The Black Beauties Of Chilika Lake
My first encounter with them was on a full moon night between the villages of Bhusandpur and Mangalajodi. I was living up a cherished dream of spending a night during the full moon at the Chilika Lake. The boatmen and his assistant had punted the little skiff out of the jetty at Mangalajodi and we were a good two kilometres from the shore.
It was then that I saw them. Like some apparition from the deep, nearly a thousand pair of gleaming eyes looked toward the boat. As we drew nearer we could hear the splashing about and even the crunching sound of the chewing. Collectively the buffaloes were like some denizen of the deep, a Loch Ness monster that would swallow us, boat and whole.
The boatman was pointing out to me the geese flying in the V-formation overhead, but I was more fascinated by these simple creatures, the huge expanse they occupied and their glistening bodies with massive backswept horns held me spell bound.
The Chilika buffaloes are endowed with the unique quality of entering deep into the salty water of the lake, feeding on the vegetation that grows there, drinking the brackish water and remaining in the lake for several days together. In fact, they graze on water plants which no other creature would touch. These hardy breed withstands the marshy environment very well and are raised in the open under hot sun and heavy rains. They need no caring after and are immune to most of the diseases that milch cattle are prone to. The daily influx into the lake helps clean the shoreline and they clear a pathway for the fishing boats by eating the unruly vegetation. These black queens of the night are unsung heroines whose importance to the lake and its existence had not been acknowledged.
The benefits of these buffaloes are not confined just to the villagers who rear them, but they are crucial to the ecosystem of the lake itself. As the largest lagoon in Asia, Chilika Lake supports a fishing industry upon which nearly two lakh people depend. The brackish lake is surrounded by villages on three sides starting from Palur in the Ganjam district extending to the Bramhagiri area of Puri through Balugan and Bhusandapur of the Khurda district. There are several villages on the Coast of Chilika Lake where people have reared these breed of buffaloes for several generations.
These 20,000 odd pure-bred Chilika buffaloes are key to the lake’s sustainability. The manifold ways in which the buffaloes help in the health of the lake are yet to be all discovered. However, it is a known and accepted fact that the buffalo excreta and urine increase the phytoplankton in the lake which is vital for maintaining fish stocks. In fact the crustaceans of the lake, the prawns and crabs, feed on the fibrous excreta which is rich in nutrients. But for the buffaloes, the lake would soon choke with weed growth. There has been a marked reduction in the fish catch and even the reduction of the migratory bird populations. The buffaloes help reducing the clogging of the lake.
The presence of the buffaloes in the lake also benefits the migratory birds. While grazing in the lake, they expose the roots of the Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), which many of the birds eat. The symbiotic relationship that the birds have with the buffaloes is visible as most of them can be seen riding on their backs, and loosing no opportunity in grabbing and pecking off any exposed insect or root that are pulled up by the buffaloes.
The villagers all around the lake use “dung patties” (a sun-dried mix of dung and leaves) as fuel; I even saw it being used in the village smithy. This way the buffaloes act as converting the elements of water into fire. How much fuel wood it saves is anybody’s guess, the dung patties have greatly helped in reducing deforestation.
The buffalo’s legendary strength is another benefit to the lake side villagers. A large part of the total farm power comes from this “living tractor.” Dependable and docile, the Chilika buffalo pulls, plows, harrows, and carts loads that weigh several quintals. I saw a buffalo cart-laden with a sizable boat that must have weighed at least a ton, being taken to the jetty at Mangalajodi.
The splashing about of these gargantuan creatures also helps in oxygenating the lake waters, something which is vital for the healthy growth of fish. One has to see them in action, to realise how they churn the waters as they feed and make there way into the lake.
The Chilika buffaloes have been reared under an extensive system of management since ages. No shelters are required for them, even during the hot summers and heavy rains the buffaloes take shelter under the trees on the shore of the lake away from the village. These buffaloes live only on the lake, grazing without any feed supplementation; they do not eat even straw or grass. They live entirely on the vegetation that grows inside the salty lake. The local names of two such grasses which are very much relished by these buffaloes are ‘Chhera’ and ‘Pitta’. They even quench their thirst by drinking the salty water of the lake. In Bhusandpur, the animals are sent to the lake in late afternoon and are allowed to stay there for the whole night without anyone watching over them and are then brought back to the shore in the morning of the next day for milking. Milking is carried out only once a day. After milking the animals remain by the shore and outskirts of the village until late afternoon. Chilika buffaloes are very docile in nature. They are kept in the open throughout the year without even tethering. In other areas, the animals are tied to wooden pegs buried on the shore and the newborn calves are given shelter in the houses of the farmers.
