The great gourmands of Kotagiri

A mighty gaur walking in the middle of the road amidst the traffic in Kotagiri—one of the six taluks in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, India—reminded me of chariot processions I had seen at the village festivals of my childhood. The chariot carries the deity, and the temple is its destination. But where is the gaur headed? What is its destination? Was it walking in search of the forest it had seen in the same place, many years ago?

It seemed to be very old and looked as though it had walked more than a thousand miles. Who knows, maybe it crossed seven hills and seven seas. Wait, seas? Indeed, gaurs are capable of swimming. I began observing the gaur, curious to see where it was going. It moved to the edge of the road and entered a tea garden, like a person going home after a long day at the office, and started grazing. I understood then that when a gaur visits tea gardens in the Nilgiris district, it is probably in search of food.

Gaurs are large-bodied animals. Males weigh between 1000–1500 kg while females weigh between 700–1000 kg. They spend most of their day feeding, their diet consisting of grasses, herbs, scrubs, and leaves of trees. They prefer tea gardens over grasslands because the weeds and grass there are tasty, enriched with salt from the fertilisers used for the tea plants.

Gaurs move into tea gardens and other human-inhabited regions due to the easy availability of food, as an increase in invasive plant species and fragmentation of grasslands have reduced the availability of fodder inside forests. Another reason gaurs might prefer human-in-habited areas is protection—local people believe that prey animals approach human settlements to protect themselves from predators. Furthermore, regulations on poaching have significantly increased the gaur population over the years, while reducing their fear of humans.

Currently, they have become so habituated to human presence, that in fact, a person can see gaurs more frequently in parts of Kotagiri town than in a forest village. In contrast, earlier only the indigenous communities in Kotagiri used to see them when they went deep inside the forest to work—mostly to collect non-timber forest products (NTFP). As people in the Kotagiri landscape have been interacting with gaurs for more than two decades, they have their own perspectives about the animal, with some people referring to them as neighbours, and some even as relatives.

Different communities, one common perspective

Kotagiri is home to diverse communities, namely indigenous communities such as the Kotas, Todas, Irulas, Kurumbas, and Badagas, Tamils from the Nilgiri plateau and other parts of the state, Tamils repatriated from Sri Lanka, and Malayalis (people from Kerala). Each community has its own name for the gaur: they are called Kaadu Eema by the Kotas, Kod-ir by the Todas, Doddu by the Irulas and Kurumbas, Kaadu Emme by the Badagas, while Malayalis know gaurs as Kaati, and Sri Lankan repatriates and people from other parts of Tamil Nadu refer to them as Kaatu Maadu (wild cattle) and Kaatu Erumai (wild buffalo).

Every community has interacted with these herbivores, albeit in different ways. For instance, gaurs graze in tea estates where female workers collect tea leaves, sometimes at a distance of less than 10 feet from them. As most of the Sri Lankan repatriates and people from other parts of Tamil Nadu work in estate-related occupations and other daily wage jobs, they come into contact with gaurs while going to or returning from work. They also encounter gaurs close to their homes and in the villages. The animals frequently enter the Badaga hattis (villages) either to forage or as a thoroughfare. At times, when gaurs can’t find food in the forest, they enter the Seemai (villages of Irulas and Kurumbas) and feed on plants and leaves of particular trees grown near the houses.

One common view that people have about the origin of gaurs is that they are feral domestic cattle. Many years ago, when there was famine on the mainland, people used to bring a great number of cattle, camp in the foothills, and let the cattle graze inside the forest. When some cattle wandered off into the forest, they mated with wild buffaloes and gave birth to the first gaurs. I have heard this perspective from tribal communities who have lived in this landscape for centuries, as well as from people who moved there only 40–50 years ago.

Mutual respect and fear

In Kotagiri, a relationship based on fear and respect between gaurs and humans allows for the sharing of space. However, this wasn’t the case when gaurs first began to enter human-inhabited areas 25–30 years ago. Earlier, people were afraid of gaurs. They questioned their course of action if gaurs began occupying these regions. Where could they relocate if they were forced to leave this place? The fear that people had of gaurs in the initial days gradually changed to respect combined with fear.

