India’s Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) have also provided journalists some very interesting stories with their habit of raiding fields. One such tale has to do with the quadruped’s legendary love for opium. In the dusty villages of Central India’s Opium Belt, the holy animals have developed an unholy taste for the fruit of the Opium Poppy plant (Papaver somniferum). The cultivation of opium poppy is permitted in the districts of Mandsaur, Neemuch and Ratlam (in the state of Madhya Pradesh) for medicinal purposes. The government regulates the business by issuing licenses and setting quotas for farmers. Stories about addicted Nilgai began circulating in the press in 2014 when peasants began an agitation against the destruction of their precious crop. They told reporters how a few Nilgai developed a taste for opium poppy before spreading it to others in their herds. Here are a few nuggets about this curious wildlife phenomenon:
- When raiding normal crop fields, the Nilgai come in herds of up to 50 individuals. But for opium poppy, they adopt a very stealthy approach, arriving alone and waiting for the farmers to fall asleep.
- Addicted individuals seem to make daily trips, consuming as many as 300 opium poppy fruits (called ‘doda’ by the locals) in a single night. Having had their fill, they go on a rampage, trampling the rest of the crop.
- Even electrified fences do not seem to deter them. There are stories of addicted antelopes that test the fences with their tails. When the fencing is ordinary or there is a power cut, the Nilgai leap over them (clearing heights of seven feet) or simply push their way through.
- Desperate farmers have even conducted ‘fasts-unto-death’ demanding the culling of raiding herds and payment of compensation by the state government.
- In an even more unusual development, some farmers in Mandsaur district demanded the return of Indian leopards (Panthera pardus fusca) that had been relocated from the region’s forests in keeping with their request (in 2008). According to the farmers, the removal of the carnivore had allowed Nilgai to proliferate unchecked.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows an illustration of Nilgai from ‘The Book of Antelopes’ by P.L. Sclater (1894). This particular painting was done by the Dutch illustrator Joseph Smit (1836–1929). He was one of the more famous wildlife artists of his era, contributing to a number of monographs, catalogs and books.