- Bovids comprise of cloven-hoofed animals, antelope, cattle, goat, etc, excluding deer
- Bangladesh has lost four bovids: Blackbuck, banteng, water buffalo, and nilgai
- Existence of the red serow and Indian gaur in the country hangs in balance
How many species of cattle and goat-like animals live in Bangladesh? I am not referring to Black Bengal, the popular goat breed, or Shahiwal, the coveted cattle from the yearly Qurbanir hat. We are to discuss wildlife here.
We are talking about herding, hoofed animals, the types which often excite you in nature documentaries.
Let us imagine antelopes on the vast, endless Ganges sandbar, and our disappearing wetlands which were once home to massive, primordial buffaloes.
Let us imagine that brawny bisons might still roam the country, eluding the commoner sights; that there can even be nearly mythical, ancient, goat-like life forms in our forests.
We may start with a plain, simple equation: Is this a recollection of extinction or an account of astonishing resilience of the Bangladeshi wilderness?
Today, we follow the wild hoof-steps, some are lost, some on the last-ground stance; all are habitually ignored, out of our conservation consideration.
A big family
As a nickname, because of scientific placement, they are called bovids. The family Bovidae holds a staggering number of 279 species, and spreads across five continents.
The popular names include buffalo, bison, antelope, goat, sheep, etc. This is the largest group of hoofed mammals.
In general eyes, they might be confusing with other ungulates. Bovids have cloven or divided hooves differing from the single hoof-units of horse and zebra.
The horns of bovids are fixed, permanent, and non-branching; a marked difference from the branching, yearly-shedding antlers of deer.
Bangladesh can be attributed to six different bovids; four of which are declared extinct.
On bovids, Brent Huffman from ultimateungulate.com said, "The horns, with their myriad curls, ridges and twists, were like stunning piece of art, the animals that possessed them simply beautiful."
What are they to me? I was once asked about my favorite wildlife scene. A tough question, no doubt.
But, immediately, sable antelope from the African savannah, oryx from the Arabian desert, and argali from the Himalaya came to my mind. Any antelope in any wildscape, I answered.
Thanks to José R Castelló's Bovids of the World.
The most appealing of the entire Indian Subcontinent bovid diversity is the blackbuck. Full grown males are the show-stoppers, a norm in the group.
With black torso and snow-white belly, legs carefully patterned with black streak on white base, white eye-patch on a black face, straight, paired horns with spiraling rings, this antelope is a shining example of synchronicity.
The blackbuck is a species of grassy plains and lightly forested areas; habitats which no longer exist in Bangladesh. So does not the blackbuck.
Centuries have passed since its annihilation from the Barind plains of Rangpur and Dinajpur. Visit Central India, the Deccans, or Nepal, if you want to see one!
The birmanicus banteng
All the cattle you see around are descendants of two lines. Banteng is close to the Indicine line, zebu cattle.
The species, forest-dweller and extremely elusive, is unmistakably marked with white stockings and white rump-patch.
Another clue is the absence of dewlap, the dangling skinny throat flap common in domestic cattle.
Banteng males can be black or brown with a faint reddish hue; while females are always lighter in colour. Horns are present in both.
Banteng is also an extinct species in Bangladesh. Based on Bovids of the World, a reputed Princeton University field guide, the westernmost range of
Banteng touches down the Chattogram Hill Tracts. The mention seems legit as the Burmese subspecies still lives nearby.
We do not know when this species disappeared. In fact, it is so lost, forgotten, and untraceable that it did not get a place in the country's 2015 Red List assessment.
Banteng is globally vulnerable, and lives in different forested pockets throughout Southeast Asia.
As a fan of heraldry, the study of banners and standards, I recall Barishal Bulls. This is a franchise in the popular Bangladesh Premiere League T20 cricket.
Their logo has a head of a charging bull.
But, buffaloes of Kamrangirchar, now a nucleus of the city hustle-and-bustle, are neither myths, nor hoaxes. ''In the seventeenth century, to the south on the bank of Buriganga, there was a vast swamp forest named Kamrangir Char. The buffalo is a well-known mammal to Dhakaites in 17-19th century'', said
Environment of Capital Dhaka, a book by the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh published on the 400th birth anniversary of Dhaka.
We are talking about the Asiatic water buffalo. Horns, unlike those of their African cousins, are laterally bent, very widely spaced, pointed upward and straight.
As the name suggests, these buffaloes love water. Now, you may have a clue why these hunks could not survive in Bengal.
Although the population in the south-central coast (yes, Barisal too) survived a bit longer than the Kamrangir char, Bangladesh does not have a single wild specimen, all domesticated.
Excessive hunting and development relentlessly intruded into marshes, swamps, and plains, and thus wiped out the Asiatic water buffalo, one of the many victims of the early 19th century.
To see one in the wild, the closest option is to visit the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India. The species exists in few other small patches, currently considered endangered.
