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Oh Deer! 4 Deaths in 2 Days, 35 in 6 Months: Why Are Deer Dying in IIT Madras?

At least 11 spotted deer have died so far in 2022 which questions the management of wildlife on campus.

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India
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‘Four deaths in a week at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M) campus is quite normal,’ was the alarming response given by a senior forest official.

Initially suspected to be an anthrax outbreak, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department on Wednesday confirmed that the four deer that died last week were not infected by the zoonotic disease.

A statement by the Principal Chief Conservator of the Forests and the Chief Wildlife Warden of Tamil Nadu said the tissue and blood smear samples sent to the laboratory in Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (Tanuvas) tested negative for the anthrax genome.

The cause of death is yet to be ascertained for three deer but we know that the fourth one had choked on garbage that was accumulated on campus, said an official.

At least 11 spotted deer have died so far in 2022, raising an alarm regarding the management of wildlife in the protected forest reserve.

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On 15 and 16 January the deaths of the deer created an anthrax scare. Anthrax is a zoonotic disease caused by rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. It occurs naturally in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals around the world.

The carcasses of the animals were disposed after following standard operating procedures and the area where they had been found was sanitised and cordoned off.

A team of nine people is observing the wildlife on campus for any symptoms round the clock for immediate intervention, and an antibiotic dosage is also being administered. Analysing the possibilities of how the disease could have entered the campus, the management blamed stray dogs to be the carriers.

However, the Animal Husbandry Department retorted in a statement, “Regarding the role of dogs in the disease, it is clarified that dogs are not known carriers of anthrax organisms and do not play any role in its transmission.”
At least 11 spotted deer have died so far in 2022 which questions the management of wildlife on campus.

According to estimates, there are over 300 spotted deer and 50 blackbuck in the premises.

(Photo: Smitha TK/ The Quint)

Activists flagged that the deer at IIT Madras are affected by a range of severe infections and several of them have tuberculosis.

But the forest department seems to have no answer to the back-to-back animal deaths on campus. Additionally, they are not equipped to deal with a possible outbreak and there is no qualified wildlife veterinarian in the Chennai wildlife wing.

11 Deer Deaths in Less Than 3 Months in 2022

Animal activists and forest officials have pointed to the rise in deer deaths on campus in the last few years and the lack of a system to investigate the causes of death.

According to estimates, there are over 400 spotted deer in the premises.

A total of 35 deer, including spotted deer and blackbucks, are reported to have died within the campus from June- December 2021, (the highest number of 11 deaths, taking place in December) according to an RTI reply.

IIT Madras has however contended that data actually showed a steady decline of deaths of deer on campus in 2021, compared to previous years.

According to the data furnished by IIT-M, there were 96 deer reported dead in 2018; 79 in 2019; 83 in 2020 and 53 in 2021. However, this data does not include the deer/blackbuck injured due to dog bites and taken out of the campus by the Wildlife Department for treatment at a local NGO.

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Poor Waste Management, Lack of Green Cover Caused Deaths

In 2017, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered IIT Madras to form a committee and look into the concerns raised in the case filed by animal activist Anthony Rubin, stating that improper solid waste management and loud noise inside the campus were threats to the wildlife. Following this order, a committee was formed in December 2019.

At least 11 spotted deer have died so far in 2022 which questions the management of wildlife on campus.

The carcass of a spotted deer covered with dried leaves.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

However, the IIT management stood its ground blaming dogs for the frequent deaths. It may be noted that over 180 dogs have been caught and confined to shelters in IIT Madras since September 2020, and at least 57 of them died in a span of 13 months within the premises.

The death of deer on campus due to dog bite has reduced from 28 in 2020 to 5 in 2021 as communicated by wildlife authorities on 7 January. And even after the dog menace was supposedly taken care of by the institute, the number of deer deaths has continued to rise.

Also, postmortems have been conducted only in the past five years and only on a few of the deer, as the institute claims that they find carcasses inside the forest in highly decomposed conditions.

Of the postmortems carried out on 15 deer, that were found dead between June-December 2021, two deer died of Tuberculosis (TB), two of weakness, four deer of plastic/polythene indigestion and two due to dog bites.
At least 11 spotted deer have died so far in 2022 which questions the management of wildlife on campus.

IIT Madras officials say a plastic ban was imposed in 2018, but the premises is littered with plastic even today.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

“There are many road accidents that injure the deer, which later die in the forest. There is increased construction activity on campus which causes noise pollution and also leads to accumulation of garbage. In the last 10 years we've lost so much green cover, and so there is not enough grass for the deer to feed on; and that's why they consume leftover food and garbage,” said an IIT official.

Meanwhile, IIT Madras officials say a plastic ban was imposed in 2018/19, but there are several heaps of plastic waste in the campus even now.

At least 11 spotted deer have died so far in 2022 which questions the management of wildlife on campus.

IIT Madras officials say a plastic ban was imposed in 2018, but the premises is littered with plastic even today.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

“The nominal mortality rate of deer on campus is about 10% and so the deaths might seem like a huge number. But the deer is known to have high proliferation which balances the numbers. The institute must build a good relationship with the people in the area and incentivise to ensure proper disposal of garbage. We should try to save the animals and ensure harmonious living."
Prasanth, Chennai Wildlife Warden
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Activists Call For a Regular Survey to Monitor Deer Deaths on Campus

IIT Madras is raising a 'Green Fund' to protect the unique biodiversity of the campus. They have installed many speed breakers, instructed visitors to adhere to speed limits and have several persons deployed to keep the campus clean but the deaths continue to rise.

“But let us not get emotional about the deaths and instead look at this from an ecological perspective,” pointed out a senior doctor who worked with TANUVAS.

“We should closely study the deer population and should address garbage disposal mechanisms; all the cattle and dogs must be constantly monitored and treated,” he said.

A person who works closely with the wildlife on campus told The Quint, "The management is mostly focussed on education; these animals need more care as it is their home we have taken over. Also, deers proliferate at a fast pace. Now with hardly any dogs on campus, there are no secondary predators to keep the ecological balance in check. The institute should devise a mechanism to monitor this."

He also confirmed that with increased construction work on campus in the past few months, the grass cover for the deers is diminishing rapidly.

Shruti Vinodh Raj, who works with the hospital committee at TANUVAS said that the looming issue is the lack of a survey to take account of the number of animals in the premises. “The campus is still part of a forest reserve and it is their responsibility to protect the wildlife. The campus is overrun with infrastructure and not all deaths are even reported,” she alleged.

The court had earlier noted that the institute and forest department can consider relocation of the animals to another space but officials flagged several issues that could harm the lives of these deers.

"Deer get shocked easily and also they are already carriers of many infections; so they could infect another group of animals if relocated. The animals should first be treated and monitored before considering such a move," said Dr Peer MoHammed, former professor at TANUVAS.

The Quint reached out to IIT Madras for a comment but didn't get a response.

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