A meeting over tea

On our way back from the Eravikulam National Park, we saw a massive black shape between the neat rows of tea bushes which line the slopes here. The bus driver stopped obligingly to let us figure out that the shape was not a rock but a lone bull Gaur. It had its head down and seemed to be rooting at the tea. I’d seen this before. Gaur move through the aisles in these plantations, and if they destroy tea, it is by accident. Their target is the smaller herbs and grasses that grow on the verge. There is something about tea that they don’t like. I’m happy that they leave the pekoes to us.

The genus Bos includes both the Gaur (Bos gaurus) and domestic cattle. It seems that their ancestors developed and migrated from Africa at the same time as humans. The single male that I saw is among the last of a species that diverged and evolved in the forests of India, and is now on the verge of extinction due to loss of habitat. What a sad end that would be to this marvelous and gentle giant!

The World’s largest Cattle

We saw a herd of about ten Gaur (Bos Gaurus) and stopped to watch. They looked around, saw us, and went back to grazing. Maybe they are used to humans, but part of the reason is also their sheer size. An adult can weight as much as a ton, so they seldom have to worry about other creatures. Tigers and leopards do attack Gaur, but they usually pick the youngsters. For a tiger against an adult Gaur, I would give them even odds. I’ve seen a tiger unable to drag away a Gaur which it had killed, because it was so heavy. I’ve also seen reports of tigers killed by Gaur.

Older Gaur calf in Pench National Park

The IUCN Red list considers the Gaur to be highly vulnerable to habitat destruction. If you want to know more about the natural history of Gaur, this is the best document to read. It claims that in the last 50 to 60 years Gaur population worldwide has decreased by 70%. Since it has decreased by only 30% in India, it must have decreased tremendously in the rest of its range. It was found in India and south-east Asia, but has gone extinct in Bangladesh in the last couple of decades. In parts of India, such as Valparai, it is still under threat.

The Bos genus, to which domestic cows also belong, probably diverged from other bovines about a million years ago. Earlier studies had claimed that the European Aurochs (which went extinct in the 19th century CE) are the original stock from which other Bos species diverged. However, recent findings in Eritrea seem to push the origin of Bos back to around 3 millon years ago, and indicate a close relationship between humans and Bos. These studies indicate that Bos and humans left Africa together. Tigers would have started preying on Bos only after their dispersal into Asia. So, the enmity between human and tiger predators of cattle seems to be ancient.

Gaur with young calf in Pench National Park

In a well-managed park like Pench, the Gaur population seems to be stabilizing, and probably also increasing. We saw evidence in the form of small calves (photo above) as well as older calves (photo before that). Interestingly, in the early part of the 20th century CE, observers reported that calves are born in August and September. Nowadays, it is common to see calves at any time of the year. The herd we saw followed the common pattern of having some females with calves, some sub-adults, and perhaps a few males. If you know enough about Gaur, then you would be able to tell the male from the female by differences in the horns. I’m not expert enough.

We stood there and watched the herd graze. It has been several years since we saw these wonderful creatures with brown coats and white socks.

Competitive grazing

In Valparai we saw four different kinds of wild plant-eating animals: the huge Gaur (aka Indian bison), the shy barking deer (Indian Muntjac), the rare Nilgiri tahr, and the Nilgiri langur. There were also domesticated cows and buffalos, and a very small number of domestic goats. If all the grazers eat the same food, then the one that eats fastest could starve the others to death. There is the unlikely possibility that the common food plant grows really rapidly, so no species dies out. The more likely possibility is that the different animals eat different plants. In fact, as I looked this up I found that biologists use the word grazing for eating grass, and browsing for eating shrubs and bushes. So avoiding conflict by eating differently is well recognized.

A herd of Gaur feedingWe frequently saw family groups of Gaur grazing among tea bushes, heads down, except when they looked up to keep an eye on us. In forests we found Gaurs to be more cautious, but here on the tea estate they seem to be used to humans. On watching closely, it appeared that Gaur did not touch the tea, preferring to eat grasses, and perhaps other plants, which grew around the tea. I walked among the tea bushes at one point and found that the paths had little other than grass. So this cousin of cattle was eating mainly grass, although they are known to eat a variety of plant material. Maybe they don’t like tea; I don’t much like Nilgiri tea myself.

Barking deer: Indian MuntjacThe barking deer (Indian Muntjac) is a very shy creature. We were lucky to spot one from a road above a sunken meadow. It did not bolt because it never noticed us. It moved through a patch of tea, over the grass, which it completely ignored, looking for something else. An article in the journal Mammalia explains that 80% of its diet comes from shrubs, flowering bushes and trees. Grasses make up only a small part of its diet. The Gaur and the Muntjac occupy the same range but eat differently. This is the classic strategy of two herbivores in the same geography: one grazes, the other browses.

Nilgiri tahr We saw a family of Nilgiri tahr which munched on grass for a while, but then started eating flowers of Lantana bushes growing by the road. An article in the journal of the BNHS claims that this is common. The tahr eats mostly grass, but also a wide variety of flowering bushes. It avoids competition with other herbivores by the fact of being nimble and eating in places where the others cannot reach.

Langurs follow the same strategy. They browse leaves high up on trees, and so avoid competition with other wild herbivores in these places. Domesticated cattle are not so lucky: they eat the same plants that Gaur eat. Sometimes they are seen feeding side by side, and apparently there is occassional conflict. The Gaur is huge: often over a ton in weight and its shoulders are man-high. In a conflict, it is bound to win over domestic cattle. This does not appear to be a serious problem in Valparai, since most people here are involved in tea production and not farming.

Fabulous Friday

gaur sittingmacaque
greathornbill malabarsquirrel

The lush green valley of Valparai is a good place for wildlife and birding. The morning’s outing gave us a small bird list, but with a couple of “lifers” (birders’ shorthand for seeing a bird for the first time in one’s life). I put together four great sightings in the photos above. Going left to right, top to bottom they are a bull Gaur (also called the Indian Bison Bos gaurus) keeping a wary eye on us, one of the endangered lion-tailed macaques (Macaca silenus, this band feeds on garbage heaps around villages), a juvenile great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) with its deep calls and immense flapping wings, and the Malabar giant squirrel (Ratufa Indica), not endangered, but rare.