Written by J.F.Reece, Veterinary Surgeon at Help in Suffering in Jaipur, India
Next morning, it was still walking about our large animal shed and with coaxing took the bottle from Suresh, one of our most experienced compounders, who has a natural bent for rearing orphaned animals of all types. With time, the calf’s wounds healed and he became more and more enthusiastic for the bottle. Suresh only had to be within sight and the nilgai would be waiting at the gate. The nilgai clearly enjoyed the milk and was helped psychologically, I feel sure, by the presence of a bovine calf in the cow shed, who was also recovering from dog bites. While not wishing to be anthropomorphic, these two quickly appeared to become friends.
By the time this nilgai calf had grown big enough to wean from the large quantities of cows’ milk Suresh was feeding him (at enormous cost), Rajasthan had entered into the long bleaching, hot months of summer. We decided that to release the nilgai into parched jungle territory was not a good idea and so we kept him until the monsoon had broken in July.
With the first rains, the arid semi-desert around Jaipur turns green remarkably quickly. We had identified a site for the nilgai’s release — the country seat of one of our supporters, forested hills some miles from the nearest road with only a small local village and rocky outcrops.
In the lead up to the release, we fed the nilgai, which had become most tame and attached to Suresh, with all available types of fodder including branches of native trees on which to graze. Knowing that the trust the nilgai had for Suresh would be important in loading him and transporting him to the release site, we were reluctant to restrain him in order to inject ivermectin. Luckily, we had some donated horse worming paste and we tricked him into taking this paste to act both as dewormer and to protect him from screwworm myiasis (maggots) should it graze or cut itself in its first few days in the wild jungle, of which it had no experience.
Strong and Ready to Return to the Wild
The release date arrived; the hills were at their most lush. We did not want to sedate the nilgai for transport before release as we had no secure enclosure in the jungle in which to hold him until fully recovered. Leopards lurked in the jungle. We parked the ambulance and slowly, resisting the urge for speed, enticed the nilgai in with fodder, using his trust of Suresh to achieve our goal. Clearly rather anxious of the ambulance but calmed by Suresh’s presence and gentle murmurings, we decided that Suresh should travel in the ambulance with him. I also travelled in the back in case the nilgai became so distressed by the ordeal of Indian roads as to need sedation.
Whether the nilgai had grown used to the curious ways of man in his ten months in our cow shed, or whether his trust in Suresh outweighed any misgivings I cannot know, but he stood looking out at the chaotic world we drove past with all the calm disinterest of a suburban commuter. The pot holes, honking horns, swerves and sudden stops caused Suresh and I far more concern than the nilgai.
We eventually arrived at the jungle site planned for release. We backed into the undergrowth, and lowered our ramp cautiously, expecting an explosion of nilgai in a bound for freedom. But no, the nilgai stood at the top of the ramp and waited for clues from Suresh who uttered quiet encouragement, ushering the nilgai down the ramp and into the jungle.
Ten yards on, he stopped and tasted the grass but showed no desire to explore his new freedom, but he also did not look frightened of the jungle freedom. Suresh encouraged him further while the rest of us hung back. Slowly, side by side, they walked down a jungle track, the nilgai curious but not alarmed. After an hour or more, Suresh reappeared, as the nilgai had got his confidence and had wandered a few yards away into thicker jungle. We asked the landowner and his staff to keep a look out for the nilgai. They said they would put down both food and water for a few days at the release site. As we prepared to leave, the nilgai reappeared and nibbled food offered by us. Feeling as parents must when leaving their children at school or college for the first time, we drove away. We had done all we could to allow this gentle animal to survive.
Constant Worrry, Would He Survive?
Suresh could not settle and a few days later asked if we could return to check on the nilgai. We drove back to the jungle hillside and spent several hours walking about, but saw no signs of any nilgai. The local workers reported they had seen ‘our’ nilgai two days earlier and that it looked well. Feeling unsatisfied, we returned to our hospital.
Suresh was still concerned a fortnight after release and asked that we check again. So back we drove to the jungle. The locals said they had seen a herd of nilgai in the area in the previous days. We wandered about looking for signs; I increasingly felt we were wasting our time when Suresh spotted a lone nilgai looking at us from near the brow of a distant, rugged hill. Suresh made his feeding-time noise somewhat louder than usual. The lone nilgai studied us more intently. Suresh set off through brush, jungle and monsoon lushness; we stayed behind watching the distant hillside. Suresh climbed higher until seemingly close to the lone nilgai. It looked at him and then ambled calmly over the brow of the hill. Suresh followed, disappearing from our sight.
We settled down to watch and enjoy the rare opportunity to be in lush green jungle far from the crowds and bustle of modern India. Eventually Suresh returned to us. It was ‘our’ nilgai he told us and it had led him over the hill to a herd of nilgai. It had joined the herd and wandered off deeper into the jungle.
Suresh was now content. One tries to remain professional and scientific in one’s dealing with the thousands of animals we deal with every year, but it was hard indeed not to be moved by the dignified calmness of the nilgai, the trusting bond between carer and animal and the apparent communication between the two; a truly heart-warming story amongst the many, many depressing wild animal rescues we are now seeing. See more of the work of Help in Suffering here.