Bison looking out at the view and grazing
Gaur at Greenland's Youth Hostel, near Kodai's town centre, early morning (Photo: Rajni George)

The Curious Case of Kodai’s Kaatu Maadus

Kodaikanal’s Generation Z (born after 2000) has been participating in a relatively unique and evolving animal-human story: sharing space on planet Earth with a population of one of the largest bovid/cow species in the world, kaatu maadu in Tamil, or the gaur in English. Of all the alphabet generations of the past 60 years, only Generation Z has grown up accustomed to the idea of bumping into a gaur on their way to school or while traveling around town. In contrast, kaatu maadu were not a significant part of the lives of those belonging to Generations X and Y (1965-2000), and who grew up in the princess of hill stations.

I know this from personal experience as I was born in the late 1960s (Generation X) and lived my entire childhood in Madurai. I visited Kodai countless times during my childhood, and spent the entirety of a few summer holidays in guesthouses there belonging to my parent’s friends. I also worked in Kodai for a year (1992-93) conducting research for the Sustainable Development Program of the Palani Hills (1991-93), which included mapping the distribution of wildlife species such as kaatu maadu in the Kodai Hills.

Bison in the forest (Photo: Manuvel)

The research we did in the early 1990s showed that gaur were common and widely distributed across the Kodai Hills in many different habitats, many of which are now protected within the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary. However, gaur were not common in Kodai  at that time. You did hear the odd report of kaatu maadu straying into town, and as far as I can remember, I was more or less assured of a sighting of kaatu maadu if I visited the golf course, especially the Pillar Rocks end. But neither during my childhood nor in the 1990s was it normal to expect to see a gaur if you turned a corner in Kodai, or to see a herd casually walk through Seven Roads, as it is at times, now. This is new and is potentially the new normal for the near and foreseeable future. 

Although I just might be the person who has published the most written scientific material on the gaur and its ecology in the last decade in the entire world, this distinction does not amuse my wife who still wonders how a wild cow species became the focus of a significant period of her married life

Kaatu maadu was the focal species of my PhD research on large herbivore ecology that I conducted in Bandipur-Mudumalai (2005-2009). In the decade (2010-20) after my PhD, I published multiple scientific articles  on the gaur and its ecology, which culminated in a review of all published understanding we have of the gaur. Although I just might be the person who has published the most written scientific material on the gaur and its ecology in the last decade in the entire world, this distinction does not amuse my wife who still wonders how a wild cow species became the focus of a significant period of her married life.

My research on kaatu maadu and other large herbivores showed that different species, depending on their body size and gastrointestinal type, select different habitats in different seasons. For example kaatu maadu were more or less absent from the drier region of Bandipur-Mudumalai during the summer, but were found in abundance in this same region during the rainy season.

Photo: R Serapandi

Why did the kaatu maadu decide to leave what we call its natural habitat and move to live amongst a thriving human population? As ecological interactions of species can be complex, untangling them to find clear answers is often difficult. Also, it does not help that there exists little scientific data on the ecology of gaur in Kodai. So, what changed? What motivated a behavioural shift in these animals? Could kaatu maadu have moved to Kodai primarily because they felt safer from being eaten when compared to, let’s say, living in the recently established, neighbouring Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary? 

The tiger is the only carnivore species capable of killing a gaur. Though we don’t have much data, based on the lack of records of tiger sightings, it is safe to say that the Kodai hills have not had a thriving tiger population over the last 50 years. It’s not that the Kodai hills have not had tigers in the last half century, it’s just that the tiger population has probably never exceeded a handful, which is not big enough to impact kaatu maadu behaviour. Furthermore, a tiger mainly preys on young, female kaatu maadu; adult males are not preferred because of their size, strength, and the practical issue of dealing with a dewlap―the skin that hangs down a male kaatu maadu’s neck. A dewlap complicates a tiger’s favoured killing technique, that of asphyxiation by choking the neck of its prey victim.

So, while living amongst humans would afford kaatu maadu more security from being eaten by a tiger, given that tigers are not a real threat for most kaatu maadu in the Kodai Hills, it does not seem likely that ‘the need to stay amongst a thriving human population to avoid getting eaten by a tiger’ was a significant contributor to why the founding members of Kodai’s kaatu maadu population moved to Kodai.