Their unusual feeding habits make the Chilika buffalo a zero investment income source. The villagers rear buffaloes with almost no input costs, just some labour. The lake vegetation sustains them and they require no additional feed or shelter. In general, they do not require any medication and their life span and mortality is better than the other breeds. The buffalo keepers practise traditional animal healing methods using locally available medicinal plants.
The only drawback is that the milk yield is abysmally low, the buffaloes give only about 2 litres of milk per day and is much lower than any other breed. However the milk has certain distinctive qualities, the milk, and particularly its curd or yoghurt, can remain fresh for a week. Perhaps, due to the high salt content in the animal’s diet, the milk is not only very tasty but can keep without refrigeration for days. These buffaloes have even found mention in the holy texts. The legend of Dahikhia at Manikpatna near Satapada is an important lore in the Jagganath cult. The Lord and his Balabhadra were given curds (dahi) by a local woman named Manika, and a temple stands there today.
No detailed study on the Chilika buffaloes with respect to body conformation, gene pool, production and reproduction potentialities, management practices, feeding habits and utility have been carried out. However, they have been recently accorded the status of an indigenous breed. Traditionally, the breeding has been carried out through a natural service by indigenous Chilika bulls which always forms a part of the herd.
The recent attempts of the Animal Husbandry Department to increase the milk productivity of the Chilika by crossbreeding them with higher-yielding Murrah buffalo will mean an end to this unique and pure breed. The veterinary department has been cross breeding selective herds since the last few years. They are using the artificial insemination route, and have chosen a few villages for the experiment. The hybrid calves have grown up and given increased milk yields, but the crossbreed buffaloes are unable to feed in the lake.
The next day I saw the herds of buffaloes drinking their reflections in the lake. In every group, there were a few who stood apart on the sand banks and the small high ground islands that dot the lake. My boatman told me that these were the hybrid ones, and were always reluctant to go into the water.
I met Gopal Behera, a villager who owns 25 buffaloes. Yes, he was very happy when the veterinary extension officer had come from Tangi and promised them free artificial insemination which would get progeny with an increased milk yield of 5 litres. Five of his buffaloes were successfully inseminated and had calved. However he now rues the day. He told me that the hybrid buffaloes do not go into the lake, they have to be fed hay and grass. The yield is never more then three litres. The cross breeds are prone to parasitic diseases, have runny noses and need medication very often.
Death due to liver fluke infection has been reported in Bhusandpur where insemination with Murrah semen was done extensively. Further south of the lake, at Rambha, I was told by the villagers that the hybrid buffaloes do not enter into the lake even by persuasion but graze on the land in the village away from the lake. These buffaloes have to be provided with shelter during the night and are given feed supplementation as well as medication as and when necessary. The management and feeding practices of these buffaloes are significantly different from those of the pure Chilika buffaloes.
As the number of pure bred Buffaloes decline, the reduction in grazing in Chilika Lake would also lead to the unchecked growth of weeds and plants, the lake could become clogged up, affecting the fish populations, on which so many local people rely for their income.
Many local breeds have unique characteristics that enable them to perform functions within the local production system that cannot be matched by any other breed. Other breeds are not well adapted to the local production system and introduced animals have proved unable to meet the multiple-role performed by the Chilika buffaloes. Murrah buffaloes or Murrah- Chilika crosses, for instance, do not survive in this environment, because they are less well adapted to the humid conditions and the absence of non-saline drinking water.
Earlier attempts at altering pure breed populations by crossbreeding with Murrah for higher milk yield have not been successful. Surti buffalo, for example, has faced crossbreeding by Murrah and the resulting crossbreds show serious reproductive problems. Similar fate of Bhadawari has reduced its numbers while the crossbreds do not fit equally well in the rough ravine areas in the breed tract of Bhadawari.
Odisha has been the guinea pig for earlier disastrous examples in cross breeding. The story of the Khariar Bull and how it was hounded out of existence is too recent to be forgotten.
The Chilika locals should be encouraged to promote these buffaloes and pass on traditional knowledge to other livestock keepers in the region. They should be informed about the benefits of rearing the breed, how to care for and manage it with few inputs, and how to market the milk to make maximum profit.
This biodiversity in buffalo germplasm and its uniqueness should be preserved, maintained and improved for the benefit of the people. Selective breeding through exploitation of the genetic variation existing in the population may be practised for the improvement of Chilika buffaloes in Odisha.
By Anil Dhir from Mangalajodi on Chilika Lake