Home Magazines Conservation Birds And Beasts – The Human-Inflicted Extinction Story Of India

Birds And Beasts – The Human-Inflicted Extinction Story Of India

Birds And Beasts – The Human-Inflicted Extinction Story Of India

In this two-part series, birdman, author and naturalist extraordinaire, Sumit Sen, writes about some birds and beasts that India has pushed to extinction and are lost to us forever, those considered lost, and those that we will certainly lose unless we act now. The focus is on human-induced loss of charismatic animals – large mammals and birds, not because they are more important, but because they help drive the message home better than nameless and microscopic organisms.

Homo sapiens sapiens or modern humans evolved between 2,00,000 and 1,00,000 years ago on a planet that was abundant in biological richness and sustained by a natural balance. The new entrants were unlike any other… equipped with attributes and tools, they could make dramatic changes. Unfortunately, that great power was used to destroy the natural balance, the domination by one species leading to severe consequences for all other life on Earth.

Humans inherited their social hunting and gathering skills from Homo erectus, from whom they possibly evolved. They were, however, much better at it. Their impact was not significant in the early periods as the human population was relatively small. The real change was seen beginning in the Neolithic Revolution, around 10,000 BCE, when primitive farming began. By 8,000 BCE, it is estimated that the human footprint numbered approximately five million worldwide. By 1 BCE, this had grown to 200-300 million people. Today Homo sapiens number seven billion and counting, with India alone contributing 1.3 billion to that total! Such large numbers have inevitably resulted in widespread land conversion and degradation, pollution, and unsustainable consumption, which takes a heavy toll of all those who share the world with Homo sapiens. Things are strained to the extent that scientists are of the opinion that we are in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction – the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-a-billion years. And this one is unlike past mass extinctions, which were caused by natural or external events. The current crisis is almost entirely human-made. In fact, 99 per cent of currently threatened species are at risk today mainly due to human activities.

What about India? How have we balanced our enormous population growth with the multitude of species that we live with? Not too badly, on paper, especially considering that the human population has grown from 100 million in 1600 to 255 million in 1881 to 1.7 billion in 2016-17 (combined Bangladesh, India and Pakistan) and the forest area has shrunk from an estimated 263 million hectares in 3,000 BCE to 70.2 million ha. by 2015 (in India).

With exponential population growth and resource exploitation, it was inevitable that we pushed most of our wild co-denizens to the very brink. Some have even been lost forever. With only 2.4 per cent of the global land area, however, India continues to be home to eight per cent of all recorded species of the world. A biodiversity that is not only our pride, but also of great ecological, social and economic value.

But for how long?

It is vital that we know what we have lost and stand to lose if we do not act now. On the next few pages, read about some amazing creatures that have suffered at human hands. The first two are the most significant human-induced extinctions during ancient times while all the others are known large mammal and bird extinctions that have taken place in modern times in India.


Let’s start with prehistory. The first significant mammal that we know about was a giant and, perhaps, the largest ruminant mammal that ever existed on earth – the enormous giraffid aptly called Lord Siva’s beast – Sivatherium! This three metere-tall animal roamed the Indian subcontinent in the late Pleistocene and seems to have been around when rock painters immortalised them some 8,000 years ago. It is otherwise known only from fossil records. It was an okapi-like animal Okapia johnstoni, but much larger. It perhaps lost its place in the world due to a combination of natural factors and increased predation. Such a huge animal may well have been without natural enemies – much like the elephant birds of Madagascar. The emergence of two skilled hunters may have changed that – tool-wielding humans and the arrival of Panthera tigris or the tiger in India approximately 12,000 years ago.

Scientific name: Sivatherium giganteum
Range: Known from Upper Siwalik and Karewa Formation fossil records. Also from Central Indian rock paintings
Conservation status: Extinct
Extinction date: Estimated 6,000 BCE
Cause of extinction: Possibly natural changes and mounting predation

Indian Aurochs or Narbada ox,

Considered to be the source of zebu cattle, our domestic cattle breed, it is a subspecies of Bos primigenius (Aurochs), which is also extinct.

