- The deliberate burning of grasslands in Nepal to maintain tiger habitat poses a threat to another endangered species: the elusive and little-known hispid hare.
- The burning is meant to promote the growth of fresh grass shoots for tiger prey, and to prevent grasslands from turning into forests.
- However, intact grasslands are important habitat for hispid hares, which need dense ground cover for resting, feeding and mating.
- Researchers say the annual grassland burning should be done selectively and outside of the hare’s breeding season to save the species.
KATHMANDU — On an early spring afternoon on the fringes of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, smoke fills the air and the smell of burning grass is overpowering. As flames rage across the landscape, devouring everything in their path, soot descends on the tourist town of Sauraha like snowflakes.
This is a common scene in tiger-dense protected areas across Nepal, where officials carry out large scale burning of the grassland habitats between February and May as a management tool. Both officials and local people say they believe that fires are a cost-effective tool to prevent grasslands, which provide habitat for tigers and their prey, from turning into forests, and to promote the growth of fresh and nutritious grass sprouts.
But conservationists say management practices like this, already being criticized for being too tiger-centric, could prove costly for another species: the endangered and elusive hispid hare (Caprolagus hispidus).
“We have found that the grassland burning season may be coinciding with the breeding period of hispid hares,” said Bijaya Singh Dhami, lead author of a recent study on the animal. “The newborns may not be able to run fast and save themselves from the fire.”
The nocturnal and solitary mammal, billed as one of the world’s rarest, once roamed the grasslands at the foothills of the Himalayas. “We don’t know for sure about the mating season of the animal, but two out of three females captured in the months of January and February in Nepal were found to be pregnant, and other hares are also found to have similar mating period,” Dhami said.
The species was feared to have gone extinct in 1964, but in 1966 a lone individual was spotted again in the wild. According to the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, the hispid hare’s habitat, where it’s been recorded in the recent past, is now limited to fragmented patches that together cover about 500 square kilometers (190 square miles) in Nepal, Bhutan and the Indian states of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Assam. Its presence remains uncertain in other parts of India and in Bangladesh.
In Nepal, the hares were sighted only in Bardiya and Shuklaphanta national parks, in the country’s west, in the 1980s. More recently, a hispid hare was photographed in Chitwan National Park, in central Nepal, in 2016 during a survey of grassland birds.
Because it’s difficult to look for the live animal, researchers often rely on their droppings, in the shape of pellets, as a proxy for understanding their habits and habitats. A 2021 study co-authored by Dhami found that following the burning of a patch of grassland in Suklaphanta, there were more new pellets in the area that wasn’’t burned, and more old pallets in the burned area. This suggests that burning the area every other year might be better for helping this endangered species survive and spread out, Dhami said.
Conservationist Bed Bahadur Khadka, who photographed the hispid hare in Chitwan in 2016, said he also believes a blanket approach to burning grassland for habitat management is the prime threat to the species and to other wildlife. “The type of burning we practice today also doesn’t help rare birds such as the Bengal florican,” he told Mongabay.
While the IUCN also lists seasonal controlled burning as one of the reasons for the decline in suitable habitat for the hispid hare, other factors also threaten its conservation. “To understand the threats, we looked at the habitat preference of hispid hares in Shuklaphanta,” said Nishan K.C., another co-author of the recent study.
The study found that hispid hares preferred dense ground cover, likely for resting, feeding and mating. Further, they were found to prefer dry earth over wet surface conditions, possibly to protect young ones from cold, the authors note. Hispid hare pellets were found in areas dominated by grass species such as wild sugarcane (Saccharum spontaneum). “However, hispid hare detection decreased with an increase in anthropogenic disturbances,” Nishan said.
Another instance shows how much the hares seek to avoid humans. At a zoo in India’s Assam state, a hare fractured its skull by dashing its head against the bars of its enclosure, indicating that captive breeding of the species is likely out of the question.
Based on the findings, Dhami and his team drew up a list of threats that need to be immediately addressed to save the hispid hare. According to the study, the transformation of grasslands into forests is another grave threat to the animal, which thrives only in certain grasslands. Similarly, its habitats are being fragmented due to human activities and lack of proper corridors for its movement. The animal is also believed to be hunted for its meat.
“The other challenge we face as hispid hare researchers is that there’s not much funding for the work we do,” Dhami said. “Most of the sightings of the animal have been made while looking for other species.”
The study authors suggest the timing and practice of annual grassland burning should be modified to save the hares. “Conservation managers should adopt selective grassland burning practices, patch by patch, and avoid the breeding season of hispid hares and Bengal florican,” they say adding, “We also recommend adopting a scientific grassland management strategy to halt grassland succession into woodlands that will help protect and enhance the habitat conditions of the hispid hare.”
Banner image: An illustration of a hispid hare by J. Hendrie, 1845. Image courtesy of Journal of the Asiatic Society via Wikimedia Commons.
Abhaya Raj Joshi is a staff writer for Nepal at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @arj272.
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Dhami, B., Neupane, B., & K.C., N. (2023). Ecological factors associated with hispid hare (Caprolagus hispidus) habitat use and conservation threats in the Terai Arc Landscape of Nepal. Global Ecology and Conservation, 43, e02437. doi: 1016/j.gecco.2023.e02437
Sadadev, B. M., Silwal, T., Dhami, B., Thapa, N., Neupane, B., Rana, A., & Singh, H. B. (2021). Do grassland burning practices affect the distribution of the Hispid hare, Caprolagus hispidus (Pearson, 1839)? A study at the Shuklaphanta National Park, Nepal. Journal of Animal Diversity, 3(3), 86-92. doi:10.52547/JAD.2021.3.3.7
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