Gaur of the tracts
The Indian gaur, often nicked as the Indian bison, rivals the Asiatic water buffalo in size and dimension. A fully grown male weighs up to 1,200 kg and stands eight feet tall in shoulder-height.
Gaur males are black in colour with white leg-stocking. The horns are tight-spaced, laterally bent inward, connected by bulging grey ridge at the base.
Horn designs, the ridges, along with the absence of dewlap, are the prime clues to ascertain it from gayal, a domestic breed raised by crossbreeding gaur and cattle.
Once considered extinct in Bangladesh, its presence has been ascertained recently.
Dr Suprio Chakma, Assistant Professor of Zoology, Rangamati University of Science and Technology, traced gaur tracks in the Chattogram Hill Tracts.
In 2017, from the same region, Creative Conservation Alliance found gaurs peeking into camera traps.
Gaur has a somewhat stable population across its range. But, in Bangladesh, the number would not be more than a few dozen.
Truth is stranger than fiction. The serow exemplifies the saying. It is challenging to define a serow. In general, serows have an overall goat-like built, but stockier, sturdier, and more muscular.
There are, however, baffling features that go more with antelopes. Short, tightly-spaced, stout horns are one of them, which are supposed to be bigger, thicker, ringed and spiraling outward as in ibex or downward as in argali, the true ancestor of the domestic goat and sheep.
Shaggier coat, short mane on nape and black line along the back adds up to the confusion.
Do not blame me if you cannot picture a serow now. The description might fit more with a deer or even a pig. But that is unique and hard to define.
Scientists are not sure where to place them with confidence, thus coining the term goat-antelope.
Of the seven species, we have the red serow. Yes, it is not a past yet. The species is considered critically endangered. Eastern forests are its home.
There are occasional reports from the southeastern forest, thanks to hunting, stranded calves, and binge-tourists promoting and posting bush-meat platters on media. In the northeastern forests, our deduction is based on unverifiable claims.
Is nilgai really blue?
On one fine day more than a decade ago I bunked college and visited the National Zoo alone – a thing I often did those days, I observed some nilgais really close and found the answer to this question.
I recall the pen had five nilgais: Two males, two females and probably a sub-adult female. Probably, it was a rutting season. One male, noticeably larger than the others, appeared more active.
It was chasing the weaker male in a short, controlled, cantering rhythm. Its coat colour had a grayish base, but clinging to blue tone.
More surprisingly, a quick navy-blue sheen was radiating off its body each time the light fell at a right angle.
The regality I experienced in the blue bull, as nilgais are often termed in English, left me in forever awe. A few days later, I read about a nilgai death at the zoo in some newspaper.
On my next visit, the same repeated escape from college, the enclosure had all but that alpha male.
In a similar fashion, the nilgai disappeared from the wilderness of Bangladesh. They, like blackbucks, are dependent on grassy plains and sparsely forested areas.
Unlike blackbucks, however, there are accounts of nilgai from as late as the 1970s and from places like the Madhupur Tracts, a forest that lost 98% of its area and is now shattered in pieces.
A bigger picture
In recent years, about six nilgais crossed the border and ventured into northern Bangladesh. Most were rescued, at least one directly from the butchers' knife.
The last incident occurred in mid-March this year. It died while being chased by a curious, ignorant mob. Now, this event deserved some thoughts. I complied and it led me into a flurry of activities.
Firstly, let us try to explain its sad demise. Hoofed animals, particularly antelopes and deer, wild or docile, need to be handled with caution.
They are prone to what is called the 'capture-stress myopathy'. They easily become stressed, start releasing substances to their body, which can somewhat be compared to the release of pyruvic acid to the muscle while exercising.
If not stopped, complicacy arises, which soon leads these animals to a shock, and eventually death.
Nilgai is the largest of all Asian antelope, equaling any native cow with ease. Now, try to measure the accumulation of energy byproducts in its muscle.
"It was chased more than 25 kilometers without a pause", Firoz Al Sabah informed me over the phone, a friend and witness of its last moments.
We both tried to fathom how long the beast had to run in grim and horror before it became drained of all energy.
Secondly, I tried gauging the conservation efforts in Bangladesh. While we are fighting at all fronts with all-out tries, the distance between mass people and nature only gets bigger.
There is barely any initiative to protect the wildlife outside protected areas, which could be pivotal to establish the shredded connection.
If otherwise, the gory ending might not happen. Also, we know nothing of our least-known species.
Breadcrumbs for readers: Surrounding North Bengal, there is no known nilgai population. So, where did they come from? Or, how many red serows do we have in our forests?
Thirdly, I looked up some books, attempted to gather up the bovids of Bangladesh in this feature.
With support from the Conservation Leadership Programme, I instructed Tania Zakir, a budding science illustrator in the country, to make a profile series on them.
Interpret all these commotions in two ways: A future epitaph to a nearly closed chapter of the Bangladeshi wilderness, or a buttressing push to new conservation practices.
Illustrations: Tania Zakir