The fourth largest living land animal, Gaur or the Indian Bison, is fighting a losing battle against destruction of habitat, poaching and diseases

While the tiger hogs the limelight as an animal in distress, other wild denizens are kept aside despite being in dire straits. The greater wildlife varieties hardly make news nor get the attention of researchers. For instance, last month, an animal strayed into the Mangalore airport tarmac in the wee hours and scared the authorities. The unknown creature was spotted just before the day’s first flight was about to land and the alert runway inspection staff gave chase.

There was confusion as to how a big animal jumped the eight-feet-high fence. By the time forest officials were summoned, with tranquilizers, the animal escaped. After enquiry, wildlife experts concluded that the animal in question is a bison and not any “beastly ghost”. It was finally put on record as “the Indian bison, an ox trespassed from the jungles”.

Standing over six feet tall, Gaur, the Indian Bison is reckoned as the fourth largest living land animal. Tipping the scales easily at 1200 kg or more, it ranks after the elephant, rhinoceros and giraffe. As a herbivore, it prefers the safety of forests with an inclination to subsist on low rolling hills. Occasionally, the gaur ventures to the grasslands to add variety in its menu. In the first ever study on the Gaur, Dr. F.S. Ahrestani -- a researcher from New York -- accounts that the Gaur is primarily a grazer, eating more grass than leaves. These field observations were conducted in Bandipur and Mudumalai tiger reserves in southern India for 20 months ending in July 2007.

Donning a heavy physique, the Gaur is akin to a trained athlete on steroids. It is at ease in negotiating ravines and rapids and sprints effortlessly while traversing tough terrains. Even with these strong statistics, the muscle monster is fighting a losing battle and dwindling in numbers. A concoction of rapid development, destruction of habitat, poaching and disease has spelled doom for these spunky animals.

India has 17 major cattle breeds that have been domesticated thousands of years ago. Strangely the Gaur, part of the Indian cattle, has never been domesticated. There is a feral variety in the north-eastern part of India called Mithun but it is designated a different entity altogether. Some scientists reckon that taming of Gaur is tough because it is a huge animal equipped with strength and a short-tempered attitude. It easily conforms to the saying “bull in a china shop”.

Moreover it is different in many ways, by not having a hump; instead it has a ridge on the spine. It ‘wears’ contrasting white stockings on all four legs and has an ebony glistening body. Of all the wild cattle in the world, the Gaur stands top on the list as the ultimate ungulate. It beats the wild water buffalo, American Bison, European Bison and even the African Cape buffalo hallow in terms of skeletal structure and brute strength.

Only this year wildlife authorities in India have woken up to the reality of the endangered status of the Gaur. Even the Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group (AWCSG), established in the early 1980s, with the goal to conserve Asia's nine wild cattle species is closely monitoring its delicate status.

While loss of habitat is a concern, human-animal conflict is also contributing to the complexity of wildlife conservation. Recently, in Chhattisgarh, three Gaurs were poisoned by villagers on the assumption that they invaded crops. In West Bengal, a pair of Gaur unwittingly ventured out of the jungles of Jaldapara National Park and went on a rampage goring people. Such encounters only bring bad name to this large bovine.

In some locations of India, Gaurs have completely vanished as nobody was keeping a tab. An entire herd simply disappeared from the Bandhavgarh National Park around 1997. Last year, an ambitious plan was devised to catch a herd from the Kanha National Park and translocate them to Bandhavgarh. Today, 50 Gaurs thrive in the luxurious jungles of Bandhavgarh.

If this success story is not enough, the Mysore Zoo has embarked on a project to enhance the survival of the Gaur. About 100 acres has been earmarked on the outskirts of Mysore in Yelwal in Karnataka to breed and study various races of Gaurs within India. Explaining this modern methodology of ensuring the future of the Gaur in India, B.P. Ravi, director of the 100-year-old zoo, says: “We are ready to take up this challenging task for the sake of the beleaguered Gaur as our zoo has the required expertise.”