Friday, November 30, 2007

It's a Bison!

The Indian Gaur (Bos gaurus)


One September morning, I woke up to find huge hoof prints in the wet mud all over the garden. It looked like an animal had gone on a rampage or was involved in a skirmish with some other. The veteran gardener in his wisdom offered that the hoof marks belonged to ‘jungli gaay’. A bit of investigation and asking around suggested that indeed “bison” might have paid visit the night before!  A late-night vigil from the “makeshift machaan” of the balcony helped establish a herd – a male, few females, some juveniles and a calf - on the golf course across our bungalow in Wellington's Staff College. The young ones were grazing while the patriarch watched over contentedly chewing the cud. It was unusual to see them this close to the College and human habitation almost giving credence to the talk that a panther had been chasing a bison calf (but that is another story)! Even from a distance of 30 meters, the silhouette of the bull was imposing - the hunched back packed with brute strength held together on incongruously spindly legs.

Bison are a relatively common sight amidst tea plantations in and around Coonoor, but they do not seem to bother the tea pickers who continue working nonchalantly with them close by. Golfers at the Wellington Gymkhana Club have also had their share of sightings of the mammal and yet we know so little about these creatures! “Bison kill without being provoked”, “Bison are aggressive and gore humans to death” – this kind of vilification goes against the grain of its very nature. You’ll be surprised to know that the bison is actually a shy and timid animal - one that prefers to avoid human contact. But given its bulk of a tonnage and the fact that it might itself perceive threat upon encounter with man, would it be wrong in defending itself with all its might? In fact, fear of these mammals is unfounded if you are to believe a local Coonoor-ian, who has this to say about the creatures: “My mother (who has grown up in Coonoor) says that as children they used to chase bison the way we may drive away cows”!

Nevertheless, the sight of a solitary bull can indeed be a heart-stopper. What a powerful mien it has with the ridge on its back and the huge dewlap (loose fold of skin under the throat) at the front! You can identify a bison unmistakably by its white stocking-ed feet and the light grey patch on the forehead contrasting the black-brown of the body.

The Gaur or the Indian bison, as they are popularly known, are legion in the Nilgiris and unique in that they fall between the two stools of being wild (like the elephants) and stray (like cattle). The label “bison” is bit of a misnomer, for the gaur actually belongs to the family of wild oxen, and therefore is closer to cattle than to its American namesake.

Essentially, animals of the deciduous forests and scrub vegetation, bison are constantly migrating from place to place and don’t mark their territory nor know any boundary. Peculiar to the Nilgiri woodlands, these bovine creatures fall in the shadow region of the jungles and human habitation. Unlike sanctuaries or national parks where forests are contiguous with sharply defined boundaries and peripheries, the Coonoor Forest Range has blocks of reserve forests interspersed with civilization. M.S. Parthiban, forest ranger, Coonoor, enlightens: “Here there is no clear cut separation between agricultural land and forest area, so there is an overlap of bison population with humans. In the last decade, bison have adapted themselves well and are more comfortable co-existing with people.”

In many ways, bison are like elephants. For one, they live in matriarchal herds (on an average a mixed herd has eight animals, but herds are known to reach a figure of 40) and like the lone tuskers, bison bulls are given to wandering alone. Secondly, like elephants, bison are herbivores. They graze and feed on leaves and barks of certain trees during the daytime and in the evening, but unlike elephants they do not go raiding crops at night. Mr. A C Soundarrajan, life member of the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association, who has aided a three-year study on the ecology and habits of bison in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, says: “Compared to elephants, bison are docile creatures.” He should know for he was caught in a cordon of a 40-strong herd snorting and watching his every move and got out without a scratch to tell the tale!

Where there are bison in the wild, tigers are not far behind. Tigers are enemy number one but when hunting bison they are circumspect and prefer to hamstring them instead of going for the jugular. Panthers, on the other hand do not dare to mess around with bison in herds or even a lone bull, but may attack a stray calf. Mr. Parthiban is quick to mention though that bison deaths in Coonoor range have been mainly due to slipping over hill slopes. Bison are also extremely vulnerable to cattle-borne diseases such as foot mouth disease and rinderpest. Mr. Soundarrajan recalls the time, way back in 1968, when rinderpest had almost decimated bison population in the South. Thankfully, 12 years after the epidemic it had limped back to a decent number.

India has the highest population of gaurs and according to a 2002-statistic their numbers ranged between 23,000 and 34,000. But with shrinking habitats their numbers are dwindling and bison figure in the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Red Data list of threatened species. In the Nilgiris, they are largely concentrated in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary (numbering 9000 – 12,000); elsewhere there is a staggered population in grasslands, swamp patches and around tea estates. Bandishola Reserve in Coonoor is a haven for bison.

Hunting bison is strictly prohibited as per Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972; unfortunately, the ground reality is something else. In the forests bordering Kerala, the animals are poached for their meat, which is then peddled as a delicacy at a premium. No animal, it seems, is spared man’s avarice.

This article was published in The Local, a popular news-magazine published from Nilgiris.  

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