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Yale study finds why large mammals like elephants, tigers still exist in India

First of its kind study finds that rate of extinction of animals weighing over 50 kg over the past 30,000 years is lowest in India, & points to co-evolution of humans and mammals.

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Bengaluru: South Asia and Africa are the only parts of the world today that have large land mammals like elephants, big cats, giraffes, hippos, and rhinos. Even larger animals have existed in the past globally, however, these megafauna — animals that weigh over 50kg — went extinct in most parts of the world, in a 50,000-year long process called the Late Quaternary extinction.

A new collaborative study from Yale University, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, George Mason University, and University of Nebraska, based on data from 51 fossil sites in today’s India, documents the Late Quaternary megafauna extinction in India. The paper shows that the extinction rate in India and Africa over the past 50,000 years is 2.5 times lower than in South America, and nearly 4 times lower than in North America, Europe, Madagascar, and Australia.

It found that megafauna persisted in India, just like in Africa, for at least 20,000 years in the presence of hominins or early Homo sapiens relatives.

The work lends credence to the co-evolution hypothesis that states early human cousins and megafauna lived together, as observed in Africa. It is the first study to explore the extinction of megafauna in Indian subcontinent in detail, and documents a mere handful of large animals that are found extinct in the fossil record.

“The most significant part of the study is that for the first time, we have quantified the megafaunal extinction in India,” said Dr Advait Jukar, lead author on the paper and Gaylord Donnelley Fellow at Yale University. “While people have been fascinated with this extinction since the days of (Charles) Darwin and (Alfred Russel) Wallace (who jointly produced the theory of evolution by natural selection), and palaeontologists, ecologists and archaeologists have been studying this extinction around the world for over three decades, India has remained an enigma until now,” he told ThePrint.

The findings are published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

Also read: After Project Tiger and Project Elephant, India to have Project Dolphin, says PM Modi

Indian megafauna of yore

North America, Europe, Australia, and other higher latitudes, saw the complete extinction of many well-recognised megafauna such as the 250 kg saber-toothed tiger, the 600 kg woolly mammoth, the whopping 7,000 kg mastodon, and even the 70 kg dire wolf.

However, in the fossil record of the Indian subcontinent, only a few megafauna were found to have gone extinct, while most others have evolved to scaled-down sizes today.

The team documented the extinction of a total of seven large species in India in the past 30,000 years. Four of these were the largest: Palaeoloxodon namadicus or the Asian straight-tusked elephant; Stegodon namadicus, another elephant relative with long tusks; Hexaprotodon sp., a family of hippopotamus relatives; and Equus namadicus, a kind of prehistoric horse.

These four extinctions make up only four per cent of Indian megafauna and about one-fifth of mammalian megafauna.

The team also documented the pseudoextinction of the Indian aurochs. A pseudoextinction or a phyletic extinction is one where one species goes extinct, but an evolved daughter species survives; in this case, the domestic cow.

They also note the extirpation or local extinction of the ostrich, which has no surviving descendants in the subcontinent today, but is still found in other parts of the world. The ostrich was likely driven to its demise by humans using eggs for food or ornamental purposes.

The seventh species the researchers document is a baboon-like primate Theropithecus cf. T. gelada, but since it could not be dated and might be older than 70,000 years, it was left out of the analyses.

Also read: Human-animal conflict is clear & present danger, and India can’t afford to ignore it

Causes for extinction

The low magnitude extinction of these six megafauna in the subcontinent began about 30,000 years ago. The Stegodon is thought to have disappeared approximately then, and the most recent extinction was that of the Hexaprotodon 8,000 years ago.

The exact cause for their extinction cannot be narrowed down to a single prime reason, such as overhunting as with megafauna extinction elsewhere.

“We have ample evidence of the butchery and hunting of mammoths, mastodons, bison, horses, and camels in North America,” explained Jukar. “We also have a lot of evidence of animal processing and consumption in Africa from both old and young fossil records.”

