Burning Issues

Battle with Cattle in Bharatpur-Part II

Battle with Cattle in Bharatpur-Part II

Priya Phadtare

The presence of cattle in the national parks has always drawn the ire of the ecologists and has led to several debates in India. The Indian Wildlife Board in its recommendations on the wildlife sanctuaries in 1965 wrote that, “as far as possible grazing of domestic animals in sanctuaries should be prohibited”. 

In 1967, George Schaller, a world-famous ecologist and the author of the best-selling discussions on the gorilla and the African lion, was very critical in his discussion of cattle in The Deer and the Tiger, his landmark book based on his research in India. His anger with the cattle population in the country is evident from the following excerpt from the book: 'A great scourge of India's land is the vast numbers of domestic animals which are undernourished, diseased, and unproductive, yet are permitted to exist for religious reasons'. But he did not completely condemn the idea of having cattle in a park as it served as prey for the carnivores such as tigers and lions. His consolation was the fact that at least the cattle played an essential aspect in the conservation of tigers. He was also of the opinion that wildlife sanctuaries should exclusively support a population of the animals meant to survive in the wild, that way these protected areas could be developed into natural heritages.

Juan Spillet, a PhD student, whose research was funded by the Johns Hopkins University, arrived in the country to carry out his research in collaboration with the Bombay Natural History Society on the menace of cattle. Spillet toured the nation and expressed his views in his article titled ‘General Wildlife Conservation Problems in India, in which he stated that the country was confronted with two major problems: Too many people and a large population of livestock.  He clearly linked the poor in the country to cattle and also went to the extent of calling cattle as a cancer that were responsible for the destruction of ecology. He further said, ‘It is a historical fact that more nations have fallen because of land abuse, such as overgrazing by domestic livestock, than by all other factors combined’. Vasant Saberwal vehemently opposed this notion by stating that there was no direct correlation between overgrazing and desertification and added that it was easier for people to blame the cattle for the destruction of ecology than to imagine that climate change was the real reason instead. The misconception was undesirable but what was more unfortunate was the fact that based on the views of Juan Spillet according to whom cattle were as good as any criminals vandalizing public property, the Indian Wildlife Board and Indira Gandhi made the decision to exclude grazing from Bharatpur by force. Subsequently in 1967, the Government of India established a Parliamentary Committee 'to investigate the implications of a total ban on the slaughter of the cow and its progeny'. 

Zafar Futehally, nephew to Salim Ali, Secretary of the BNHS, and soon to be a leader of WWF, India was skeptical of George Schaller and Juan Spillet’s views on the cattle situation and the haste with which the Indian Government was acting upon their scientific findings. He was determined to carry out a study which could be used by the Parliamentary Committee before the submission of its report by the year end. Unfortunately they never received monetary support from the Indian government or from funding agencies like the Smithsonian to carry out any study of such nature.

In 1969, a team of students studying ecology, funded by the Smithsonian, conducted the kind of study Zafar Futehally had been pushing for in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary. They were to present the results of which at the meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in New Delhi. The findings of the study were nothing less than an absolute shocker as they were the complete opposite of the general understanding. The report said that the diet of the cattle was completely different from that of the other wild ungulates and that even if all the livestock was removed, deer and the antelopes would not still feed on the newly available grass. The study also clearly stated that the presence of the livestock was in no way harmful to the existence of the other ungulates of the park and that there was hardly a trace of competition between the two. This particular finding negated the claims made by the earlier researchers who vehemently opposed the idea of the presence of cattle in the parks.  The study of course concluded with the fact that if the livestock were abruptly removed from the sanctuary then it would directly affect the carrying capacity of the lions and that the population would be reduced to a mere twenty five percent of the existing number, this was the only remark which pacified the enraged participants of the meeting . As was expected, the report was harshly criticized at the meeting as it was a classic case in which science did not confirm the conventional wisdom of the policy makers. 

Bias against the cattle

Most of the conservationists and policy makers believe that cattle are not wild animals per say and have been known to create an ecological misbalance only in rainforest biomes, the exclusion of cattle from the grasslands remains objectionable. There is also the factor of ‘familiarity’ working against them. After all who would be thrilled to see cattle in a national park anyway? The bias does not end at this; time and again we have blamed the cattle for desertification and soil erosion. 
Ecologists have unanimously argued that the forest area should be exclusively reserved only for the “wild” animals which cannot be domesticated and are often threatened to extinction. Then comes the question of the carrying capacity of a park; in a study conducted in the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh it was found out that the park could handle only a limited number of cattle, beyond which the other herbivores like the swamp deer saw a decline in their population. 
This idea of carrying capacity combined with the lack of enchantment elicited by the familiar and mundane beasts of the world resulted in prejudice against livestock grazing in national parks. For obvious reasons the policy makers overlooked the findings of the study carried out in the Gir Forest where the carrying capacity was hardly a problem and the livestock existed with the other herbivores without exerting biotic stress on the forest’s ecosystem. 

-To be Continued

Part I of this article can be read at

About the author:

Priya Phadtare has done biochemistry from Sri Venkateaswara College, Delhi.  She is an avid reader with a keen interest in wildlife.  She can be contacted at priyaa1808@gmail.com


1.Adams, Alexander (1962), 'How it Began,' in Alexander Adams (ed), First World Conference on National Parks, Seattle, Washington, June 30-July 7, 1962, pp. xxxii. Washington D.C.: National Park Service.  
2.Ali, Salim (1985), The Fall of a Sparrow. Delhi: Oxford University Press.      
3.Futehally, Zafar (1967), 'Misuse of Nature: Some Ecological Facts,' The Times of India’, 11 June (1992).
4.The Wildlife of India. New Delhi: Harper Collins.    

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