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Why weren’t large mammals exterminated in India like they were in many parts of the world?

May 15, 2008

America once had its share of elephants and lions…and more. Australia and New Zealand had huge mammals too…gigantic flightless birds and reptiles. They’ve all gone now. Exterminated by pre-historic humans.
So if we in India are slowly killing off our tigers at least we can take some kind of twisted comfort in the fact that we are doing exactly what human beings down the ages did …exterminate species. They did it then and we are doing it now.

There is this book “guns germs and steel (A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years) by Jared Diamond where he discusses how large mammals became extinct in many parts of the world.palorchestid

In Australia and New Guinea they were slaughtered by the pre-historic humans who arrived there about 40,000 years ago. Excavations have revealed that Australia was home to an ostrichlike 400 pound flightless bird, a great python 16 feet long, a Giant Goanna 23 feet long weighing 1,350 pounds, Palorchestid (elephant like mammal with claws), the Marsupial Lion and land dwelling crocodiles. Humans hunted them down and killed them and their prey and also depleted their numbers by taking over their natural habitats.

But modern hunters have been equally cruel. In New Zealand, the Moa became extinct only around 1300 A.D. after the arrival of the Maori hunters. The giant lemurs of Madagascar were killed by modern humans too – around 2000 years ago. And 1500 years ago there was another carnage – of the big flightless geese of Hawaii called the Moa-nalo. And let’s not forget the the dodos of Mauritius who were killed as late as the mid seventeenth century by modern humans. All these creatures who had survived for millenia started to disappear after the arrival of humans.

The Americas too had been full of large mammals and 15000 years ago “the big American west looked much like Africa’s Serengiti plains.” Many species became extinct about 12-17000 years ago.

But lets get to the burning question: Why were large mammals not exterminated in Africa or parts of Asia? Jared Diamond has a theory…he believes that the animals in America and Australia were easy to kill as they did not evolve alongwith humans and had therefore not developed a fear of them (in these continents humans arrived millions of years after the animals had already evolved). For example the dodos of Mauritius were so tame that people could just walk up to them and kill them. Large mammals in Australia had never seen humans before and therefore were rapidly killed by them. I am sure that this theory is true to a large extent but it doesn’t explain everything.

After all, most of Europe’s large mammals met a tragic end too…at one time Europe was choc-o-bloc with lions, elephants, rhinoceros and Hippopotamuses. All gone now. But here humans and animals did evolve together. In Euroasia proto-humans arrived about 100,000 years ago (from Africa). While there are many theories as to why the big mammals disappeared in Europe (and elsewhere), there is no doubt that humans played a very big part. Europe was populated very rapidly and human settlements must have encroached on animal habitats. Besides, ideas such as conservation did not exist at the time and hunting and animal sport was part and parcel of society. Today the only large mammals that Europe boasts of are its bears and moose.

If animals survived in Africa, perhaps it was also because the humans there did not have the sophisticated weapons or large organised human societies that Europe had. Dense jungle remained dense jungle and enabled animals to survive…and today luckily ideas about conservation have taken root in countries like Kenya.

What about Asia then? Why did large mammals survive in Asia but not Europe despite large human settlements and populations in Asia? Surely it couldn’t be because humans evolved alongwith the animals? If this was the case then Europe would have its animals too, right? Well, I shall try to answer this question by talking about India as that is the country I know most about…however, my knowledge of ancient India is not deep.

Pre-historic India did not kill off its mammals and one of the major reasons is because ancient India revered its animals and not just the cow! Not because (as Jared Diamond says) the animals were able to withstand human attack because they evolved together. Well, maybe to some extent this is true…but I think animals survived in India mainly because animals have always been an important part of Indian culture. Elephants were domesticated by the ancients, not slaughtered. True, we had hunting too as royals in India had an obsession with it, but at the same time it was not on such a large-scale that it eliminated wildlife. I am not sure why. On my post on the Ellora cave temple sculptures a Canadian blogger (Suburbanlife) made an interesting observation while referring to the carvings on the temples:

…obviously the natural world’s living beings other than mankind has equal importance in the representations of the world in your religions, as contrasted with similar carvings in holy places in Europe, where the imagery is human-centric, and nature exists to be a backdrop for human activity, and might be considered of secondary importance to mankind.

