Most big mammals of South Asia have been having a bad time of late. Ever since the population of human beings exploded in this part of the world, they have been under great pressure. Due to poaching, pollution and habitat destruction. The Tiger (Panthera tigris), the Asiatic Elephant (Elephas maximus) and the One Horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) are a few examples of the sorry fate of South Asian big game. An exception to this trend has been the Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus). In Hindi, the name ‘Nilgai’ translates as ‘Blue Cow’. The English who colonized the subcontinent called it the Blue Bull. There might be more than 100,000 individuals living in the grasslands and scrub forests of India. Once upon a time, they ranged from Pakistan, across India and Nepal, to Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi population is now extinct.

The species seems to do well in regions where most herbivores have all but disappeared. For devout upper caste Hindus, cows are sacred. They avoid beef (harvested from cattle) like the plague. The species’ good fortune has been explained by it’s resemblance to domesticated cattle (Bos taurus) in both name and form. Many observers have painted religious sentiment as the key to the animal’s success. I don’t agree with this explanation. In fact, there are many Hindu peasant castes that see the Nilgai as a plague upon their farms, which it invades at regular intervals. The problem has become big enough for some states in North India to pass laws allowing for it’s culling. While this has sent wildlife conservationists up in arms, the response from farmers has been contrary to what one would expect from supposed cattle-worshipers.

The Nilgai are a very handsome species of bovid. While some liken them to cattle, others point out the resemblance to horses. Females and juveniles are orange-brown. It is the males with their blue-gray coats that provide the basis for the Hindi name. The small and narrow head rests on a long and deep neck that gives way to a sloping back. The barrel-shaped body is carried on sleek legs that bear white socks-like markings. A white patch is to be seen on the throat. The species shows strong sexual dimorphism. Males stand out due to their small horns, nearly black coats and towering figures – almost 1.5 m at the shoulder and 300 kg in weight. Females are much smaller, reaching a maximum of 210 kg. The resemblance to equids can be inferred from the name used by the Mughals of South Asia. It was ‘Nilghur’, or ‘Blue Horse’ (ghur being Persian for horse).

In evolutionary terms, it is actually very closely related to cattle, being a primitive member of the family Bovidae. The bovids are ruminants like deer but their horns are permanent outgrowths unlike those of deer (family Cervidae), which are grown and shed in an annual cycle. The Bovidae are further divided into two clades – the Boodontia (of Eurasian origin) and the Aegodontia (of African origin). The Boodontia contain three tribes – the Bovini (including the likes of Cape Buffaloes, Water Buffaloes, Yaks, Gaurs, Wisents and American Bisons), the Strepsicerotini (with entirely African species like Sitatunga, Nyala, Greater Kudu, Bongo and Giant Eland) and the Boselaphini (which has only two surviving members – the Nilgai and the Chousingha, both South Asian). The South Asian Boselaphini seem to be more closely related to the African Strepsicerotini. The three tribes appeared in Eurasia when it was isolated from Africa. Once the two landmasses were reconnected, Boodontia spread to Africa and Aegodontia to Eurasia.

Fossils of extinct  Boselaphines have been found in Africa , Europe and Asia, dating back to 18 million years ago. These include genera like the Eotragus (Early Miocene), Kipsigicerus (Middle Miocene) and Protragocerus (Late Miocene). They show a remarkable similarity to their modern cousins. South Asia seems to have been a centre for diversification, giving rise to a large number of genera – Duboisia, Perimia, Proboselaphus, Selenoportax and Sivaportax. The Nilgai lineage arose in the Pleistocene as shown by South Indian caves fossils. There is evidence of them being hunted by man. As a species, it is a bovid of a very tough and adaptable nature. Nilgai prefers open habitat with grass, forb and water for sustenance but can survive in semi-desert country, monsoon forests, and even in the vicinity of cultivated fields. They can tolerate human presence as well as that of natural predators – Asiatic Lions (Panthera leo persica), Bengal Tigers (Panthera tigris tigris), and Indian Wolves (Canis lupus pallipes). Truly great survivors with more to show than a lucky name.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows an illustration of the Nilgai from the ‘Shah Jahan Album’ (a folio dating back to 1605-1627, corresponding to the reign of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir). This particular painting was done by the Mughal artist Ustad Mansur. He was famed for his portraits of animals and plants, and given the title of Nadir al-Asr (Unequalled of the Age) by his royal patron. Mansur’s natural history portraits are some of the best representatives of Mughal visual art. This particular painting is currently preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.