A rare breed, indeed!

CONSERVATION

Once patronised by the royalty, Amruthmahal cattle are still highly valued in many parts of rural Karnataka. The future of this breed of cattle, and the grasslands they depend on, are both bleak, notes Jahnavi G Pai

HOLY COWS! Amruthmahal cattle. Photos by authorAbout 150 km from Bangalore lies Konehalli, a nondescript village in Tumkur district. On January 11, the Department of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Services held the annual auction of a rather extraordinary breed of cattle. The fact that the first pair of calves were sold for Rs 1,20,150 speaks volumes about this breed. Known as Amruthmahal, these majestic cattle with a fitting name are much revered in many parts of rural Karnataka.

Interestingly, unique breeding practices of Amruthmahal cattle earlier led to the conservation of grasslands that they depended on for pasture. This intricate system is today falling apart due to various factors. There is an urgent need to conserve the biodiversity-rich grasslands that are vital for preserving this breed.

Amruthmahal cattle were patronised by the royalty, most notably by Vijayanagar emperors, the Wodeyars and later by Tipu Sultan. This breed was prized for its speed, endurance, strength and unfailing loyalty. The bulls were used in warfare as a frontline of defence and to transport heavy army equipment on rough roads and difficult terrain. Their strength and ability to withstand drought make them equally well-suited to dry land agriculture.

An Amruthmahal bull does not take to strangers very easily and remains fiercely loyal to its owners and people of their household. This loyalty ensured that the breed has been employed to watchdog houses while the men were away. Those who have tasted the milk of an Amruthmahal cow swear by its sweetness. Even today, it is widely believed that Amruthmahal cattle bring prosperity to their owners. It is no wonder then that an animal that could carry out so many roles is treated with great regard and admiration.

Exclusive pasturelands known as Amruthmahal kaval are earmarked for these animals to graze. Grazing by other breeds of cattle and domestic animals is strictly prohibited on the Amruthmahal kaval to prevent them from contracting diseases and crossbreeding. This practice, when seen in the light of the breeding practices, also served another purpose. A certain number of untamed cattle which form the breeding population are left to graze on vast tracts of land. Only the offsprings are sold annually. Not used to being handled, these cattle are notorious for their impatient, wild and unruly disposition. Thus, they could harm grazers or domesticated animals.

Amruthmahal kaval management

It is estimated that during the Vijayanagar Empire, these grasslands were spread over 4.15 lakh acres across Karnataka. Nomadic pattern of grazing that depended on the availability of pasture was followed. The management of pasturelands was assigned to servegaras and kavalgaras who held administrative and judicial powers over the lands they managed. They could prosecute the trespassers and lawbreakers of the kaval. They were also responsible for making logistic arrangements for the nomadic cattle and the grazers. They ensured the well-being of the animals by preventing grazing, fire, encroachment and felling of trees in the kaval. Even collection of dung from the pasturelands was not allowed as they believed that the dung improves the quality of pasture. However, wild animals were not disturbed.

Today, 27,468 ha of the kaval land remains in 62 villages of six districts and is owned by the Government of Karnataka. With a curious mix of old practices and current laws, the existing management system is extremely complex. The breeding of cattle has been taken over exclusively by the Department of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Services.

The grasslands, being notified as ‘district forests’, fall under the jurisdiction of Karnataka Forest Department. On the ground, however, the posts of servegaras and kalvagaras continue to exist. They are actively involved in managing the grasslands. Though they no longer hold judicial powers, some of them, if not all, proactively take steps to keep the kaval lands free from encroachment by villagers. Some of the traditional breeding practices are still being followed in a few of the kavals.

Serendipitous conservation

Traditional methods of management had led to conservation of biodiversity in these grasslands. Preserving the grasslands was critical for providing pasture and suitable conditions for breeding the cattle. Thus, the servegars and kavalgaras serendipitously conserved valuable grasslands and biodiversity. Many of the kaval lands continue to be inhabited by wild animals such as black buck, wolf, hyena, jackal, porcupine, etc.

A local NGO, Maithreya Institute for Environment and Rural Studies, which has been actively working towards the conservation of these species-rich grasslands carried out a biodiversity assessment in Konehalli in September 2011. They recorded over 70 species of birds including five species of babblers, short-toed snake eagle, white-bellied minivet and stone curlew.

Current challenges

This system is today so ridden with maladies that the future of both the Amruthmahal cattle and the grasslands seem bleak. With increasing mechanisation of agriculture, demand for Amruthmahal cattle has dropped. Some farmers at the auction claimed that the quality of the breed too has deteriorated owing to improper management of grasslands and poor breeding practices. 

The grasslands face various threats ranging from small-scale encroachments to large-scale allotments of these lands for industrial development. Invasive species such as lantana and prosopis threaten biodiversity of this region. Afforestation programmes taken up by the Forest Department have drastically changed the habitat. Illegal grazing, accidental fires, poaching of wild animals and sand-mining are some of the other direct and indirect threats. Vast stretches are also designated as “wastelands” and allotted for industrial development. Recently, there was a move to allot 600 acres of Gunderi kaval in Chitradurga’s Holalkere taluk to the KIADB.

Some of the kavals have been fenced to prevent wild animals from eating into the pastures. In the past, the kavalgaras were instrumental in keeping this entire system alive.

After the management of the kavals was taken over by the State government in 1954, the post of kavalgaras has mostly become ceremonial. They are not paid any salary for their services. As compensation, they are allotted five acres of agricultural land which they can use only to cultivate food and fodder crops. Constant conflict with villagers who try to encroach the kaval often leads to strained relationships with them.

Expenses they incur while on work for registering cases or seeking medical treatment are not recompensed. Some of the passionate ones claim that the honour of being kavalgara is what keeps them going. However, they seem skeptical of the younger generation taking up a thankless and unpaid profession.

The government must leave no stone unturned to preserve these unique grasslands that have not only produced the finest breed of cattle but also been a habitat for many unique and endemic species of flora and fauna.

Addressing the concerns of those who have been instrumental in preserving the system and exploring ways to incorporate traditional management practices within the current legislative framework could be a good step to begin with.

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