The secretive and little-known hispid hare is in danger by Nepal’s purposeful burning of grasslands to protect tiger habitat.
The burning is done to stop grasslands from developing into forests and to encourage the emergence of new grass shoots, which serve as tiger prey.
However, hispid hares, which need extensive ground cover for resting, grazing, and breeding, depend on intact grasslands as vital habitat.
According to researchers, in order to conserve the species, the yearly burning of grassland should be done judiciously and outside of the hares’ mating season.
KATMODON — On the outskirts of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park on a spring day, smoke is thick in the air, and the stench of burning grass is strong. Soot blankets the tourist destination of Sauraha like snowflakes as flames rampage over the countryside, destroying everything in their path.

This is a typical image in Nepal’s tiger-rich protected regions, when between February and May, authorities conduct extensive burning of the grassland ecosystems as a management measure. In order to keep grasslands—which serve as a habitat for tigers and their prey—from converting into woods and to encourage the emergence of new, nutrient-rich grass sprouts, both locals and government agree that fires are a cost-effective technique.

However, environmentalists warn that such management strategies, which have previously come under fire for being too tiger-focused, might be expensive for another species: the rare and elusive hispid hare. (Caprolagus hispidus).

According to Bijaya Singh Dhami, main author of a recent research on the species, “we have discovered that the grassland burning season may coincide with the breeding period of hispid hares.” “The newborns might not be able to run quickly and escape the fire.”

The nocturnal, solitary creature, previously inhabited the grasslands near the foothills of the Himalayas and is considered one of the rarest mammals in the world. The animal’s mating season is unknown to us, although two out of every three females collected in Nepal in January and February were discovered to be pregnant, and other hares have been found to follow a similar mating cycle, according to Dhami.

In 1964, it was thought that the species had become extinct, but in 1966, a lone specimen was discovered in the wild once again. The hispid hare’s habitat is currently only found in fragmented patches that together only cover about 500 square kilometers (190 square miles) in Nepal, Bhutan, and the Indian states of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Assam, according to the IUCN, the organization responsible for the conservation of wildlife worldwide. Its existence in Bangladesh and other regions of India is yet unknown.

In the 1980s, the hares in Nepal were only seen in the western national parks of Bardiya and Shuklaphanta. More recently, in 2016 while conducting a study of grassland birds in Chitwan National Park in central Nepal, a hispid hare was seen on camera.

Researchers sometimes utilize pellet-shaped animal droppings as a stand-in for the actual animal since it might be difficult to locate them in the wild in order to study their behaviors and habitats. In a 2021 research that Dhami co-authored, it was discovered that when a section of grassland in Suklaphanta was burnt, there were more brand-new pellets in the unburned region and more old pallets in the burned area. According to Dhami, this shows that burning the land every other year could be preferable for ensuring the survival and spread of this endangered species.

The hispid hare was spotted in Chitwan in 2016 by conservationist Bed Bahadur Khadka, who also feels that the primary danger to the species and other animals is a blanket policy of burning grassland for habitat management. According to him, “the kind of burning we currently practice also doesn’t help rare birds such as the Bengal florican.”

Other factors also pose a danger to the conservation of the hispid hare, which is listed by the IUCN as one of the causes of the loss in appropriate habitat. Nishan K.C., another co-author of the latest research, stated, “To understand the threats, we looked at the habitat preference of hispid hares in Shuklaphanta.”

Hispid hares favored extensive ground cover, possibly for resting, grazing, and mating, the research showed. Additionally, the scientists discovered that they preferred dry ground to wet surface conditions, potentially to shield young ones from cold. In regions where grass species like wild sugarcane predominated, hispid hare pellets were discovered. (Saccharum spontaneum). However, Nishan noted that when anthropogenic disturbances increased, hispid hare detection declined.

Another incident demonstrates how much hares try to stay away from people. A hare in the Assam state of India’s zoo shattered its skull by slamming its head against the bars of its cage, suggesting that mating the species in captivity is most likely impossible.

Dhami and his team created a list of hazards that must be dealt with right away in order to rescue the hispid hare based on their findings. The research claims that the species, which only survives in certain types of grasslands, faces yet another serious danger from the conversion of grasslands into forests. Similar to this, human activities and a lack of adequate transportation corridors are causing its habitats to become fragmented. It’s also thought that the animal is hunted for its flesh.

The lack of financing for the job we conduct as hispid hare researchers is another difficulty, according to Dhami. “The majority of the animal sightings have occurred while searching for other species.”

The time and procedure of yearly grassland burning, according to the study’s authors, should be changed in order to rescue the hares. They add, “We also recommend adopting a scientific grassland management strategy to stop grassland succession into woodlands that will help protect and enhance the habitat conditions of the hispid hare,” saying that “Conservation managers should adopt selective grassland burning practices, patch by patch, and avoid the breeding season of hispid hares and Bengal florican.”

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