The nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) is the sole species contained in the genus Bosela-phus. Nilgai (along with bison, cattle, and chousingha) are in subfamily Bovinae, family Bovidae, and are members of order Artio-dactyla (antelope, cattle, camels, deer, giraffes, goats, pigs). The nilgai, and its relative Tetracerus (chousingha), are the only living remnants of the bovine tribe Boselaphini, a Miocene and Pliocene radiation of species comprising twenty-one extinct and two extant genera distributed in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Java. Ancestral Bovidae date from Early Oligocene sediments of Asia.

Nilgai, like all artiodactyls, have paraxonic feet, in which the primary weight-bearing axis of each foot passes between the third and fourth digits. The first digit is absent, and the lateral digits are reduced in size. They are stocky and horse-size, with head and body up to 210 cm long, a tail up to 54 cm long, shoulder height up to 150 cm, and weight up to 300 kg. Forelegs are longer than the hindlegs. Bulls are larger than cows and have short, spiky horns; females are hornless. Fur is short and wiry. In adult bulls, the head, back, and sides are bluish gray; the neck, chest, legs, and belly are black; the rump, insides of thighs, and underside of tail are white. This pattern is broken by a white throat patch, white cheek crescents, and white spots around the muzzle, above the eyes, inside the ears, and above the hooves. Cows and younger animals exhibit similar markings but have a tawny coat. Both sexes have a short, bristly mane and a tuft of hair projecting from the throat.

The nilgai now occurs in eastern Pakistan, Nepal, and the Indian peninsula, but during the Pleistocene it ranged as far west as Jordan. In the Hindu religion the nilgai is closely related to the sacred cow, and it remained free of persecution until about 1900, when populations began to decline (to the point of extirpation in Bangladesh) in response to habitat destruction and overhunting. Captive and semiwild populations thrive in southern Texas, where up to 9,000 animals range over 2,600 square miles of mixed grassland-woodland habitat. Some ecological data are derived from wild populations, but most detailed information comes from studies of the nilgai introduced into southern Texas.

Occasionally found in open plains, nilgai prefer deciduous and thorn forests and low tropical evergreen formations. During early morning and late afternoon they graze and browse, often standing erect on their hind legs to reach high branches. Bulls are territorial, forming breeding herds during the rut that consist of one bull and between two and ten cows. Three kinds of nonbreeding herds consist of cows with young calves, adult and yearling cows, and bachelor bulls. A single young or twins (occasionally triplets) are born after a gestation period of eight to nine months. Up until they are ten months old, young males remain with cow herds, then leave to join bachelor aggregations. Males breed at around five years of age; cows reach sexual maturity after three years.

—Mary Ellen Holden

See also: Artiodactyls; Endangered Species; Mammalia; Preservation of Species


Grubb, Peter. 1993. "Order Artiodactyla." In Mammal Species of the World, 2d ed., edited by Don E. Wilson and DeeAnn M. Reeder, pp. 377-414. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press; McKenna, Malcolm C., and Susan K. Bell. 1997. Classification of Mammals above the Species Level. New York: Columbia University Press; Nowak, Ronald M. 1999. Walkers Mammals of the World, 6th ed. Vol. 2. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; Schaller, George B. 1967. The Deer and the Tiger: A Study of Wildlife in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Sheffield, William J., B. A. Fall, and B. A. Brown. 1983. The Nilgai Antelope in Texas. Kleburg Studies in Natural Resources. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University.

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