They’re destructive, there are 5 million of them—and they’re sacred

In India, wayward cattle are trampling crops, spreading disease, and causing car accidents. They’re also venerated.

By Sushmita Pathak
Published 1 Apr 2023, 14:31 BST
Stray cattle—most of them abandoned males—are rampant throughout India, where they can't legally be killed. However, ...
Stray cattle—most of them abandoned males—are rampant throughout India, where they can't legally be killed. However, experts are investigating solutions to cut down on the population, such as putting the animals in sanctuaries.
Photograph by Michael S. Yamashita, Nat Geo Image Collection

Across India, farmers are becoming their own night security guards—patrolling their harvest and checking on fences or trenches surrounding their land. But their enemies aren’t robbers. They’re stray cattle—and there are more than five million of them.

“A herd can destroy the whole crop in just one hour,” says Anjani Dixit, district head of Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, a farmer association in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Cattle can also become aggressive when threatened: Dixit says the horned animals fatally gored two men in his village.

Stray livestock, which gather at garbage dumps and weave through traffic, lead to thousands of road accidents each year; between 2018 and 2022, they caused more than 900 human deaths in the northern state of Haryana. In some states, authorities even paste glow-in-the-dark stickers on the animals to warn drivers at night.

How did India get here? Many livestock owners abandon male calves soon after they're born, keeping the females, which provide valuable milk and calves. In years past, farmers would deploy the males to plough their fields and use their dung as manure. But nearly every farmer now uses tractors, while manure has been replaced with chemical fertilisers, says Krishna Chauhan, a veterinary officer in Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow.

“The utility of the male calf has become almost zero,” he adds. In addition to setting the male calves free, farmers also starve male calves to death or, on big cattle operations, let the animals overeat until they die, says Chauhan. Sometimes, old and unproductive females also become strays. (Read about a boom in people are adopting India’s stray dogs.)

Compounding the problem, cow slaughter is banned in most states because Hindus—who make up the dominant religion in India—consider the animal sacred. The state-run Animal Welfare Board of India even wanted to rebrand Valentine’s Day this year as “Cow Hug Day.”

“It is a bit ironic that, supposedly, we [Indians] are cow lovers and we have the worst animal welfare problem,” says Navneet Dhand, associate professor in veterinary biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Sydney. For instance, many stray cattle are in poor health, with a gaunt appearance and infected wounds from being hit by vehicles.

Fortunately, there are several new solutions in the works, from selecting female calves through artificial insemination to keeping cows on sanctuaries, experts say.

Sick cows a serious problem

A stray cow is problematic enough; a stray sick cow presents another challenge entirely.

“There is no compensation for culling [diseased cows], so [farmers] will either sell them off to another farmer, which leads to spreading infections, or they will abandon them on the streets,” says Dhand.

Cattle can spread zoonotic diseases such as brucellosis to people, which can cause flu-like symptoms. Stray cattle likely helped fuel an outbreak of lumpy skin disease, a virus that ravaged over two million domestic animals in several Indian states in 2022. (Learn what makes an animal feral.)

While local laws allow veterinarians to euthanise sick cows, research suggests that it is culturally problematic and rarely happens. In recent years, cows have become a sensitive political topic, with Hindu mobs lynching people on suspicion of possessing beef or smuggling cows. As a result, veterinarians are scared to recommend euthanisation, says Dhand.

A few years ago, Uttar Pradesh introduced mandatory ear tags for cattle, which would ideally lead to nabbing the owners who deserted them. But it didn’t work.

“Cattle owners would rip the tag off along with the animal’s ear,” says Chauhan.

However, the farmers don’t deserve all the blame, says Dhand, as many of them see the animals as family members. The biggest problem is a lack of clear guidelines for handling unwanted cattle, he adds. 

“We need to give farmers some options. They are running a business in the end.”

Game-changing technology?

Ranjit Singh, who owns over a hundred cattle on his dairy farm in Punjab, a state in northern India, says unproductive animals quickly become a “burden.” He also admits that abandoning them is morally wrong. (Read more about the future of livestock farming.)

That’s why, to minimise the chances of male calves being born, he’s been using sex-sorted semen to artificially inseminate his cows. It’s a technique that guarantees the birth of a desired sex by up to 95 percent. India’s government has called it a “game changer.” But the imported technology is expensive—as much as a hundred times costlier than using conventional semen.

In December, the government of Kerala in southern India launched a scheme to distribute sexed semen at subsidised rates with the promise of a refund in case of failure. Several states have announced similar discounts.

India’s National Dairy Development Board is also working on its own, cheaper technology for sex-sorting semen. Deep Nagaraj, a representative from their facility in Tamil Nadu, says that the Indian semen technology should hit the market in about three years.

Yet there’s another limitation, says Chauhan, the veterinarian: Sexed semen has a low conception rate. A dose of sexed semen contains two million sperm, as compared with 20 million in regular semen. If farmers don’t see a return on their investment, they’re skeptical of shelling out extra cash. “It’s a big deal if I can convince even one out of 10 farmers to buy sexed semen,” says Chauhan. 

'A gold ornament'

In the meantime, India is witnessing a boom in gaushalas—or cow shelters—run by the government or religious institutions who care for abandoned cattle throughout their lives. There are more than 5,000 gaushalas in India, and in Uttar Pradesh, the government has announced the creation of a 130-acre cow sanctuary, as large as nearly a hundred football fields. (Learn what you should know before visiting an animal sanctuary.)

The Indian government is also promoting a “gaushala economy”—turning cow dung and urine collected from such facilities into useful products. According to Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine, cow dung and urine have beneficial properties. Though there is almost no scientific evidence that is true, such products have become more popular recently in India.

Vallabh Kathiria, a politician from the national ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and former chairman of a government agency to promote and protect cows, told National Geographic he envisions a future in which “people see a stray cow on the road and feel like they’ve found a gold ornament.” In his view, the key is changing people’s perception of stray cattle from burden to opportunity.


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