Shola and grassland together form the shola-grassland complex or mosaic (Photo: Salish Menachery)

The alternative explanation for why kaatu maadu moved in is because Kodai offered enough/more/better food to sustain their relatively high sustenance requirement. This is intricately intertwined with another evolving ecological story in the Kodai Hills: exotic tree species invading and occupying the majority of grasslands in the Kodai Hills and thereby affecting the availability of food resources for kaatu maadu (you can learn more about the ‘invasive-exotic-tree species’ issue in ‘To Chop or Not to Chop? The Issue of Exotic Invasive Trees in the Western Ghats’, an article I published in Conservation India in 2018). 

It is important to understand that the large size of kaatu maadu has a role to play in this scenario of diminishing food resources. For example, as the sustenance needs of kaatu maadu are  five times more than the needs of a barking deer (from the essay ‘Grazing and Browsing by Large Herbivores in South and Southeast Asia’ in The Ecology of Large Herbivores in South and Southeast Asia, a book I co-edited), the kaatu maadu is more vulnerable to diminishing food resources. 

The invasion of grasslands by exotic trees has been well documented in the Kodai Hills, a process that likely intensified over the last 20 years since the Forest Department stopped cutting exotic trees in the late 1990s. As this time period overlaps with the growing presence and establishment of the kaatu maadu population in Kodai, it provides credence to the idea that the ‘need to eat’ likely played a role in influencing kaatu madu movements when some of them  decided, over 10 years ago, that Kodai works as ‘home’.

A web-based citizens science project—one set up and managed by Kodai’s Generation Z—could play the role of the perfect supporting cast member in shaping the future of this tale

To be objective, we have to also consider the possibility that the kaatu maadu in Kodai are a spill-over from an expanding population that has exceeded the carrying capacity of Kodai’s adjoining forested areas (‘carrying capacity’ is the maximum population of an animal species that a given area of land can support), i.e. competition for food resources in adjoining areas forced somekaatu maadu to seek a future in Kodai. As no meaningful data exists on whether the gaur population in adjoining areas had grown beyond their carrying capacities to force a spill-over into Kodai, we must accept this hypothesis as a possibility.

What’s in store for the future? I think it’s rather simple. If the underlying reasons for why kaatu maadu made Kodai home do not change, then there is no reason to expect that the kaatu maadu currently in Kodai  will leave town. Photos of kaatu maadu herds walking through Kodai show calves no older than a couple of months, which means that there are kaatu maadu being raised in Kodai during their formative years, and once Kodai is established as home for them, I can’t think why Kodai-raised kaatu maadu would seek a new normal once they’ve grown up. From afar, I see the presence of gaur in Kodai as a new normal that is likely to remain for the foreseeable future (10-20 years). But, in honouring  the gods of ecological complexity, it would be arrogant if I did not also say, who knows what’s in store for Kodai and kaatu maadu? 

The gaur population, as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List

In the meantime, a web-based citizens science project—one set up and managed by Kodai’s Generation Z—could play the role of the perfect supporting cast member in shaping the future of this tale. Ideally, this web application helps monitor the kaatu maadu population and helps raise awareness amongst locals and tourists on how best to live with kaatu maadu in Kodai so that unfortunate incidents between people and kaatu maadu are minimized. Without understating the benefit such an endeavor could provide, it is important to remember that when the human-kaatu maadu interface goes awry, people sometimes pay with their lives. As the kaatu maadu are here to stay, this story has all the trappings of a modern-day ecological classic. The kaatu maadu is classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and its global population of 15,000-35,000 is considered to be decreasing, so the hope is that time tells us a not-too-complicated, maybe even happy, tale of the curious case of the kaatu maadu in Kodai.

Farshid Ahrestani

Dr Farshid S Ahrestani is a wildlife and quantitative ecologist, data scientist, researcher, and Fulbright scholar. He has led NASA NSF, and USGS funded research projects at Columbia University, the Institute of Bird Populations, the Wildlife Conservation Society, as well as the Sustainable Development Program of the Palani Hills. Currently he is based in State College, Pennsylvania in the USA and works as a data scientist and cloud services consultant.

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