The Browsing Gaur by Raman Kulkarni
Photographed in the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve by one of India’s most talented photographers, this gaur (Bos gaurus) is browsing in textbook fashion. Browsers pick leaf blades, stems, fruit, and flowers off plants, while grazers tend to crop grasses and other plants close to the ground. Gaurs use both feeding strategies, and may also de-bark trees when other foods are in short supply. These wild oxen prefer hilly terrain and forest fringes. They are threatened by diseases picked up from domestic cattle. The presence of gaur in significant numbers indicates a healthy forest ecosystem.
Height and weight: The gaur is a strong and massively built bovine species with an average weight of 650 to 1,000 kg, with an occasional large bull weighing up to 1,500 kg. They are the tallest species of wild cattle, 5.41 to 7.2 ft high at the shoulder.
Identification marks: Gaur have a high ridge on the forehead between the horns and on the back. They have strong, curved horns growing to a length of 60 to 115 cm. The coat is generally a uniform grayish-black in colour with white socks on the legs. The hair is short, fine, and glossy, and the hooves are narrow and pointed.
Food: To support this massive body, the gaur must feed frequently. Wild gaur graze and browse on a wider variety of plants than any other ungulate species of India, with a preference for the upper portions of plants, such as the leaves, stems, seeds, fruits, and flowers of various plant species including grasses, bamboo, shrubs, and trees. A recent survey identified about 32 species of plants as food for gaur.
Gaur spend most of their time feeding, generally very early in the morning and in late evening. Afternoons are spent resting in the shade of big trees.
Gaur occasionally consume the bark of trees to meet nutritional needs. High concentrations of calcium (22400 ppm) and phosphorus (400 ppm) occur in teak bark, and its consumption may help the animals to satisfy mineral and other food needs. Protection of the gaur’s habitat and preferred foods will be essential to its long-term survival.
Range: Gaur historically occurred throughout mainland South and Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China, Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and India. Today, the species is seriously fragmented within its range, and extinct in Sri Lanka.
Habitat: Gaur are largely confined to evergreen forests or semi-evergreen and moist deciduous forests, but also occur in deciduous forest areas at the periphery of their range. Gaur habitat is characterized by large, relatively undisturbed forest tracts, hilly terrain below an altitude of 5,000 to 6,000 ft (1,500 to 1,800 m), and abundant water and plant forage.
Their apparent preference for hilly terrain may be partly due to the earlier conversion of most of the plains and other low-lying areas to croplands and pastures.
Gaur occur from sea level up to at least 2,800 m (9,200 ft) altitude. Low-lying areas seem to comprise optimal habitat.
Threats and conservation: Though the gaur remains safe in India from poaching threats, habitat loss is a major issue. The gaur is highly threatened in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and other areas due to poaching and hunting for home consumption.
The gayal or mithun are domesticated forms of the gaur, Bos frontalis.