This species roamed across large parts of the Indian subcontinent for a couple of million years until it was domesticated by humans around 4,000 years ago. Celebrated by ancient artists on the walls of the Bhimbetka rock shelters, this animal was, likely, driven to extinction by a combination of hunting, habitat loss and interbreeding with domesticated cattle.

Scientific name: Bos primigenius namadicus
Range: Across the Indian subcontinent
Conservation status: Extinct
Extinction date: Estimated 2,000 BCE
Cause of extinction: Domestication, hunting, habitat loss and interbreeding with domesticated cattle

Javan rhinoceros

The first mammal to be driven to extinction in modern times was the Indian subspecies of the Javan rhino, one of the most endangered animals in the world with a current estimated world population of around 60-70 animals, most of them in the Ujung Kulon National Park in Java. The Indian subspecies ranged across Bengal and Assam, and one was even shot at in, what is, present day Kolkata city, which was then an extension of the Sundarbans mangrove forest! There are few estimates of how abundant this species was in recent times, but records suggest that they were uncommon in India by the 1880s. The Javan rhino was most likely a victim of habitat loss and trophy hunting.

Scientific name: Rhinoceros sondaicus inermis
Range: Bengal, Assam and eastwards
Conservation status: Regionally extinct
Extinction date: Last sight record in the 1880s, scattered reports until the 1940s
Cause of extinction: Habitat degradation and human exploitation

Asiatic cheetah

Rapid agricultural expansion usually signals the doom of grassland and open country animals. The story is no different in India, where most endangered or extinct species are ground dwelling, and inhabitants of grassland ecosystems. With more and more wilderness coming under the hoe during the early parts of the 20th century, something had to give – and give it did in the shape of a charismatic cat.

The Asiatic cheetah is a subspecies, which once roamed eastwards from south-west and central Asia to India’s border with Myanmar. Today, only a remnant population of less than 100 animals survive in Iran.

Despite its wide historic range across much of India, habitat loss and indiscriminate trapping and hunting of the species decimated populations of the animal whose English name is derived from the Hindi word ‘chita’, meaning ‘spotted one’! By the beginning of the 20th century, the species was already heading for extinction in many areas, and subsequently in 1951, the cheetah earned the unwelcome tag of being the first animal in recorded history to be declared extinct from India due to unnatural causes.

Scientific name: Acinonyx jubatus venaticus
Range: Across most of India
Conservation status: Regionally extinct
Extinction date: Last sight record is from Chhattisgarh in 1951
Cause of extinction: Habitat loss, hunting and trapping

Northern Sumatran rhinoceros

From the grasslands to the hills, the extinction story continued in the later stages of the 20th century. The northern Sumatran rhinoceros was the next animal to be lost in India and is now considered regionally extinct. This is a more recent loss, with reports from Manipur and Nagaland persisting until the 1990s. The IUCN has still not completely written off this subspecies and lists it as Critically Endangered, with hopes that a remnant population may still survive in parts of northern Myanmar’s dense tropical rainforest.

But it seems that this two-horned hairy rhino species, which lived in the over-hunted hilly rainforests of Northeast India, has been confined to the pages of Indian biodiversity history. Never considered abundant since the 19th century, this animal was simply unable to cope with the impact of humans.

Scientific name: Dicerorhinus sumatrensis lasiotis
Range: Foothills of the eastern Himalaya across Bhutan, Bangladesh to Myanmar
Conservation status: Regionally extinct
Extinction date: Reported from Northeast India till the 1990s, last reported regional specimen was from Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong, Bangladesh in 1967
Cause of extinction: Habitat loss and trophy hunting

*The first two illustrations are the author’s impression/creation in the absence of any available specimen.

The animals on this list are considered extinct from India in the opinion of most authorities. These extinctions are attributable to human persecution and detrimental actions. In the next part, I will cover some elusive species that have not been recorded for several decades but experts are loathe to categorise as extinct given the difficulty in spotting these species.

Text and illustrations* by Sumit Sen, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 10, October 2017.


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