“The challenge with India is that we have no evidence of butchery or hunting, but then again, efforts to look for this evidence have been limited compared to North America for instance. India’s tropical climate also makes fossil preservation difficult, which adds a further complication,” he added.

Many contributing factors could exist.

Breeding and drought: Larger species reproduce slowly with longer gestation periods and pregnancies, and larger gaps between births. They also birth fewer individuals in a litter. Under conditions of drought, breeding becomes even slower, and fossil evidence indicates that these animals survived several drought-like conditions.

Range of habitat: Another factor is the animals’ limited range. While modern mammals lived across Southeast Asia, the extinct animals’ ranges were confined to the Subcontinent. This reduces the overall metapopulation or pockets of populations of the same species to a small geographic area, increasing their risk of extinction.

Climatic change: The Late Quaternary experienced both strengthening and weakening monsoons in India, driven by three major cold, dry events in higher latitudes — the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) 20,000 years ago where the ice sheets were at their greatest extent, the Heinrich event 1 where large glaciers broke off in the Atlantic about 16,000 years ago, and the Younger Dryas around 11,000 years ago, which saw a return to more cooling after the warming post-LGM.

Human impact: As with elsewhere in the world, the authors stress, human causes behind the extinction was still the biggest contributing factor, as the megafauna survived other unfavourable conditions over millennia. The authors attribute the increased rates of extinction and ultimate decline of each species to sophisticated hunting technology (such as projectiles), which could have been the ultimate push.

“We can infer that environmental and biological factors were necessary but not sufficient because these species had survived millennia of environmental change,” said Jukar.

“Human activity was the last nail in their coffin.”

Also read: Human-caused climate change causes first extinction of a mammal

Co-evolution and present-day implications

After early humans left Africa and entered the subcontinent, these hominins and megafauna co-existed for at least 20,000 years before extinctions.

“What is really interesting is that we record the longest time-lag between the arrival of Homo sapiens and the extinction of large species,” said Jukar. “This is in contrast with what we see in the Americas, Europe, and Australia, where the extinctions proceed more rapidly after the arrival of our species.”

The findings provide the first independent evidence for the co-evolution hypothesis, which was until now confined to Africa. It states that the magnitude of an extinction inversely correlates with the amount of time large mammals coexisted with modern humans and human ancestors. This essentially means the more time animals and humans co-existed, fewer species went extinct.

So hominins and large mammals would have both adapted to each other’s existence and behaviours, including the evolution of anti-predatory tactics by animals. Additionally, fossil evidence indicates that humans in India preferred to hunt smaller creatures, and were also domesticating cattle for dairy, indicating evolving dietary lifestyles away from hunting large animals.

This theory is further strengthened by the fact that Asia’s extinction rate is similar to that of Africa, where humans first evolved alongside other animals, according to the researchers.

Jukar explained that the findings have major implications for conservation today, because all the factors that caused these extinctions are being accelerated at unprecedented rates now.

This includes confining animals to increasingly smaller habitats because of human encroachment, which leads to loss of genetic diversity that can protect against extinction. Hunting and poaching pose a great threat to slow-breeding animals like elephants and rhinos.

Unfavourable environmental conditions typically cause an entire species to move to a suitable habitat, called a refugium, to survive difficult times. However, animals are now unable to disperse to refugia, explained Jukar.

Today, climate change is accelerating at speeds not seen before in the last four million years, he said, adding, “At the rate at which we are going, it’s going to be hard for species to cope.”

Also read: One million species will disappear — if we let them


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  1. It was civilisational and that too Hindu, or more appropriately Sanatan, that ensured survival of our wildlife.
    West systematically hunted everything not of “value” for sport or pleasure or food.
    West needs to “ape” India to ensure co habitation with nature.

