Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ had the following lines being uttered by the female protagonist, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other word would smell as sweet.” Clearly, Juliet had no idea about the power of mere names. A name is all it takes to escape the public’s ire and enjoy impunity. No animal demonstrates this curious phenomenon better than the Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) of South Asia. It has not only managed to survive the onslaught of civilization but also turned into an agricultural pest. With its natural predators all but gone, and fellow herbivores reduced to insignificance, the species has proliferated in the countryside, forming herds of 40 to 50 individuals that raid farms on the sly, leaving behind a trail of destruction and misery.

Its name, the Blue Bull (or Blue Cow to be more accurate), has bestowed on it a measure of safety. Since cattle are sacred to upper caste Hindus, both the government and the peasants have desisted from treating it in the same way that they treat another pest, the Wild Boar (Sus scrofa). These are shot, trapped and electrocuted by farmers desperate to save their crops. However, the Nilgai might have outlived its welcome. In a number of states in North India, farmers plagued by the species’ nocturnal raids have petitioned the authorities to declare it vermin, lifting the legal protection it enjoys under India’s wildlife laws (being listed under Schedule III of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972). Even more amusing is the effort by some state governments to change its name, from Nilgai (with its bovine association) to Vanroz (van being forest, and roz, antelope). A move they believe would make public opinion far more amenable to culling of the animal.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows an illustration of the Nilgai from the book ‘The Wild Beasts of the World’ (authored by Frank Finn). This particular painting was done by the English artist Winifred Maria Louise Austin (1876-1964). She was famed for her portraits of wild creatures and was appointed a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society.

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