches: With notes on Indian field-sports’ (1887) wrote about the town becoming a base for British sportsmen from all over their empire who descended here drawn by the plentiful of hunting opportunities in the jungles within its reach, chiefly in the Anamalai and Wayanad regions.  Many of these sportsmen and officers left behind a wealth of written knowledge which today provides a window to the wildlife and wilderness areas around this city in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.
Grasslands like these have all but disappeared from Bangalore district
When grasslands exceeded the woods
The forests in the eastern parts of the erstwhile Mysore province, that includes urban Bangalore, are concentrated around the broken Closepet granite hill chain, whose well-watered valleys promote a luxuriant growth of woods. Undivided Bangalore district that included today’s Ramanagara District had forests and hilly areas in its western and southern parts while the central and eastern parts were more open. In fact a closer look at the British writings and illustrations suggest the vast countryside around the Closepet hill chain was actually open grassland area on which both domestic and wild herbivores like blackbuck thrived, closely followed by their natural predators like wolves. It may surprise many that some of the most commercially built areas of today’s urban Bangalore were actually places where grassland wildlife that are now rare and endangered once thrived.

One of the earliest accounts of Bangalore’s grassland wildlife are by F.C.Hicks in his book ‘Forty Years Among the Wild Animals of India from Mysore to the Himalayas’ (1910) where he recollected shooting 48 of lesser florican birds in one day and 56 on another in either January 1874 or 1875, in the district. This bird is today classified as ‘endangered’.

Lt. Col. Arthur.J.O. Pollock is another excellent source to learn about the state of Bangalore’s different wildlife and wilderness areas in the 19th century. He wrote in detail in ‘Sporting days in Southern India’ (1894) about his numerous hunts of grassland wildlife like blackbuck and lesser florican and wetland birds like the snipe, within and around today’s urban Bangalore.
According to him the blackbuck was always found in ‘maidan country’ – as the plains are also known, in herds ranging from six to sixty. Its favourite haunts were large plains spread with tracts of scrub jungle that had millet cultivated agricultural lands bordering them, which these animals raided at night. It is apparent according to his writings that such plains were found in plenty in today’s urban Bangalore.

Among the animals dependent on the grasslands is the wolf
Bangalore’s areas where grasslands and their wildlife once thrived 
Pollock’s usual programme was to depart at night to reach Sarjapura at day break where blackbuck was found in plenty. The terrain there was undulating and scattered with clumps of shrubs of bajra (pearl millet). The blackbuck was stalked until 9 AM after which the hunters had their breakfast. Post-breakfast, the migratory bird snipe, that came out to seek the hot sun, would be hunted through the day.

Around Bangalore district, the places favoured by hunters seeking blackbuck were the casuarina plantations at Malur, Kolar District to the east and Chitradurga district to the north-west as well as the main road to Hassan from Bangalore in the west which ran through some excellent blackbuck ground.

Pollock mentioned the presence of ‘large grass slopes’ near Subedar Chattam area where he hunted lesser florican. This area today is located in the Bangalore’s central business district. The adjoining Tumkur district was also said to have ‘good’ habitat of this bird in 1890s, according to Russel.C.E.M in ‘Bullet and Shot in Indian Forest, Plain & Hill’.

Published in 1892, ‘Records of Sport in Southern India from Journals written between 1844 and 1870’ has some remarkable illustrations by Douglas Hamilton of the hunts of wildlife like bustard, wolf and even cheetah, that were carried out in the grasslands of south India. It has a wealth of information on the wildlife that once thrived in such open areas particularly around Bangalore.
What Bangalore has lost in its 400 year journey

The lesser florican is a grassland bird and was once hunted by the dozens in and outside today's Bangalore.
The city eats away its grasslands
In the race for development Bangaloreans have slowly elbowed out the rare wildlife in and around the city. Though mammals like leopard and wild boar have somehow managed to survive in many of the areas nearby the wildlife that is dependent on grasslands have vanished. The Indian wolf, Great Indian bustard and blackbuck are missing. There has been just one confirmed sighting of lesser florican in Bangalore district since the last one by Lieut. Col. R. M. Betham in December 1911 and not one Great Indian Bustard has been seen here in over a hundred years. One needs to travel hundreds of kilometres today to see any of those wildlife.

The grasslands and their accompanying wildlife started disappearing once we moved from our tradition of preserving pasture land for domestic and wild herbivores. In the past few decades these areas were increasingly seen as waste areas not worthy of being conserved. This attitude resulted in most of them being diverted for ‘development’ needs like housing and industries. Many of them were planted with water hardy exotic plants like eucalyptus which forced the grassland wildlife to move away permanently in search of pasture land. The easy accessibility to ground water through bore wells has resulted in many of the grasslands around Bangalore district being converted to cash crops like vine yards.

When urban settlements first came up in Bangalore 400 years ago the city had many beautiful animals neighboured its residents. Unfortunately their numbers and variety took a hit as the city ‘developed’. It will help if the residents of this wonderful city join hands to save the remaining grasslands and their wildlife in the nation as a compensation for what the economic progress has done to them inside it.

Bengaluru's growth is irreversible
Conservation of Devarayanadurga forest over the centuries
Devarayanadurga’s big game in legends and shikar tales
Tigers in Bangalore in the Colonial era
My Devarayanadurga
Wilderness Areas of Tumkur 

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