  2. In hindu mythology every animal is associated with a god.
    Our ancestors had foresight to prevent man from destroying nature.
    Thats why India still haw wildlife unlike Europe and North Africa and parts of America
    Our ancestors knew that man would one day become strong and derive sadistic pleasure in killing animals
    So to preserve nature they came up with the Idea of associating every animal with god
    Not only that even rivers, mountains and trees were given god like status
    The idea was to preserve nature
    Kudos to our ancestors

  3. Our ancestors had lots of foresight
    If we read mythology, every god is associated with an animal as vahaan
    Our ancestors knew that one day man will become powerful and derive sadistic pleasure in killing animals
    So they came up with a unique idea of associating every animal with a god
    So if one would try to hunt a tiger, it would remind of Goddess Durga
    Like wise to all gods
    Thats why India even today after thousands of years still has wild life
    Kudos to our forefathers
    They did not stop with animals but extended it to non living things like rivers,mountains and even trees
    The main aim was to preserve the balance of nature and the ecosystem
    We read mythology like a story but if we read between the lines we can understand how their foresight has preserved an maintained the balance of nature
    Unlike in Afrika and America and Europe where the wild life has been badly affected and in some areas wiped out

  4. The truth behind the minimal extinction of Animals in Indian subcontinent is our Hindu culture, which doesnot allow to hunt the animals, instead of hunting we have been taught to prey them respect them.
    Approximately 500 years we are ruled by the Afghans,the Turkeys and then by Britishers for nearly 300 years. They tried immensely to wipe out Hinduism but the fact is Hinduism is not a religion its a thought, its a process, its by law itself. I Firmely belive to backing into The Vedas if we want to be a vishvaguru once again.

  5. The British colonisers used to hunt wild animal as a sport, where some of their native sympathisers also participated. However since Hinduism has an element of nature worship, a large part of wildlife continue to survive despite rapid urbanisation across the subcontinent.

  6. How stupid you people are !! We are discussing about our wild life and you people are talking shit about white people and religions .have some shame guys talk but sensible.. save our wild life and forest.. Then only we will survive.. stop this political things .

    • Amruta,
      The guys you are snickering upon so stupidly are mostly talking about Indians coexisting harmoniously with wild animals. The western people have been living with domesticated animals for long, because of which those animals have survived to this day in those countries. Nothing special about that. It were the wild animals who being of no direct economic benefit to the westeners (or so they thought foolishly), were systematically exterminated by them along with their habitats, the forests. Our ancestors might not have had formal education, but they had the sense and samskars to live in harmony with nature and protect our flora and fauna for millennia. Unfortunately, the West is now learning their lessons and caring for nature, while we, including India haters and West apers like you, are slowly forgetting the very lessons we could have taught the world. Just try reading your scriptures and talking to your grandparents to realize how well we Indians (and for that matter, Hindus in partivular) were taught by our elders to take care of wild animals, plants, trees (lions and snakes included), with an innate understanding of the nature’s cycles. Being vegetarian, wherever feasible and affordable, is but just one small manifestation of our sages’ teachings. As the Yale study too points out, after all there must have been something special about Indians to result in long survivability of wild animals in India. Think, and thank your ancestors instead of making fun of your own civilization.

    • Totally! Subtle hint at ‘no hunting and butchering’. The way the sentence is structured demonstrated the writers believes colouring the article. Eg … The statement about hunting and butchering should have read, “though there has been no evidence of butchering or hunting so far, it is also true that there is no concerted effort to look for such evidences while the Indians tropical climate poses a challenge to preserve fossils.”

    • They are talking logical Hinduism is indeed great respect to every Vedas and scriptures by our dear caring ancestors

  7. May be the yale university people don’t know that Indian hindus worship Elephants and Tigers and that is the cause of saving those animals from going extinct. Or may be they don’t want to accept this good contribution of hinduism knowingly.

  8. Our British overlords tried their best to wipe out Indian wild life by over hunting. Luckily they did not succeed.

  9. No. I will not accept anything which is glorifying my past.
    I am not a sangi. I would like to break Hindus as that is the best way to break India. Africans could be converted and made to fight bloody wars in the name of Christ and Allah because they did not have a common religion like Hinduism. So kill Hinduism and our last glory so Indians can start killing each other

  10. Let me be right not just politically. Hindu religion and culture is inherently more evolved and understood unified existence and value of life. Abrahamic religions are immature, aggressive no respect for earth or other life and humans different from them and keen to wipe them out.
    They are trying to succeed in India and our liberals will support them.

