Gaur, with their massive one tonne frames, are ubiquitous mega herbivores of India’s jungles.

With its massive and daunting horns, heavy muscular body, dark brown-black coat, characteristic stocking like markings on all four legs and darting gaze, a gaur makes for a formidable image. This shy, enormous and magnificent species of ox lives among the forested hills and grassy pastures of south and Southeast Asia. India is home to nearly 85% of the world’s gaur population, which is tentatively between 13,000 to 30,000 individuals. The gaur (Bos gaurus) is known to be the largest living bovine in the world, tallest and one of the heaviest among oxen. It stands tall at about 6 ft. at the shoulder, measures 250-360 cm. long and weighs between 1,000-1,500 kg. (male) and about 700-1,000 kg. (female). Gaurs like to keep their distance and will aggressively make it clear to anyone who dares to get too close to them. Their temperamental and unpredictable nature has earned these herbivores a harsh reputation of being dangerous. But, they are essentially shy and jumpy, and often flee at the sight or smell of humans. In the wild, even tigers are known to steer clear of the mighty gaurs, but there are known instances of tigers hunting these large bovines. 

In India, gaurs are a common sight and are found especially abundantly in the forests of south India in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka. Approximately 2,000 gaur individuals have been counted in the Nilgiris division in Tamil Nadu alone. Gaurs move in herds of about 10-15 individuals on an average, and each herd is known to be generally led by matriarch or a dominant bull. They often exhibit nocturnal behaviour and can be seen foraging on grass, shoots, and shrubs at dusk, night and dawn.

Today, gaur is coming increasingly into conflict with humans in many parts of India. In Nilgiris, gaurs are entering crop fields and coffee plantations more frequently, causing damage to the crops and plants and sometimes even lead human casualties. In the tea estates of Coonoor, foraging gaurs are a common feature now. News of gaurs straying into human dominated spaces such as residential areas and markets emerge every now and which indicates that these animals are getting habituated to people, and slowly losing fear of humans. This is a big behavioural change and is reflective of their adaptiveness to changing environment. Interestingly, the gaur is also seen to make an effort to co-exist with humans as several observations reveal. For example, in Mudumalai National Park, adjoining the Nilgiris district, gaurs that are usually seen actively feeding during dusk and dawn, have modified their habits and are seen feeding only at night in areas prone to conflict. In Kodagu, gaurs can have been visiting the tea plantations only at dawn and dusk, avoiding daylight hours in order to keep away from humans. But, such adaptability and lack of fear of humans also makes them vulnerable to poachers.

Severe forest fragmentation and encroachment is the biggest factor for the growing interface between gaurs and people living next to the forests. As more and more forest habitat is getting usurped for agriculture, human inhabitation, linear infrastructure such as roads, and other activities, lesser natural habitat there is for the gaurs to graze upon. Gaurs are wide ranging animals. A male’s range spans anywhere between 130 km. to 140 km., while a female’s home territory ranges from 30 km. to 169 km.

One other threat that the gaur faces is the risk of contracting diseases such as foot and mouth disease (FMD) and rinderpest (cattle plague) from livestock who they come in close proximity with in human dominated spaces. Due to conversion of more forest land for farming and cattle grazing, there is an overlap in space and competition for resources between the wild herbivores and cattle. Shared spaces and water sources thus often become hotbeds for interspecies disease transmission.

Conservation, protection and restoration of gaur’s forest habitats is important for reviving the vulnerable gaur population and mitigating conflict. Generating awareness among people about these wild bovids and how to act around them, will go a long way in maintaining peaceful co-existence between them and people.

This mega herbivore of our jungles is a force to reckon with and a crucial part of India’s tropical forests. 

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