This prompted a reader to write about this subject in more detail:

Animals indeed are quite integral to much Indian imagery, particularly Hindu religious or mythological imagery. Indian literature is also replete with references to animals such as in our collection of fables with animal characters and morals for humans collected in the Panchatantra, believed to go back to 2nd or 3rd century BC. Many historic figures are often depicted complete with their favourite horses, their pets and sometimes their hunted tigers and lions. In Hindu mythology, all “Gods” have animals who carry them around – their vaahan or vehicle…

You can read more about the importance of animals in Hinduism here. And here are some photographs depicting this symbiotic relationship between animals and humans in ancient India…the first three photographs are from the Ellora Temple Caves and the last two from Mammallpuram, the cave temples in Tamil Nadu:

Nandi Bull

3 elephants wall fresco

Ellora Temple Entrance

Mammallapuram fresco


Today we have forgotten our great ancient Indian culture…wild animals in India are being hunted and killed and in the case of tigers, they are being exterminated. On one hand we have discarded our ancient love for animals and on the other we have not bothered to embrace the modern culture of conservation…well not seriously enough.

Let me end this post with a tribute the Bishnoi people, a community in India which loves animals and protects them with their life. The photograph below is an award winning photograph by Himanshu Vyas for the best photo-journalism and was presented this year. He had gone to village in Rajasthan where the Bishnois live when he heard about a woman who was looking after a fawn.


(Photo credits: The photo of an ancient palordchestic is from, the cave temple photos are copyrighted to me and the last photograph of the Bishnoi lady feeding a lamb is by Himanshu Vyas)

Related Reading: Tigers in India down to a thousand??
The vanishing sparrows of the world
The courts have stopped the inhuman killing of dogs in India
A visit to Mammallapuram – a photo essay
The cave temples of Ellora at Aurangabad – a photo feature
A tour of the Ajanta Caves at Aurangabad – a photo feature
Countering the Hinduphobia of the west

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2008 9:59 am

    hmm…i think the government needs to remember all this was a part of our culture…instead of being bothered about cricket and cheer leaders…

  2. May 15, 2008 10:49 am

    Fabulous post, Nita! Looks like I have to get a copy of the book.

    I think the non-violent Buddhist and Jain philosophies must also have had a part to play as also the tribal civilisations which love nature.

    I salute the courageous Bishnois for standing up to one particular person who shamelessly hunted chinkara! Hunting is not a sport! It is a crime!

    When Buddha was a boy(Siddartha), his cousin shot a bird with an arrow. Siddartha saved its life. His cousin wanted the bird, he said “Give it to me. It is mine”. Siddartha replied “You tried to kill it. I saved its life. So does it belong to you or me?”

    While one is with nature, one should shoot nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but memories!

    I have read somewhere that even if one is a lone unarmed traveller in a forest and comes across a tiger unexpectedly, it would be good not to get alarmed, but peacefully proceed on one’s way and the tiger will leave one alone. Tigers seem to be shy creatures that try to avoid humans as much as possible.

    But let cowardly humans not be fooled into thinking that they can get away with exterminating species and destroying our beautiful and diverse planet! Nature’s revenge will be swift, unexpected and deadly!

  3. May 15, 2008 11:19 am

    In India, mammals are still surviving because most of us are vegetarians, farmers who considered mammals as their resources of their livelihood. Also we are all peace loving people and don’t believe in killing and taking lives.