  11. What is now this non sense on co evolution ? These people have only now accepted to respect fauna and flora, which as a culture have done it for thousands of years. But study won’t point to their faults openly, as is expected.
    Anyway atleast they have finally evolved to give importance to 🐘.

  12. Important findings but They are trying to connect it with Africa. India has very old & ancient cililization. Not only the Harrapa & Mohanzodaro It can be far more older than this. Now findings in Western Uttar Pradesh also indicating the same. The civilized and cultured life style from Ancient India believes in Co existence and minimal harm to animals. But Why Western researchers will accept or conclude that. In India There is mammoth of tasks are still waiting for unearthing and scientific studies throughout the India. A big part of India is also gone after British Colonization like Pakistan, Bangladesh & Afghanistan where It is nearly impossible to do any archeological research.

  13. White skin domination is the biggest reason. Millions of Animals were slaughtered with a purpose of annihilating the belief systems of non-white-skin people was the main purpose.
    Things have changed in the past 100 years, but it was a little too late.
    Think about it, Hitler was inspired by the systematic removal of Native Americans.

  14. Forcefully said but that’s true.
    The British colonisers of India and their crawling, craven serfs – the myriad Rajahs and Mahararajahs of North India regularly shot anything they could in nauseatingly large numbers. Its a wonder that some survived.
    Now they come as NGO’s to tell their gormer colonies about caring for their environment and how to conserve our wildlife.
    Unfortunately there’s still no dearth of abjectly craven creatures who call themselves Indians who fawn and genuflect in front of them – for a condescending smile.

  15. The whole evolutionary theory is that Modern humans in India can from Africa, which may not be true at all. India had ethnic population of humans in civilizations like Indus Valley and Harrappa. Europe and North America had already evolved different species of humans, the Neanderthals. And Neanderthals were much larger than humans and a far bigger threat to large mammals than humans. Mammoths could have hardly ever been hunted by Humans, but very likely by Neanderthals or Denisovans of Russia. Sadly, these aspects have never been considered. And the latest extinction of larges mammals has been in the last 500 years as WHITE EUROPEANS COLONIZED AMERICA-NORTH AND SOUTH AS WELL AS AUSTRALIA. The Tasmanian tiger went extinct a century ago, the Dodo, a couple of centuries ago in South East Asia, after the Dutch arrived there. Since the analysis is by WHITE EUROPEANS AND AMERICANS, THEY WILL OBVIOUSLY IGNORE THE CONTRIBUTION BY THEIR IMMEDIATE ANCESTORS IN THE EXTINCTION OF LARGE MAMMALS IN AMERICA, EUROPE AND AUSTRALIA AS WELL AS SOUTH EAST ASIA!!!

  16. American Bison went extinct in North America because Christian colonisers entered, less than five hundred years ago, not during pre-history. One should remember that there are a significant number of pagans in Sub-Saharan Africa even to this day. Abrahamic religions teach that only humans have soul, other animals have no soul. Pagans beliefs are more complex and have respect for fauna and fora. Even when pagans have gods, they still respect nature, unlike the Abrahamic ones. This work is from people Abrahamic faiths, so one cannot expect them to look into this aspect.

    • Suggest, don’t use the bad word of the Christians” pagan”.It is as bad a word of the Muslims calling a non believers as “Kafir”.
      In both the above cited cases, the Pagan, & the Kafir can be killed.

      • This kind of fellows are everywhere on internet now. Their comments are just evil and nauseating. They are not Hindus, just communal bigots sans education.

        • To say that ones religious and philosophical beliefs affect human lifestyle and societies’ impact on the environment isn’t bigotry. All religions are not equal, they are just treated equally by the secular state machinery. Instead when you tale upon yourself the responsibility of seeing unequal ideologies as equal, that’s when you start deluding yourself…

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