Tamil Nadu

The disappearing grasslands and the Toda buffalo 

A Toda herdsman tending his buffaloes at Karshmund.

A Toda herdsman tending his buffaloes at Karshmund. | Photo Credit: M. SATHYAMOORTHY

Until a couple of hundred years ago, the indigenous Toda community and their buffaloes were as uniquely and inextricably linked to the Nilgiris landscape as any of its native flora and fauna. However, since the first colonial expedition up the slopes, the community of pastoralists and their animals have been gradually pushed to the margins, as previously pristine grasslands, an important source of food for the community’s cattle and also for the community’s cultural ethos, have gradually disappeared from the upper slopes of the Nilgiri hills. 

“The Todas’ relationships with their buffaloes began in ancient times when their pre-eminent Goddess ‘ Taihhkirshy’, did the miraculous act of creating the buffaloes from a pool known as ‘ nerykaihhrr’. The story is that she took a cane and tapped at this pool, creating one buffalo with every tap. She continued to perform this act of creation until this line of buffaloes reached what is now known as Governor’s Shola,” said Tarun Chhabra, an expert in the community and author of The Toda Landscape

The Toda buffalo is one of the 17 known breeds of the water buffalo ( Bubalus bubalis), believed to have been brought up the Nilgiri hills by the Todas themselves, and through more than 5,000 years of selective breeding, has become highly specialised in thriving in the high-altitude Shola-grassland mosaic of the Nilgiri hills. 

Each of the Todas’ 15 patrilineal clans has a different order of buffaloes attached to a specific order of a dairy temple. However, the loss of grasslands and waves of disease which hit certain herds of the buffalo have meant that some of the temples have been lost, said Northey Kuttan, president of the Nilgiri Primitive Tribal People’s Federation. According to him, rituals attached to each temple of the community can only be completed with the milk from the buffaloes attached to a specific temple. “For instance, the temple is only opened when the first calf is born, and milk is gathered by the temple priest and made into butter which is used to light the lamps inside the temple. The loss of a group of buffaloes attached to a temple spells the doom for the temple itself,” he explained. 

The introduction of alien species, such as pine, wattle and eucalyptus, as well as hydroelectric projects and dams, has led to the destruction of huge swathes of grasslands used by the community to graze their buffaloes. 

“The Todas are very well known for their affinity for the buffaloes. I have documented at least 75 different names the community has given to their buffaloes. Even today, children are naturally known to herd and control great, big groups of this semi-wild species of buffalo,” added Mr. Chhabra. 

According to estimates by the Department of Animal Husbandry and the community, there are believed to be less than 1,500 Toda buffalo in the Nilgiris. 

Todar Samuthayam Munnetra Sangam general secretary A. Sathyaraj said the decline in the population of the buffalo coincided with large-scale changes to the ecosystem. “The community used to depend on the natural forests and grasslands for its survival, which also formed the core of our culture. Large herds of buffalo could be seen across the Nilgiris up until 50 years ago, but the gradual loss of native habitats, coinciding with a boom in construction and changing land-use patterns, has changed the Todas’ culture almost irreversibly,” he pointed out. 

According to Mr. Sathyaraj, the case in point is the shift from traditional barrel-vaulted houses made of wood and thatched roofs made of grass. “Previously, we could find these traditional building materials, like native swamp grasses, everywhere; but now, they are so scarce that we save them for use only to ensure that our sacred temples are maintained and prevented from falling into ruin,” he said. 

Conservation efforts 

Efforts are being made by the community as well as experts like Dr. Chhabra to help conserve the Toda buffalo. Dr. Chhabra has purchased 20 buffaloes and employs members of the community to take care of them. Efforts are also being made at the Pagalkod Mund where Mr. Kuttan is launching an initiative with 30 buffaloes. The milk from the animals can be used to make dairy products, of which sales is hoped to assure the community of livelihood. 

Regenerating grasslands and ensuring that the community can make a living from the maintenance of the herds is the only viable solution to ensuring the breed’s long-term survival, said R. Anil Kumar, Director of Distance Education, Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (TANUVAS). He said traditional grasslands now comprise less than 10% of the Upper Nilgiris, with alien flora taking over most areas. “The lack of grazing areas forces the buffaloes into forests, where they fall prey to predators like tigers and leopards,” he said. Another reason for the decline was the community itself shifting away from pastoralism. 

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Printable version | Jul 7, 2022 10:37:13 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/the-disappearing-grasslands-and-the-toda-buffalo/article65579315.ece