Gaur tales from Munnar

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The mighty Bos gaurus is simultaneously threatening and endangered — humans maintain a safe distance whereas disease-bearing cattle are allowed to graze freely in their midst when they’re not supposed to.

The icy glare of a Gaur bull, the world’s largest living bovine, can make your body freeze and thaw the contents of your bladder at the same time. | M. Sathyamoorthy

In Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu’s well-known hill-resort, gaurs (or bison as they are popularly called) are sometimes known to saunter casually through the town, heedless of traffic and awestruck pedestrians. However, in neighbouring Munnar — some 40 km away as the crow flies — gaurs prefer to stick to their natural habitat, sprawling grassland pastures that fringe the jungles.

The gaur (Bos gaurus) is found in Munnar’s verdant tea estates and the nearby Eravikulam National Park, and can often be seen grazing nonchalantly in the tea fields, its dark brown coat glistening in the rays of the rising or setting sun. At one time in the 1950s the gaur was known to abound in Munnar’s environs, to the extent that a vast valley that used to be overrun by the bovines came to be known as Bison Valley. It’s still known as such though the gaur is seldom seen there now, settlers having moved in extensively.

 

 

Further, it’s on record that in the 1880s when tea estates were being opened around Munnar, gaur were so numerous that they posed a threat to the young tea saplings which they nibbled and trampled down. In a bid to scare the herds away some pioneer British planters trapped a young bull in a pit and corralled it. It was watered and fed stacks of shrubs throughout the day and gradually became less feral; though, no one ever dared to venture near it, let alone turn their backs on it. Then one day the attendant carelessly left the gate of the pen open and the captive sauntered back to freedom, never to return.

This is known to be the only recorded instance in India of a gaur having been captured and ‘domesticated’ to some extent. A cynic is said to have observed then that it was just as well that the gaur in question got away; otherwise the resourceful Brits would probably have turned it and many of its ilk into beasts of burden.

Apart from Munnar and the nearby Eravikulam National Park, the gaur is found in Wayanad, Periyar Tiger Reserve, Silent Valley National Park, Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, Nagarhole, Bandipur, Mudumalai, Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, as well as in the Anamalais and Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu besides a few other areas in the South.

What makes the gaur much feared by man and beast alike is its aura of invincibility. A full-grown bull measures over 6 feet in height at the tip of its dorsal ridge and weighs well over 1,000 kg. With its massive horns, heavy dewlap and sinewy white-stockinged legs, it’s a powerhouse of energy and an impressive and fearsome sight, more so when its head is raised in a show of alertness.

Strictly herbivorous, the gaur is gregarious and usually nocturnal in its habits. It’s often found in herds of 10 to 15, led more often than not by a dominant bull or a matriarchal cow. It dwells in ‘shola’ jungles for most part of the day, emerging at dusk to forage through the night on grass, shrubs and shoots. The cow usually gives birth to one calf (occasionally two) after a gestation period of about 9 months.

 

The gaur has virtually no predators in the wilds, with even the tiger being known to give it a wide berth. Its reputation for being vicious when harassed often precedes it — and certainly no attacker likes to wind up at the receiving end of its punitive horns.

An agitated or wounded gaur can be quite unpredictable and dangerous. It’s on record that Toby Martin, one of Munnar’s pioneer British planters, was viciously gored by a bull that he had shot and wounded in the early 1900s. He escaped by the skin of his teeth.

In the 1990s, Bertie Suares, a young planter in the Nilgiris and a personal friend of mine, was fatally attacked by a gaur that he and Forest Department personnel were trying to extricate from a pit into which it had fallen. Another gaur-related fatality occurred in a local tea estate some years ago when, of an evening of dense fog a worker — literally albeit unknowingly — walked into a lone bull and was promptly gored.

Once, while driving down to Coimbatore, I spotted a gaur calf on the fringe of a tea field outside Munnar, its mother keeping an eye on it from a distance. Hoping to get a closer look, I slowly advanced towards it. As I did so, I heard an angry guttural bellow and saw the mother belligerently bulldozing her way through the tea field towards me. I beat a hasty retreat.

