Gaur are the largest living bovids and a close, wild relative of domestic cattle. Currently, there are three recognised subspecies:
- Bos gaurus gaurus: ranges throughout India, Nepal and Bhutan.
- Bos gaurus readei: found in Myanmar.
- Bos gaurus hubbacki: found throughout Peninsular Malaysia.
Both sexes have an impressive set of horns, although the cow has slightly thinner, more upright horns, and can also be distinguished from the males as they are lighter in colour. Gaur prefer evergreen and moist deciduous forests, and need fairly large tracts of undisturbed habitat, where they can have access to plenty of forage in the form of bamboo, shrubs and trees.
Guar are mostly diurnal, but in places where they are impacted by human disturbance, such as central India, they have switched to become mostly nocturnal to avoid people. Despite their impressive size and terrifying set of horns, they are quite timid animals! However, some locals report that in areas where they frequently come into contact with people, Gaur have become incredibly aggressive and dangerous when provoked.
In the dry season, Gaur congregate in herds in small areas to browse and then disperse into the hills in the monsoon season. Herds are led by matriarchs and adult males tend to be solitary, wandering far and wide in the breeding season to find receptive females. Although you would assume their horns would be the perfect weapon, males don’t fight for dominance, and instead their size is a determinant of their breeding success: the bigger the male, the more females he will breed with.
Gaur have few natural predators due to their sheet size and power, although leopards, packs of dholes and mugger crocodiles will occasionally take down a sick or infant animal.
Big bovids with a shrinking range: the future of the Gaur
Gaur are currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN red list, and their populations have been in a slow and steady decline. In Indochina, Myanmar and Northeast India, they are hunted for their meat, their internal organs used for traditional medicine practices and their horns used for decoration. Although this is a concern for the species, arguably their biggest threat is loss of suitable, sustainable habitat. Gaur travel widely throughout their range, across several provinces and key conservation areas, making it hard for scientists to keep track of them and how they are using the space. In some areas, reserves are well maintained and policed, but in others, a lack of political support and motivated, well trained and paid staff limits the effectiveness of any conservation measures put in place. In South and Central India, Gaur numbers have officially fallen below ecological carrying capacities, and the individuals there are struggling to reproduce. Even in areas where the populations of other large mammals, such as tigers, are remaining stable, Gaur populations are still in steady decline, suggesting intensive hunting of this highly commercially valuable species.
In some Indian forests, invasive plant species are beginning to take hold, affecting the structure and function of the forest, which in turn affects how much forage is available for the herds of Gaur that rely on the habitat. As forests shrink and degrade, Gaur are forced into close proximity to livestock, putting them at risk of diseases, such as rinderpest or foot and mouth disease that can completely ravage populations of wild animals that have very little resistance against such microbes.
Although Gaur are perhaps a lesser known species with less conservation attention, this does not mean they are being neglected. The World Land Trust is a charity that raises money to buy and then protect threatened land in Africa, Asia and Central and South America. Whilst the Gaur do not have their own specific conservation programmes, they are protected under their India and Annamite Lowland Forest and Vietnam projects. These projects aim to acquire key tracts of habitat that act as corridors between important reserves, allowing species the ability to range widely without coming into contact with human settlements. Importantly, they also involve local communities in protecting their own land and help them to develop more sustainable livelihoods. You can learn about these amazing projects and how they will help protect the Gaur at Vietnam (worldlandtrust.org).
Although their populations are in decline, it is encouraging that many Gaur range throughout relatively successful and well maintained networks of wildlife refuges and parks throughout much of South and Central India. Gaur also benefit significantly from conservation projects aimed at some of the most famous and charismatic animals, such as Bengal Tiger and Forest Elephants.
Choudhury, A. (2002) ‘Distribution and conservation of the Gaur Bos gaurus in the Indian Subcontinent.’ Mammal Review
Hassanin, A. (2015) ‘Systematics and Phylogeny of Cattle.’ The Genetics of Cattle
Mary, P.P. Debberman, J. Kumar, A. Gupta, A.K. (2015) ‘Population density and conservation status of Indian Gaur in Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary, Tripura.’ Biodiversity Conservation – Challenges for the Future
Shukla, R and Khare, P.K. (1998) ‘Food habits of wild ungulates and their competition with live stock in Pench Wildlife Reserve central India.’ Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society
MASSIVE THANK YOU TO RACHAEL DA SILVA FROM THE UK FOR THIS WRITE UP! PLEASE FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM AND HER WILDLIFE ARTWORK AT TILLY_MINT08