A man came screaming through a South Texas work camp at night frantic and pointing toward the brush.
One of the workers grabbed a big Q-Beam flashlight and shined toward the brush to reveal a huge male nilgai antelope. As it turned out the man who was working in South Texas for the first time came face to face with the nilgai and when he saw the devil-like horns, long neck and otherwise mysterious looking creature he thought something from the netherworld had surfaced.
I was told this story while turkey hunting on the King Ranch in 1996 after reporting that I saw a huge nilgai that walked about 50 yards behind our decoy.
Several ranch workers chimed in with how numerous people were shocked after their first nilgai encounter.
According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department Nilgai are Native to Pakistan and India and they are truly unique animals.
“The male nilgai stands between 48-60 inches high at the shoulder and weighs between 480-540 pounds. The males (often called blue bull) average about one-fifth larger and heavier than the females. The hair on the body is short and wiry. Although in both sexes the neck is ornamented with a mane, only bulls develop a tuft of hair on the throat.”
“The upper parts of males are generally iron gray, but the lower surface of the tail, stripes inside the ears, rings on the fetlocks, and underparts are white. The head and limbs are tawny, and the throat tuft and the tip of the tail are black. The females are more lightly colored. On both sexes, the forelegs are longer than the hind ones, and the head is long and pointed. The horns are short and carried only by males.”
According to the Texas State Historical Association, nilgai brought to the United States from India as zoo animals before the mid-1920s and were released in South Texas about 1930.
“The King Ranch pioneered the release of nilgai in Texas. Between about 1930 and 1941 the ranch made several acquisitions of nilgai zoo stock and released them in Kenedy County. With limited hunting and predation, protection, and favorable habitat, nilgai adapted well. Their primary range now includes the area from Baffin Bay south to near Harlingen,” they reported.
“They have been distributed to numerous counties by landowners releasing brood stock. Approximately 15,000 nilgai are now on Texas rangelands. They will probably not become widespread. They suffer in extreme cold, and even in temperate South Texas they may die during unusually cold winters when food is scarce.”
The nilgai is hunted chiefly on large private ranches including the King and Kenedy with the bulk of hunting done by driving safari style trucks through the brush to put hunters is position to get a shot. The animals are extremely wary and will often retreat at the least provocation. Occasionally bowhunters will take a nilgai but the killing of free-ranging nilgai with archery equipment is a relative rarity.
A study entitled “Food Habits of Nilgai Antelope in Texas” by William Sheffield sheds somes interesting light on how these huge antelope impact cattle and deer.
Rumen analyses of 79 nilgai and 40 deer, collected on various feeding sites, and bite studies on the same sites using two captive nilgai and a trained steer showed no significant difference forage classes taken between the two methods.
“Nilgai preferred to feed on large open areas interspersed with cover and ponded water. They were grazers, their average diet consisting of 60 percent grasses, 25 percent forbs, and 15 percent browse. They augumented the nutritive level of their basic diet by selecting nutritious plant parts and changing their selections as the parts appeared, waned, and fluctuated in quality with the seasons.”
“When food was scarce, nilgai ate more browse, dead vegetation, and dry dung of large herbivores. The quality and quantity of their forage was within the levels published for cattle and North American big game. They maintained a feeding role intermediate between cattle, which used mainly grass, and deer, which used forbs heavily. When food supply and variety was low, nilgai competed strongly with cattle for grass and deer for forbs. The three species seem compatible where there is good variety of browse and herbage, and control of their respective numbers.”
While nilgai are not considered a worry for deer in terms of outright competition for food, there is concern about ticks. More specifically the cattle fever tick. Once considered eradicated in the United States it has found its way back with a large portion of nilgai on the Laguna Atascosca National Wildlife Refuge infected.
This has caused wildlife officials to conduct aerial shooting to trim the numbers and hopefully stop the spread of the potentially deadly (to cattle) tick. Deer also carry the tick and there is no wholesale culling of them so some local residents decry the helicopter harvest and most hunters do not mind the nilgai. In fact, most hunters don’t mind them at all.
This is especially true for those hunters who have eaten them. Nilgai has one of the finest of all wild meats and a large bull can yield a freezer full.
Each month we are profiling a different huntable species and trying to unlock the mysteries behind them. Most media mentions of nilgai are simply that a hunter killed one. Rarely are their attributes discussed and certainly not their environmental impact.
As we go down the road of learning about what we call the “Texas Safari” we will learn about many wild creatures of Texas and hopefully appreciate them a little more.
The nilgai is one of the most unique animals in Texas and the fact they can be hunted on free-range makes their pursuit truly unique in a world of exotics mainly hunted behind game proof fences.
—story by AUTHOR