Over the years, people have become aware of the animal’s day-to-day activities. Now, when questioned, all of them—even children—will state that gaurs come into the village only for food and water. They feel that they are gentle beings and don’t harm anyone unless they are threatened. People believe that if they put both hands together and bow respectfully while requesting a gaur to move out of their way, it will surely go away—“Kai eduthu kumbutu po saami na poirum!

In this shared landscape, gaurs and humans maintain a safe distance from one another. There is concern among people that gaurs could attack them if they went nearby or threw something at them. People say that just as they are scared when a gaur comes near, gaurs too experience fear when people come too close to them. According to the locals, the animals may worry that the humans would take away their calves or attack them. Fear acts as the key to mutual avoidance and respect between gaurs and people.

Inverse interactions

In recent years, there have been negative consequences, even casualties, because of human-gaur interactions. However, the figures are insignificant. At times, gaurs enter agricultural lands and raid crops when the field is left unprotected. Labour productivity is also affected by gaurs grazing in the tea estates. Additionally, the presence of these large herbivores in human-inhabited areas prevents people from growing any vegetation close to their houses.

Furthermore, people feel afraid to go out at night, even to nearby places. Gaurs may occasionally cause damage to human properties, including houses, roofs, compound walls, and vehicles. Human deaths and injuries have occurred as a result of gaurs resting inside tea gardens—gaurs typically hide their entire body while resting among the tea plants, only exposing their horns and a small portion of their faces. When someone unknowingly strays close to the animal, the gaur gets startled and attacks them.

Kotagiri, which is 28 km away from Ooty—a popular hill station—is also becoming increasingly attractive to tourists since the place is less congested than Ooty. Tourists’ perspectives on gaurs differ from those of locals. They initially mistake them for domestic buffaloes. Once they identify the animals as gaurs, they get excited and approach to take pictures. Sometimes, they even try to take selfies with the gaur close behind them. This behaviour often startles the animal, leading them to attack the tourists. Locals believe that if a gaur cannot retaliate immediately, it will carry forward the memory of the incident and end up harming someone else instead. This is more likely to affect local people rather than tourists who stay there for a short period.

The way ahead

One of the key elements influencing continued coexistence in the Kotagiri landscape is the locals’ perceptions of gaurs. I have heard, observed, and understood that gaurs enter human-inhabited regions primarily in pursuit of food. Locals in Kotagiri indicate that, in recent times, gaurs have slowly started to include cooked vegetable waste in their diet. This behaviour may trigger gaurs to visit human-settled areas more often, potentially making people more vulnerable. Consequently, people’s attitudes towards the animal may change for the worse.

Meanwhile, the gaur population in Kotagiri is on the rise. In 2020, a survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department estimated that 2000 gaurs were inhabiting the Nilgiri division. Furthermore, changes in land-use patterns, such as the conversion of tea estates into resorts and buildings, are resulting in the erection of more fences, reducing connectivity for gaurs to move between habitats. Considering factors such as the shift in the dietary preference of gaurs, the increase in gaur population, and the urbanisation of the landscape, will the fear and respect between gaurs and humans remain delicately balanced in the future as well?

Further Readings

International Union for Conservation of Nature. 2016. Bos gaurus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed on August 9, 2023.

Mongabay-India. 2020. Oh My Gaur! Living alongside the Indian bison that’s moving out of forests. Accessed on August 9, 2023.


The article was prepared with support from Dr. Madhuri Ramesh, Azim Premji University. It is based on findings from the Human-Gaur Relationship Project, which is a part of the Aralikatte: Nature-Culture Fellowship by the Wildlife Conservation Society-India. The project was funded by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and the fieldwork was supported by Keystone Foundation.

This article is from issue


2024 Mar