  4. May 15, 2008 2:08 pm

    First of all, Himanshu’s photo is amazing! It speaks a thousand words and more! Hats off to him! 🙂
    And this post is one that kinda speaks to my heart… being a big animal lover myself, I can appreciate the facts you’ve presented. however, we’ve made the mistake once, and i don’t think we should do it again… more than this, i think the environment and the climate changes have more to do with the extinction of species… 🙂

  5. May 15, 2008 2:55 pm

    Vishesh, you said something that was exactly on my mind! Today the politicians think that only women should uphold Indian culture with certain rigid ways of behaving and dressing…that’s all they care about.

    Raj, thanks. I too have a great admiration for Buddhism, a non-violent and peaceful religion. The book is worth reading. I haven’t finished it yet but there is very little about animals in there, barely a few pages. It is mostly about the history of mankind.

    Old Sailor, true a large part of our population is vegetarian and that helps…but I believe this is changing.

    Nihil, thanks. By the way that climate theory is debunked now. You can check any site which talks about the extinction of animals. Its been proved scientifically. Animals withstood climatic change for millions of years but their extinction on each continent coincided with the appearance of humans. Considering that humans arrived on different continents and different islands at different times in history, there are scores and scores of examples.

  6. May 15, 2008 4:18 pm

    what a great point of view, NIta! you made this Jared Dimond 🙂

    And the photos are just exllent!

  7. May 15, 2008 4:28 pm

    I guess so.. Yeah… It does make fascinating reading, nonetheless… 🙂

  8. May 15, 2008 5:19 pm

    I think the written comments have the key:
    > peaceful religions like buddism.
    > most people in india are vegetarian.
    > the relation and love of india with animals.
    In countries ruled by WHITE people, they exterminated
    everythingggggggggg! (too much technology, too much power, too much NON natural things, too much ambition,…too much…)
    (i’m white girl…but feel very ashamed of all bad things done by the whites)

    (many animals are still extinguished, fast climate warming, too much plastic,…)

  9. May 15, 2008 5:56 pm

    Francina, its not just the whites who were responsible. The original settlers of Austrailia and New Zealand and Hawaii were not white, and nor were the native americans. And did you know (bbc article) that in the fifiies, Mao Zedong ordered the killing of what he called the four evils: – rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows? And guess what – with no sparrows left, there was a plague of locusts, the crops were ruined and millions of people died in the ensuing famine. And in 2004, there was a “patriotic extermination campaign” against civet cats, badgers, raccoon dogs, rats and cockroaches.

    Axinia, thanks. 🙂

    P.S. 60 percent of India is non-vegetarian, the link from is here. However most do not consume meat or poultry daily. In India usually non-vegetarianism does not mean daily eating of non-veg food but ranges from once or twice a week to perhaps once in 10 days.

  10. May 15, 2008 6:40 pm

    the picture of the fawn is simply awesome….

  11. May 15, 2008 9:00 pm

    Oh, so the Chinese tried to exterminate sparrows and paid the price for it? Just like the mediæval Europeans who burned cats at the stake in large numbers. With the cats gone, rats bred in large numbers and carried the plague. The black death killed people in unimaginable numbers in mediæval Europe. Some even call the black death as the revenge of the cats. I wonder if humans (we are all evolved apes) will ever learn from their own mistakes committed in the past. Ultimately, those who destroy the wonderful diversity will have to answer The Destroyer, Siva/Shiva! That is what Hinduism is all about!

  12. May 15, 2008 9:09 pm

    wow! i didn’t know some of this things Nita,
    u are always so well informed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    thanxs! 🙂

  13. May 15, 2008 10:43 pm

    Let me first start by telling how much I love to visit here

    I think in this post you give more credit than required to the culture, and animal loving nature of our culture. You see the reason behind this also lies in the rise of civilization in these parts of Africa, central Asia, and India, compared to say, America (north). The rise of civilization means war, and the intelligent use these civilizations of animals, especially elephants and horses. Most of the temple architecture is esthetic praise of a king’s strength, in his army. Elephants symbolize strength, because, a drunk elephant in a battle field can cause more harm than, any instrument in those days could produce. So an elephant became a symbolic representation in the temple of strength of the mind and the power. I do not deny that our ancestors loved these animals. You see mostly humans love things that are of use to them. Elephants provided advantages in war and hunting. So their natural habitat was preserved. The kindness was directed for a cause.

