As wildlife diplomacy takes wing, government considers Sri Lankan proposal for translocating gaurs

Colombo asks India to translocate 6 Indian bisons to reintroduce them in the island after three centuries

October 15, 2022 10:55 pm | Updated 11:21 pm IST - New Delhi

By the end of the 17th century the gaur disappeared from Sri Lanka.

By the end of the 17th century the gaur disappeared from Sri Lanka. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Close on the heels of the project that translocated cheetahs from Namibia, the Indian government is considering a proposal from Colombo to export a number of gaurs, or Indian bisons, to Sri Lanka to revive the population of gavaras that have been extinct in the island since the end of the 17th century.

If the project is cleared, it would be the first such agreement between India and Sri Lanka, and part of a global trend of “wildlife or zoological diplomacy”, say experts.

Sources said the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which received the request in August, has now forwarded it to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), “seeking comments” on the proposal to transport at least six specimens, including a bull and three to five cows. According to the written proposal, the Sri Lankan Department of Zoological Gardens would then carry out “captive breeding a herd of about a dozen specimens over a five-year period before trial reintroduction to the wild could take place in accordance with [internationally mandated] guidelines for reintroductions”.

S.P. Yadav, Director, National Tiger Conservation Authority, said the proposal was being studied. “We’ll have to evaluate if the conditions for translocation are right, such that the animal can sustainably thrive over there,” he told The Hindu, estimating the evaluation could take a few months.

The suggestion for the proposal came from world-renowned Sri Lankan conservationist Rohan Pethiyagoda, who was awarded the Linnean medal 2022 (U.K. -based equivalent of the Nobel prize for zoology) for his work on restoring fresh water and forest biodiversity.

“As a scientific and cultural collaboration between our two countries, I felt this could be an immensely valuable initiative. But I know it is fraught with difficulties,” said Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India Milinda Moragoda who handed over the preliminary request on the basis of Mr. Pethiyagoda’s suggestion. “India is without a doubt Sri Lanka’s closest friend, supporter and trading partner. We have a shared history, shared cultural identity, and shared gene. We even got Buddhism, on whose traditions we derive our national values, from India,” he added.

Experts say that while “zoological diplomacy” had been practised worldwide, they draw a distinction between “gifts or loans” of animals in captivity to translocation and reintroduction of a species, particularly between neighbouring countries with similar eco-systems.

For example, American bison herds were supplemented with animals from Canada after the U.S. herds were almost all wiped out, The U.K. has recently introduced the European bison (Wisent) after an estimated 10,000 years in June 2022(its extinct relative the Steppe Bison was believed to have lived there many centuries ago).

Israel has for decades pursued reintroductions, including of Persian fallow deer. Arabian oryx and other species have been released into the Negev desert, and South Africa has recently used the export of cheetahs to other African countries as a diplomatic tool during the post-apartheid era. More recently, Cambodia has requested translocating tigers from India, which is under consideration.

“Much depends on whether the conditions that caused the extinction have been removed, but reintroduction is known and has frequently been taken up between countries where the range is contiguous,” explained Mahesh Rangaran, Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University who has studied conservation history, including such attempts. “In that sense, the animal plays a role as a zoological ambassador between nation states,” he added.

Sri Lankan officials say the gaur, called the gavara in Sinhala, was once widespread and archaeological remains in ancient caves in the island included the remains of the animal. By the end of the 17th century, however, the species appears to have been extirpated in Sri Lanka, although they remain prominent in iconography and mythological stories.

The Indian gaur, a reclusive beast that lives in the wild, is the largest wild bovine that is a protected species and included in Schedule I of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 and listed as vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. There are about 13,000 to 30,000 gaurs in the world with approximately 85% of the population present in India. It is also found in Burma and Thailand.

The first-ever population estimation exercise of the Indian gaur carried out in the Nilgiris Forest Division in February 2020 estimated around 2,000 Indian gaurs to be inhabiting the division. This came after instances of people being attacked or injured by the bison primarily in and around plantations came to light. In 2019, for which the most recent numbers are available, three people were killed and seven injured in attacks by gaurs.

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