| Little Known Asian Animals With a Promising Economic Future |
|Part I : Domesticated Bovine Species|
The mithan (Bos frontalis) is believed to be a domesticated form of gaur (see chapter 6).t (However, it resembles the banteng and some authors have proposed that it is a gaur-cattle cross, others a gaur-banteng cross.) The mithan is a domestic animal indigenous to parts of India, Burma, and Bangladesh. Because of large size and the high butterfat content of its milk it is widely used to crossbreed with cattle in Bhutan. It deserves greater recognition both in Asia and elsewhere.
Appearance and Size
The mithan is a handsome animal. Bulls may occasionally exceed 1.7 m at the shoulder and weigh 1,000 kg, but the average bull is about 1.5 m tall and weighs 540 kg. Cows are shorter and weigh less.
The animal has a dorsal ridge on the crest of the shoulders, a small but pronounced dewlap, and a generally flat forehead. Mithan horns are often of unusual girth; they are straight or gently curving, and many have an enormous base that practically covers the top of the skull.
Most calves and females are brown, but adult males are generally black with white stockings on all four legs. Some, however, are light brown, white, or piebald.
In the hill ranges of Assam, where gaur are still plentiful and interbreeding between mithan and gaur frequently occurs, the mithans are massive and gaurlike. But in the Chin Hills, where gaur are scarce, the mithans have lost their bulky proportions, probably by interbreeding with cattle. With them, the high dorsal ridge on the shoulder (which lends so much to the imposing stature of the gaur) has disappeared, the horns are cowlike, and the varied coloring of the domestic cow begins to appear.
Mithan are kept in a domesticated condition by the hill tribes of northeastern India (Mishmis, Mizo, Nagas), the Chittagong Hill tracts, and some Burmese hill ranges (Arakan and Chin Hills). It is the main domestic animal of the Nagas of Nagaland.
In India feral herds totalling some 50,000 head roam the jungles of Arunachal Pradesh. Recently the Royal Government of Bhutan has established two herds by purchasing animals from Arunachal Pradesh. Bhutanese farmers have some 60,000 head of animals that are hybrids of mithan and the local breed of cattle.
The government of Bhutan is breeding mithans on government farms and distributing males to private breeders to improve the genetic base.
Habitat and Environment
The mithan is a grazing animal, but in some areas herds are allowed to browse freely in the woods; some return to the villages for protection at night, while others remain largely in the forests. The villagers keep the forest mithans nearby by providing salt, for which the animals have an insatiable craving.
Feral mithan live in the same habitat as gaurs and are said to move equally skillfully in mountainous terrain. Usually they are found at elevations from 600 to 3,000 m. However, in the Chittagong Hill tracts and the Mishmi country they descend to 300 m and lower, while in Bhutan they have been reported grazing in summer at altitudes as high as 3,300 m, for example around Thimphu.
Mithans are fully fertile amongst themselves. Also, they interbreed freely with the gaur, banteng, yak, and cattle of both the taurus and zebu types. Naga owners encourage the interbreeding with gaur, regarding it as an improvement of the race. (They arrange this by placing salt licks in the forest. After gaur bulls have formed a habit of coming to the licks, mithan cows are left there and in due course mating takes place.)
The crosses between mithan and zebu are also encouraged in certain districts. Unlike most crosses between bovine species, those between mithan and cattle result in fertile male and female offspring (although some owners indicate that the F1 male is not a reliable breeder).
This is an unusually gentle animal with a quiet disposition, as revealed in the Chin tribe's expression "gentle as a mithan." Normally even a stranger is safe to approach one; if he gives it a bit of salt, it will usually follow him about. Thus, mithans are easily managed in a regular cattlerearing operation.
Many mithans are not domesticated in the strict sense. Their herds live in a semi-tame state near jungle villages and come to settlements only in the evening to lick salt.
In some regions of northern India, mithans are used for field work and as draft animals. They are also important as a meat supply. The Bhutanese government is establishing a national dairy-mithan breeding program, which could result in a valuable dairy animal.
To many tribes of northeast India and Burma, mithans serve mainly as sacrificial animals. The Nagas use them as a kind of "currency" to pay for goods, to buy brides, and to pay penalties.
Hybrids resulting from backcrossing mithan with common cattle are also used as work animals. For at least a century, Bhutanese livestock breeders, particularly those in the eastern section, have mated mithan bulls to siri cows (Bos taurus) from India. This produces very profitable hybrid offspring that have high milk production. The milk is rich in total solids and produces exceptional yields of cheese and butter.* The male of the cross (called "jatsha") is a powerful draft animal, and the female ("jatshum") is a prized milk cow. To this day, extensive crossing continues.
The mithan is potentially an animal that can be used in difficult terrain where most domestic cattle breeds do not perform well. Mithans are superior when it comes to feeding on steep slopes and cliffs and for grazing native grass and the leaves of local fodder trees. They are also adapted to tropical and subtropical environments. And they are able to maintain themselves in small herds (6-10 head) in dense jungle.*
The mithan could prove valuable in other parts of the world, and it could be important particularly for the genetic improvement of cattle in the tropics.
If they are disturbed, mature mithans can be temperamental. They can be difficult to hold with normal fences or chutes, because of their size. When given injections or otherwise subjected to pain, they are liable to bolt to the jungle and not return.
Research and Conservation Needs
The productivity of these animals needs to be better characterized and defined. Attention should be given to their grazing efficiency as compared with that of cattle.
The two farms the Bhutan government has established for breeding mithans provide an opportunity to gather genetic information on the species and to have experimental matings take place to establish the most suitable animal for various conditions.
The genetic relationship of mithan to gayal, gaur, and cattle needs to be clarified. Although it is believed that the mithan and gayal are the same animal, one of this report's reviewers points out that the mithan of Bhutan are strikingly different in color, body shape, and horn structure from gayals seen in zoos in Europe and India. Although the mithan is now considered a domesticated gaur, many in the past have claimed it as a gaur-cattle hybrid. Physiological research could remove lingering doubts.