    Even the story of Ganesha, is a symbolic representation, of might of both the body and the mind. That is the reason for his worship, before any thing else.

    In Europe and other countries there were other reasons, but also boosted by the lack of human interest in these animals, because of their sophistication in warfare without the need of these animals. I don’t think, humans think of animals in terms of conservation till recent times, when the sudden explosion of the population, is having alarming effects.

    That photo is how ever cute, and reminds me of stories of ashram life. Where deers were tamed, and lived in total harmony with its inhabitants, but if you are a farmer, making a living out of the spoils of the earth, a deer can be quite a painful problem, much like a rabbit.

  14. May 15, 2008 11:22 pm

    This was one different post. Now when I think of it, whenever we think of wild animals, Africa and Asia come in the mind. I think the animals survived here because of a sort of interdependency created with them. They were useful to us and it never occurred to us that they have to be terminated to create space for us. Secondly, I am not sure but it might also be proportional to the technological advancements of the region. The more developed a region is, the lesser are the chances of finding animals there.

  15. May 16, 2008 12:11 am

    Nita, I’m reminded of your other post on the mistreatment of dogs. Perhaps a link to that in ‘Related Reading’ would be apt and we can see how much we love animals? 🙂

  16. Tajbinder permalink
    May 16, 2008 12:29 am

    The only reason i give for my being an agnostic is that had there been a force called GOD , then animals would not be going through such suffering.Just visit PETA site and see the videos of cruelty meted out to the animals and you’ll know what i mean.Its hell on earth. Had there been God, he wud have answered their prayers as well.As far as we indians are concerned we are no less than Americans, Australians or the Japanese when it comes to slaughtering of animals.

  17. May 16, 2008 2:10 am

    A thought provoking post! It beautifully chronicles reasons that could have led to the tragic loss of so many species.

    If anything needs twisted it’s the ears of morons in power who do not do much for the Indian Tiger. Taking solace in the fact that other civilizations wiped out beautiful creatures is too twisted to sit on while a magnificent animal inches toward extinction.

    I love animals, am a vegetarian and a PETA supporter. I am very much for prevention of cruelty to animals. But it has to be Darwin’s Theory of Evolution many times over than human cruelty. Sure man with his hobbies, machines, and germs added to the mix, but it does not explain why some species survived the same onslaught better — rats and roaches for instance. The onslaught on these species is intense and still ongoing, but they, miraculously find ways to overcome.

    Though I would love to hope we Indians did better, I ought to agree with some who have said that we are giving our culture a bit more credit than is due.

    On the need to ensure we do not lose any more species, Himanshu’s picture says it all. The noble woman there is not thinking about what anyone(including the govt) will or will not do. She is doing her bit . Thanks to Himanshu, but if we ought to tip the hat, it is to this wonderful lady…

  18. May 16, 2008 3:25 am

    Nita – we still have the moose and the grizzly Bear as large mammals in North America. The large buffalo that were hunted out to near extinction are being bred on large national parks. They are magnificent animals. We have the orca off our waters. However, on land, expansionist interests paved the way for the near extinction of the buffalo. The grizzly and the moose live in kinds of land undesirable for human habitation, and that’s why they have been spared, although these animals are hunted for sport, which is sanctioned extermination, in my opinion. It seems to be, that the greater our own numbers as a species, the more living room of other animal we encroach on and make unlivable, or that we exterminate as pests or eat as food. We, as a species are insatiable devourers, and only catastrophes which put us at peril seem to redress the natural balance. G

  19. May 16, 2008 9:09 am

    Ankur, yes isn’t it! When I first saw that picture in the Hindustan Times I was deeply moved and saved it on my pc….

