Nilgai is the largest of all Asian antelope, equaling any native cow with ease. It comes with a pair of fixed, short, pointy, non-branching horns.
Placed in the sole genus Boselaphus, nilgais have many unique features, and they stand out from other antelopes. Veteran zoologist and expeditor Peter Simon Pallas described nilgais scientifically.
The term 'nilgai' comes from Bangla, meaning 'nil goru' (blue bull). The queer antelope stands around 1.5 m at the shoulder, males can weigh up to 250 kg.
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 closely 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 a 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 witnessed in the blue bull, as nilgais are commonly referred to in English, left me speechless. A few days later, I read in the newspaper about the death of a nilgai at the zoo. The enclosure had all but that alpha male on my next visit.
In a similar fashion, the nilgai disappeared from Bangladesh.
In the past
Nilgais are antelope of grassy plains and sparsely forested areas. Nilgais were a sure thing wherever there were scrubland-grassland mosaics.
They were found all over the Indian Subcontinent, from the peninsular tip to drier Central India, the Himalayan foothills, and all the way up to Central Bangladesh beyond the Ganges-Brahmputra barrier.
Nilgais were popular game animals. The Mughal emperors were extremely fond of hunting nilgais. Jahangir, the fourth of the Mughal kings is credited with hunting nearly 900 nilgais.
There are accounts of nilgai from as late as the 1970s and from places like Panchagarh, Thakurgaon, and the Madhupur tract, a forest that has lost 98% of its area and is now shattered into pieces.
Global range of nilgais have also shrunken as grasslands, savanna, and plains—nilgai habitat—are among the fastest disappearing wilderness. Pakistan is also on the verge of losing its nilgai population.
No nilgai around 100 km radius
Like Bangladesh, the state of West Bengal, India does not have nilgais anymore. The range of the nearest wild population begins at the westernmost border of Purnea division, Bihar, India.
Nilgais are not found within a 100-kilometer radius of northwestern Bangladesh, where recent nilgai activity has been reported.
A nilgai was spotted at Ranisankail Upazilla, Thakurgaon on September 04, 2018. Later five more nilgai were found from four more districts: Thakurgaon, Naogaon, Panchagarh, and Chapai Nawabganj. In 2021, within the last three months, two fresh incidents occurred.
There have also been reports of wandering nilgai in West Bengal near the West Bengal-Bihar border. Are these nilgais on their way to re-establish their lost homes? Are these being trafficked out? The last question is especially important because Bangladesh is a well-known transit point for wildlife traffickers.
The nilgais are not treated well in Bangladesh. Some were chased to the last breath. At least one was rescued from right under the butcher's knife. Many of the others died in captivity.
"It was chased more than 25 kilometers without a pause", Firoz Al Sabah, a photographer and a witness to the July incident this year, informed over the phone.
We both tried to figure out how long the beast had to run in terror before it ran out of energy. Draining a horse-like beast needs unspeakable atrocity.
The future will determine whether nilgai will roam the Bengal plains again. However, a few things are obvious. Outside of protected areas, wildlife protection is in disarray. And the gap between people and nature is widening.