- Bihar is conducting trials to domesticate the nilgai, as a possible way to reduce conflict with humans and crop damage caused by the large antelope.
- Early observations of the animal’s behaviour in Bihar indicate that it has the potential for domestication and may have financial benefits through its milk, meat and manure.
- Following the classification of the nilgai as vermin in Bihar, around 5,000 nilgais were officially culled from 2016 to 2020 in the state.
Researchers in Bihar are conducting government-approved trials to domesticate the nilgai, as a way to curb conflict with humans, particularly farmers, in the region. The nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) has been entering farmlands in the state and destroying crops, leading to losses for the farmers, who in turn are retaliating.
In the second phase of the study, which is currently ongoing, researchers have captured a male, a female and a calf nilgai from the wild and kept them at the research site in Dumraon in Buxar district. “It will take some time to complete the trials to understand the animal’s behaviour before we hand over calves born in captivity to farmers,” Suday Prasad, principal investigator of the domestication of nilgai project at Bihar Agricultural University (BAU)’s Veer Kunwar Singh College of Agriculture, told Mongabay India.
In the first phase of the study, conducted from January 2018 to December 2019, Prasad investigated the docility pattern and behaviour of the nilgai in Bihar and concluded that the nilgai’s current behaviour indicates that it is in an early phase of domestication, which can be explored further by humans.
The BAU researchers monitored the nilgai herds from morning to evening by motorcycle and foot, to observe the animal’s behaviour and its potential for domestication. They also collected data on the local people’s attitudes towards the nilgai. “Our field observations show that the animal peacefully grazes and forages with cows, buffaloes, goats, and sheep,” said Prasad. “They live in harmony with other domesticated animals.”
This behaviour is primarily due to their shrinking natural habitat pushing them towards human settlements in search of food, notes the study. “These factors show that nilgai has become our ideal candidate for domestication,” Prasad said.
The domestication project, approved by the state’s agriculture and forest departments, focuses on the nilgai’s ability, temperament and aggressive behaviour to live with other domesticated animals on the same farm.
“We have big hopes and are trying to get assistance from the international wildlife experts for the domestication of nilgais in the state,” Sanjay Kumar Agarwal, secretary of Bihar Agriculture Department, told Mongabay India.
Conflict and killings
Other than Bihar, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi are also witnessing growing nilgai population and, as a result, significant damage to wheat, gram and moong crops when the nilgai enters these farms.
Across 31 of 38 districts in Bihar farmers are retaliating and the animals, if caught raiding crops, are poisoned, electrocuted, shot or, as in one case, even buried alive. “Farmers have lost their patience. These days, they have to deal with triple crises: floods, droughts and nilgais, said Veena Devi, village head of Raghupur Fateh panchayat in the state’s Vaishali district.
The initial response of the government — state and centre — to deal with the crop loss was to roll out a policy to provide immediate relief to farmers. Following the request of the Bihar government, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), in 2015, classified nilgais as vermin, paving the way for the mass killing of the animal.
Government-hired shooters killed more than 200 nilgais in the Buxar, Mokama and Vaishali districts of Bihar in four days in 2016. The mass culling led to public outcry. The then women and child development minister, Maneka Gandhi, termed the then environment minister Prakash Javadekar’s nod for the mass killing of vermin as “lust to kill animals.”
Around 5,000 nilgais were officially culled from 2016-2020 in Bihar. According to a senior official of the forest department, the policy authorising village heads to hire professional wildlife hunters to kill the animal is still active.
In Vaishali district, nilgais are seen around the wheat crop ripening under the winter sun, making farmers restless. They are now demanding another round of mass culling to keep the animal population under control.
Under pressure from the farmers, Raghupur Fateh head, Veena Devi, wrote a letter last year to Hyderabad-based sharpshooters requesting to shoot around 500 nilgais in the panchayat. “As per the government rate, we will pay Rs. 750 for killing each nilgai; our villagers will assist you in burying the dead animal,” the letter said. While the shooting has not taken place, the elected representatives worry about backlash from farmers.
In recent years, it is not only about crops, said Lalit Ghosh, a local leader of All India Kisan Khet Mazdoor Sangh, a farmers’ association. “Their (nilgai) herd causes road accidents on our highways, killing innocent people. Imagine the anger of a farmer who has suffered crop loss and at the same time lost a family member in a road accident, both tragedies happening due to nilgais.”
Local farmers say they started a night vigil to scare away the animals but it did not succeed because of visibility challenges due to the winter fog and the agility of the nilgais. Farmers then shifted from cultivating grains to tobacco, hoping to recover from their annual financial loss. However, tall, muscular and fast-moving nilgais also impact tobacco crops while searching for food. Farmers tried fencing their fields, but the cost and maintenance proved exorbitant.
“They have the appetite of a cow, the speed of a horse, and the alertness of a dog. It is impossible to keep them away from our farmland,” lamented farmers.
With no effective plan in place to deal with the issue, farmers are gearing up for another season of conflict. Deepa Kulshrestha, legal advisor to Wildlife and Tiger Conservation Group in Jabalpur, said a lack of proper forest management has led to an exponential rise in the herbivore population. Poor forest cover, lack of predators and a fragmented corridor force herbivores to leave their natural habitat.
“Solutions are simple. It should start with stopping the practice of declaring them vermin. Nilgais can be translocated to forested areas that have plenty of food and predators. Domestication sounds like a good move,” suggested Kulshrestha in a conversation with Mongabay India.
For domestication to be successful, the animal should have the ability to provide financial, health and emotional incentives to humans. Various research has shown that there are such benefits of the nilgai, making it a potential candidate for domestication – which in turn will bring down the instances of conflict.
For many decades, veterinarians have advocated the domestication of nilgais in India. They had pointed out the animal’s booming population and the commercial viability of their meat.
“Although the lack of fat makes nilgai flesh less succulent than beef, it also makes it attractive to consumers worried about calories and cholesterol,” wrote Russel Kyle, a veterinarian, in an article published in 1990.
Meat from nilgai could provide a lucrative financial incentive and it can be exported, but considering religious beliefs around the animal, policymakers need to approve it first, said researchers and officials involved in the trials.
There is also focus on studying the nutritional value of nilgai’s milk and its scope for human consumption, which requires collaboration with laboratories and research institutes.
“We are trying to bring pieces of research together that could make nilgais’ domestication successful. The animal’s milk suitability to human consumption will be a game changer,” said Mukesh Sinha, associate dean cum principal scientist at Veer Kunwar Singh College of Agriculture.
The other benefit, Prasad said, is the animal’s ability to consume agricultural waste, a known source of methane emissions and air pollution. On a small scale, that might help reduce waste and generate organic manure for the farm.
Banner image: Nilgai grazing in Keoladeo National Park. Several states in India are witnessing explosive growth in the population of nilgai. Photo by P. Jeganathan/Wikimedia Commons.