    Raj, yes I too believe the human race will pay a price, or rather is already paying a price..

    thoughtroom, thanks. Yes I agree that its the interdependency that creates the love, we can see it in relationships between human beings too!

    Amit (wordpress), yes both your points make sense. Interdependency and technological advancement…the latter means not just sophistcated weapons but lands used for industries and agriculture, which takes away from forest land, depriving animals of their habitat.

    Amit (blogspot), thanks. I have added that link here at the bottom of the post. Thanks for reminding me…at times posts get orphaned and now I will add links in that post too. Er, sorry to call you blogspot but even though I am not confused, readers might think you are the same Amit commenting twice.

    Tajbinder, we are no less and in fact we are worse because we are not improving. They have changed, they have embraced conservation while we are still going downhill.

    Madhurao, I think our culture deserves a lot of credit, but its gone now. Today’s modern Indian culture just pretends to be our “culture.” All that people in power know about is how women should behave and dress. That is the only aspect of “Indian” culture they want to enforce, and make a fuss about. Just check the news and you will find more politicians being moralistic about sexual mores and the clothes women wear than talking about kindness to animals. I think these issues are related, because these politicians are constantly talking about Indian culture when they talk of women. What about the Indian culture of taking care of animals? What about the Hindu religion which worships animals? Are even cows treated humanely? Not at all.

    Suburban, thanks. I agree that humans as a species are insatiable devourers, I couldn’t have put it better.

  20. May 16, 2008 11:15 am

    I agree there is much compassion in Hinduism vis-a-vis animals. But I believe it did not save the Asian Mammals. IMHO It’s too simple of an anwer for a series of complex events over eons that shaped up our today.

    On the politicians and women — couldn’t agree more. Suffices to say

    “Politicians are like diapers, always full of crap; if not it’s a matter of time..”

    Absolutely agree! This issue is far too complex to have one answer and as you say not all mammals were saved. In my own limited way I am trying to understand what humans are doing to this earth and why. – Nita.

  21. May 16, 2008 11:35 am

    Your entire post seems to have been copied here:

    It pings back to my blog as well which is how I know.


    Thanks Shefaly. I have flagged the blog and also complained to Blogger. Hopefully they will do something. – Nita

    p.s. Am just adding the blogger link here about copyright violation:
    because I have a feeling that they come to know faster if the post is linked. That happened to me last time a blogger stole my post.

  22. May 19, 2008 9:51 pm

    I think humans have a tendency to think that our survival depends on their destruction.

    I think the lions have been killing the deers for a long time but neither of them have become extinct because of that. Maybe humans fear more than they ought to.

    Destination Infinity.

    Well, thats another way of looking at it…because humans do kill for survival…at least in the old days they did. Today I see more of greed. – Nita.

  23. May 22, 2008 9:41 pm


    Brilliant photo.-the Bishnois!

    I did not know people who cared so much for animals existed.

  24. Vinod permalink
    December 21, 2009 10:48 pm

    ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ is my favourite book.

    I also recommend ‘The THird Chumpanzee’ and ‘Collapse: How Societies choose to fail or succeed’, both by Jared Diamond.

    These books have been value-changing for me.

    A question – if native Americans had belief systems wherein animals were sacred. But they did exterminate the mammoths and other megafauna in North America.

    Can you explain that?

  25. November 18, 2011 9:29 pm

    i was very impressed with your comments on this topic – bravo! I was born in India but have spend most of my adult life in Europe – where, of course, most of the big mammals and birds have been pushed into extinction a long time ago and the environment – particularly in Southern Europe where I am now – has been degrading since ancient historical times.

