Why weren’t large mammals exterminated in India like they were in many parts of the world?
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.
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:
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 pbs.org, 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