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Gaur in the big town

Urban jungle: The human-animal conflict in Kodai has perhaps always been in the offing

Urban jungle: The human-animal conflict in Kodai has perhaps always been in the offing   | Photo Credit: B. Satheesh Muthu Gopal

If you encounter a 700 kg animal on a high street in Kodaikanal, remember we might have invited its unusual presence

For nearly a decade now, tourists in Kodaikanal, a bustling hill station in Tamil Nadu, have been jostling for space with another rather large animal species, the gaur. Their coexistence has largely been peaceful, but that is changing these days, with reports of gaur attacking people — fatally in one case — becoming common.

The conflict has perhaps always been in the offing.The gaur is a wild species, and even its domesticated version, the mithun, found in the Northeast, is not considered domestic enough to be used for typical livestock services like tilling or producing milk.

Couple this ‘wild’ gene with the body mass of what is incidentally the world’s largest bovine species — typically, an adult female weighs 500 kg and an adult male weighs 700 kg — and it becomes clear why physical contact between a human being and an adult gaur is likely to be bad news for the former.

Missing figures

Curiously, the gaur has not been such a significant presence in the Kodai of the past. Growing up in Madurai, I visited Kodai frequently in my childhood, and worked there in the 1990s as a wildlife ecologist. I never encountered nor heard of a gaur walking brazenly down the road, that too in broad daylight. Sure, I knew there were gaur in the Kodai hills, but they had never been known to venture into town. They were nearly always confined to the outskirts, like the golf course, or the densely wooded areas.

So what forced the gaur to move from its natural habitat? Unfortunately, we lack all the data that could help us identify the correct reason, but using what we know of the gaur and its habits, it is possible to hypothesise.

We can come up with three explanations. First, the gaur in Kodai are a spillover from the gaur population that has grown beyond the carrying capacity of Kodai’s neighbouring wildlife areas. Second, as the resources in the surrounding protected areas of the Palani (Kodaikanal) Wildlife Sanctuary diminish, the gaur perhaps find it easier to forage around Kodai. Third, an increase in the level of predators has driven prey like gaur to seek refuge in Kodai. The third explanation is easily ruled out. The tiger is the only significant predator of the gaur, and the surrounding forests of Kodai have not arguably had a resident tiger population for over 50 years.

Rough n tough

We are then left with only two hypotheses that could explain the shift in gaur behaviour. The carrying capacity of a particular area is the maximum population of an animal species that any given tract of land can support. Once the animal population exceeds the maximum capacity, competition for resources could force some animals to go elsewhere, thereby spilling into other landscapes.

However, there is no meaningful data that could either support or discredit the proposition that the gaur population in the protected areas has grown beyond the carrying capacity. So we have to accept this hypothesis simply as a possibility.

But there is evidence to support the second hypothesis. A recent study has shown that a large percentage of the grasslands in the shola-grassland ecosystem that dominates Kodai’s adjoining wildlife areas has been taken over by invasive non-native tree species.

Most of these plantations were carried out by the forest department under the rubric of commercial forestry. The tanning and paper industries primarily benefited from such government programmes.

This might very well have pushed the gaur, which, like wild cattle species, is primarily a grazer, to greener pastures — in this case, Kodai. The city, despite all its inconveniences, provides some small succour for the very large animal.

Size mismatch

Is there a solution to the problem? Theoretically, yes, if we manage to relocate all the gaur in the area. Relocations, however, require time, and there is much to investigate before we can meaningfully address the root causes of the ongoing human-gaur conflict.

In the meantime, to lessen the adverse effects of the presence of the gaur in densely populated areas, we need an awareness campaign for both Kodai’s local and tourist populations. People should be given instructions on how to react and behave in the presence of a gaur. We must keep in mind that the gaur is a wild animal capable of behaving aggressively if it feels threatened. When the threat is a human, the mismatch in body size gives the former very little chance of defence.

Monitoring the presence of gaur within Kodai by using smartphones and social media could prove useful. A similar technique to minimise human-elephant contact is being followed in the neighbouring Anamalai hills.

It may be difficult to ensure that the gaur has more suitable habitat to choose from in the near future, but we can at least ensure that people know how to behave when encountering a gaur. Perhaps we can cohabit with minimal conflict.

The author is a wildlife ecologist who forsook an engineering career to study and conserve wild cattle.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 1:04:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/gaur-in-the-big-town/article19974678.ece

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