In the clearing stands a boxer

One of the memorable sights from my trip to the Rann of Kutch was watching two bull nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) face off against each other. As we drove along, we saw a hefty male cross the road in front of our jeep. It gave no sign of being alarmed. It just kept an eye on us as it crossed. We followed and found that it had reached a clearing surrounded by a dense growth of acacia trees.

There was another hefty bull. It didn’t look very happy to see an interloper. To my eyes both bulls looked healthy and large, and both had a glossy pelt. In this region we had probably come across the two bulls during mating season, when they are more territorial than usual. In fact seeing two mature bulls together at this time was a little unusual. They usually mark out territories of 15-20 square kilometers each.

The interloper advanced to the middle of the clearing and came to a halt. The defender approached slowly, and at an angle. The interloper stood its ground as the defended began to circle him slowly. Clearly the two were sizing each other up. To my eye the interloper looked larger, but the defender had a glossier pelt. I didn’t know what the two bulls would look for in the other to make a judgement about whether it was useful to fight.

The tense circling was completed as the two came face to face, staring at each other. The decision was made without a fight: the interloper decided to leave. I had no idea what had convinced each about the possible outcome. I would think that a clear mismatch in sizes would have meant that a fight is avoided. If the sizes are well-matched, as they seemed to be, a fight could be avoided if one had no stake in fighting. Maybe that was the case; maybe the interloper had perfectly good territory, and knew that it was encroaching on another’s.

I find it hard enough to figure out what another person is thinking, and here I was trying to understand the mind of a nilgai. Quite unlikely! I interloper gave a last backward look at the clearing as it pushed through the brambles and disappeared.