 

Quite ironically, it’s the gaur’s very fearlessness of humans that constitutes the biggest threat to it. Poachers have tellingly capitalised on this from time to time — gaur meat is a delicacy popular with tourists and locals alike

 

I’ve found that the gaur can sometimes freeze rock-like and watch people unnoticed. Once, while strolling through a tea field I had an eerie feeling that I was under scrutiny. Instinctively, I looked up, to find myself hardly twenty feet from a massive bull gaur chewing the cud and studying me intently. I froze, petrified. Then, regaining my wits, I slowly backtracked to a safe distance, never daring to take my eyes off the mighty bovine rooted boulder-like in a tea field.

On another occasion, a cousin, out trout-fishing with me in the wilds of Munnar, all but walked into a gaur that had frozen statue-like as he unwittingly picked his way through scrub jungle towards it. It was only its last-minute warning bellow that sent him haring back.

Once, I witnessed the rescue of a young gaur bull that had blundered into an uncovered and empty water tank near Munnar. Sandbags were piled into the tank to enable it to clamber out. Weakened by hunger (it had been in the tank for over a day before it was discovered) and possibly demented by fear of the crowd that had gathered, it appeared reluctant to come out. Finally, prodded repeatedly with a pole, it dashed up the elevated sand bags to freedom, balefully eyeing the onlookers who were prudently positioned well away from its path.

Working in a tea estate near Munnar in the 1960s, I once chanced upon the carcass of a huge gaur bull. It had walked into a steel wire noose concealed on a jungle path and died an agonising death, the wire having cut deep into its neck. Its truly gigantic horns were believed to be an all-time record for gaur at that time.

 

 

Indeed, gaur horns were a much-sought-after shikar trophy for Munnar’s former British planters. White-painted gaur skulls with varnished horns adorned many a planter’s sitting room. The fully mounted head of a huge gaur bull dominates the bar of a local planters’ club. Another impressive gaur head can be viewed in a local tea museum along with other shikar trophies from the past. And one local club even displays the mounted foot of a gaur shot in 1906 and identified as the ‘Mankulam bull’.

Interestingly, an outstanding example of wild gaur shedding their inherent fear of humans can be seen at Kundale Club 25 km from Munnar. Here a ‘resident’ herd of about 15 gaurs regularly grazes on the club’s golf course, unmindful not only of golfers but also of pedestrians and vehicles using the road that bisects the links. Several times while driving through the area at night, I’ve found many of the bovines lounging right beside the road, quite unconcerned about the car’s powerful headlight beams sweeping over them.

 

 

The picturesque golf course at Kundale Club is perhaps the only one in the country where wild gaurs routinely graze, unafraid of the humans hacking about around them. Unstinting protection provided over the years by a local tea conglomerate that owns the club and golf course has resulted in this happy state of affairs. However, quite ironically, it’s the herd’s very fearlessness of humans that constitutes the biggest threat to it. Poachers have tellingly capitalised on this from time to time — gaur meat is a delicacy popular with tourists and locals alike.

Further, a small herd of about 8 gaur (including 2 calves) can often be seen grazing below my son’s isolated company quarters near Munnar, usually early in the morning and late in the evening. Despite being regularly chased away by local mongrels, the lush shrubbery draws the bovines back. The total absence of human harassment has, no doubt, made this area a safe and favoured haven for them.

Alarmingly, in the past, entire herds of gaur have been wiped out in Munnar’s tea estates and their environs by deadly attacks of rinderpest contracted from local cattle with whom gaur sometimes share common grazing grounds and pastures. Indeed, several gaur deaths were reported in some of Munnar’s tea estates last year due to causes that are yet to be identified.

With no known predators, the biggest threat to the gaur — apart from the poacher — is perhaps the spread of fatal cattle-borne diseases such as rinderpest and foot-and-mouth disease. It would be nothing less than a tragedy if this mighty bovine were to be wiped out by such eminently and easily preventable factors. Keeping domestic cattle well away from the gaur is all that’s required. Yet, unfortunately, precious little is being done about this, for, local cattle are often seen grazing in areas frequented by the gaur, as economic considerations inevitably continue to override those relating to wildlife.

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