The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Big and Blue
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, August 2003, © 2004

The vast and storied state of Texas is a veritable ZOO! In this particular case, I do not mean its occasional political follies but instead the number of exotic animals that inhabit ranches and farms. Among these you can find Scimitar-horned Oryx, Blackbuck, Sika and Axis Deer, Impala, Eland, Sable Antelope, Bushbuck and Ostrich.. Some are on immense game ranches where they are hunted, and others are simply enjoyed for their beauty as tourist magnets. Landowners can profit greatly in both cases.

One of the exotics is the Nilgai from India and Pakistan. It is the largest of Asian antelopes and considered sacred by the native people. I have heard that now there are more of them in Texas than in Asia. Once at El Canelo, the famous ranch and inn near Raymondville, we were roaming the brush country when a Nilgai trotted out from behind the screen of trees. He glared at us briefly and then moved away swiftly to seek better cover. but only after we had enjoyed good looks. His dense coat was a blue-gray, hence the name which means "blue bull" in Hindi. His legs were black as was a mane that rose from high withers. He carried short sharp horns that were curved inward, and he WAS big. My first reaction was that he was as large as a horse.

This was only a bit of an overstatement. The males do reach about 500 to 600 pounds and the females somewhat less. Despite their bulk they can cover the ground at a maximum speed of almost 30 miles per hour. This is a true asset if their superior eyesight does not protect them at first. They do need these qualities because in their homeland, the main natural predator is the tiger. Humans have been more detrimental. The British hunted them extensively in the 1880's, and today, the numbers of both Nilgai and the tiger are sadly reduced due to overhunting and development.

How did they get to Texas? According to the Website of the Texas State Historical Society and the University of Texas (TSHA Online), the King Ranch released several different groups in Kenedy County between 1930 and 1941. Their population boomed in the area between Baffin Bay and Harlingen. There continued to be a proliferation of brood stock, and as of 2002 at least 15,000 Nilgai are at home on our range. Unfortunately, they can succumb to severe cold. Veterinarian Dr. Steve Bentsen of McAllen relates that in the early '70s, a very cold, wet spell resulted in a large die-off. Practicing in Kingsville at the time, he was called upon to perform necropsies on 25 Nilgai in Kenedy County. However, they usually thrive in the mild climate of South Texas. Hunting is encouraged to keep the population in control.

Generally, these are relatively hardy animals, and down here they can subsist on a variety of foods, mainly grass and farm crops. They will also browse on delicacies like flowers, (Remember Ferdinand the Bull?), leaves, fruits and seeds. Another advantage they have for survival is an apparent resistance to parasites such as worms and ticks. Moreover, prevalent cattle diseases such as foot-and-mouth have not been found in Texas Nilgai. To endure the intensity of the sun, they have developed what is called a "dermal shield" on their necks and backs; here the skin actually grows thicker for protection. And, yes, we have no tigers!

During the November-to-March breeding season, the sexes separate, and the bulls clash like gladiators, sometimes fatally. Each bull's small harem can produce after about eight months, often giving birth to twins and triplets.

This Blue Bull of Asia does have commercial and aesthetic value and fortunately does not compete with native wildlife to any damaging degree. However, there are those who feel that we should ban exotics from our landscape. This is sometimes a valid point of view. And yet, where else can you see a spectacular 600-pound antelope in a natural environment without traveling to the Asian deserts or the foothills of the Himalayas? I think the species adds to the already teeming variety and mystique of the Toe of Texas.

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