    One aspect that might be worth looking into a little more is the time factor : the cultural traits you point out are ancient and deep-rooted and should not be under-estimated : I am proud to feel myself an heir to a truly civilised country that puts a spiritual value on animal life : more than the Europeans can say for their traditions, generally speaking. Southern Europeans, particularly, are thoughtlessly cruel or irresponsible towards animals and when you observe this you feel that the cruelty of the Roman Empire is not as distant a cultural trait as the time factor might seem. Indians are still able to put themselves in touch with animal life this way if they choose to do so I believe Gandhiji once said that the level of a civilisation can be judged by the way in which animals are treated. By this standard India is far ahead of the West with their Biblical traditions that treat animals as property (‘dominion’) and modern industrial farming which is unspeakably cruel. Westerners suffer from a severe schizophrenia on the issue with animal rights gaining increasing prominence and articulation but industrial farming continuing to treat millions of animals in the manner of a daily Holocaust.

    However, the problem is that the last three hundred years, and the last one hundred particularly, has seen a convergence of factors hostile to the survival of wildlife, both big and small. Population expansion and pressure on forest and wasteland has reduced this aspect today to a tiny fraction of what it what three hundred, or even one hundred years ago. The tiger population – I know you know a lot about that but if I may be permitted to repeat it – has dropped by a factor of 30 since about only one hundred years ago, according to some rough estimates. The shrinking of the wild habitat combined with a massive increase i hunting y our own maharajahs in collusion with British colonialists as well as independently in their own, is largely responsible for this situation – and some would argue that the hunting was a bigger factor than population pressure. Therefore, it is a sad and disheartening thing to contemplate the idea that the elite classes of India – the aristocracy – should have been so ignorant and exploitative as to fall in so easily with the destructive and exploitative mindsets of their Western masters, even on their own soil (since one-third of India was not directly administered by the Britishers).

    My own father used to hunt as a young man – but gave it up in 1953 after shooting his first and last tiger – and being stricken with and unspeakable horror at the act. He put away his rifle and never lifted it again. How Indian of him to think this way! Meanwhle, in the US, black bears, bobcats, lynxes and wolves are shot in their thousands with the full cooperation of the US government.

    As India takes an increasingly bigger role on the world’s stage in the wake of its economic development, a great opportunity is coming to awaken the world to its contribution to civilisation and moral values also. Not least, in matters concerning wildlife. It needs to come back In India itself : India needs to set the example by showing that it is doing all it can to ameliorate the situation – and show its example to the world.

    The Price Waterhouse Cooper 2011 report on the future of the world global economy suggests that India and China will be running neck to neck as the world’s top economic powers in terms of PPP-GDP. When it comes to wildlife, i fear India alone will have to bear the burden of promoting conservation and humane treatment. China, which never shared anything like India’s spiritual sense of connection with other forms of life, is unlikely to give us a hand with this : in China cruelty to animals is normal. Cats and dogs are tortured alive and killed for food by the scores of thousands and bears are crushed in cages and pipes put into their bile ducts to extract bile keeping them in agony foe years. There are many reports of gross cruelty by the visiting public to animals in zoos – far worse than pertains in most countries.

    • November 18, 2011 9:35 pm

      Thanks for your comment Arjun. Although I am not a religious person, I believe that Hinduism is the greatest religion in the world and one of the reasons is this: the love of animals shown in the religion. Animals have a right to be here, they were here first! It is interesting why Hindus do not eat beef. They do not eat it because they worship the cow. That is a positive emotion rather than not eating something because it is disgusting or repulsive. The love of animals is all pervasive in our very Indian roots. It is a pity that we are now slowly changing. Greed is taking over and Hinduism too has been taken over by bigots. – Nita.

  26. Richard Wagner permalink
    February 3, 2013 7:43 am

    I believe you have ignored one of the most important causes of extinction. The temperate zone of Europe, North America, Australia were subject to great climatic extremes including extensive glaciation and desertification. Many of their animals became extinct due to the direct effects of this. Many of the surviving populations were severely stressed which enhanced their susceptibility to human interventions that they might have survived under better conditions. Also as part of the great Eurasian continent local effects were often moderated by the possibility of animal populations moving to other areas to avoid the worst of the climatic changes and then later returning. This was less possible in some of the other regions because there were no such safe havens. This is why island populations especially have been so vulnerable.

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