Status and prospect of Mithun farming in NE India

Vivek Joshi / Kamni Paia Biam / JK Chamuah / R Vikram / MH Khan *

The northeast region of India is a hotspot for a rare bovine species, Mithun or Gayal (Bos frontalis). It is an important endemic species mainly found in forests of northeastern hilly states and neighboring countries like Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Yunnan (China), Thailand and Malaysia. In India, mithun is considered not just an animal but a matter of pride, status, taste, values and preference.

It is exclusively reared by indigenous tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur. Mithun is popularly known as ‘Cattle of Mountain’ and needs a habitat of dense and evergreen hilly forest to thrive.

With a narrow geographic range and small population, at present, mithun is considered a species vulnerable to extinction. Mithun plays a central role in socioeconomic and cultural life of tribal people. It is the state animal of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. The official emblem of Nagaland government depicts a majestic mithun standing on a green hilly landscape.

In this insignia, mithun is a symbol of health and wealth of Nagas. In Assamese, mithun is called ‘Methon’, it is called ‘Eso’ or ‘Hoho’ or ‘Sebe’ in Arunachal Pradesh, the Mizos call it ‘Sial’, it is called ‘Sandong’ in Manipur and ‘Wei’ and ‘Seizang’ in Naga tribes. Mithun farming is an important activity intrinsically linked to sustainable livelihood in northeast India.

Origin of mithun

This is quite complex and ambiguous. It is believed that approximately 6-8 thousand years ago, mithun originated in India-Myanmar frontier areas, however, no information is available on its domestication for the first time. At present, there are three major but conflicting hypotheses on origin of mithun.

In the first hypothesis, it has been postulated that mithun originated from direct domestication of wild gaur (Bos gaurus). This is the most widely accepted assumptionand is well supported by similar appearance of mithun and gaur. The second hypothesis presumes mithun is a hybrid originating from cross-breeding between wild gaur and domestic cattle (B. indicus or B. taurus).

The third hypothesis assumes that mithun originated from a wild bovid which is now extinct. However, till today, none of the hypotheses has been proven conclusively. A recent study at ICAR-National Research Centre on Mithun, Nagaland revealed a common origin of mithun and wild gaur from an ancient and extinct bovine species based on mitochondrial genome sequencing.

Population of mithun in India

According to 20th livestock census (2019), mithun population has shown a growth rate of 26.66% over the preceding census (2012). Currently, total mithun population in the country is 0.38 million. Between 2012 and 2019, male population of mithun grew at a faster rate (30.76%) than female population (23.52%).

In India, total male and female mithun population is 0.17 and 0.21 million respectively. Arunachal Pradesh (0.35 million) has the highest mithun population followed by Nagaland (0.023 million), Manipur (0.009 million) and Mizoram (0.004 million).

Behavioral and morphological characteristics of Mithun

Mithun is a majestic ruminant inhabiting hilly forests at an altitude of 1000-3000 m. It is a mammalian species belonging to family bovidae and order ungulate (hoofed mammal). This large herbivore is capable of browsing efficiently even in steep hilly slopes and does not require pasture land like other bovine species. The farmers rear mithuns in forests under free grazing system where they eat a variety of grasses, tree leaves and young plants.

They do not offer other feed and fodder to mithuns, however, occasionally feed salt to mithuns especially when they need to be restrained. Mithun has a greatliking for salt feeding. In general, mithuns are reared in forests in community herds where mithuns of different owners graze together.

The forest areas are often fenced and few herdsmen are appointed by village council for supervision of mithuns in the forests during daytime and bringing them back to the village at night. Mithun is a selective browser, travels for long distance in forests in search of fodder and consumes up to 30 kg day-1.

Mithun is mainly reared for meat purpose. It is often slaughtered for high quality organic meat during marriage ceremonies, religious festivals, elections and community feasts. Therefore, mithun is popularly known as ‘Ceremonial Cattle’.

Mithun is regarded as a last resort of money and sold by poor farmers at the time of adversity to fulfill money requirement for children’s education and health emergencies. It is also used for barter trade purpose apart from being used for paying fine, ransom and price of bride by groom’s family.

From ancient times, it is believed that mithun is related to indigenous tribal culture and in some folklores, mithun is regarded as descendant of sun. Mithun plays an important role in social, economic and cultural life of tribal population. Mithun ownership is still considered a symbol of prestige and prosperity in northeast India.

Mithun is very shy in nature and a medium to large sized ruminant species which in external appearance resembles domestic cattle and buffalo. The visual appearance of mithun is similar to wild gaur (also called Indian bison) except for the body shape and horns. Mithun is smaller in size than gaur while its horns are more or less straight in comparison to curved horns of gaur.

In general, mithun is characterized by a big head, heavy body and strong legs. The forehead is usually broad and concave. Mithun is found in various body colors but black is the most abundant color. The jet-black body with ash colored forehead and white stockings in all the legs is a characteristic feature of typical mithun. However, white stockings develop and become visible in mithun calves only after four months of age.

The new born calves are golden yellow andbrown in color, however, as the age advances, adults become jet black to dark brown colored. The hump is absent in mithun and also, its tail and legs are smaller in comparison to domestic cattle.

The ears are broad and dewlap is large sized in mithun. The average body weight of adult mithun aged 4-5 years is usually 400- 500 kg. The maximum life span of mithun in India is recorded to be 15 years. The healthy and sexually mature mithun female periodically undergoes an estrus cycle of 19-24 days until it gets pregnant.

During estrus, mithun female comes into heat but it does not exhibit clear signs of heat. Therefore, it is known as ‘Silent Heat’ and quite difficult to identify a mithun female in heat based on visual signs.

Mithun does not prefer a definite season for breeding and a healthy adult mithun can breed throughout the year. The average age of puberty is 18-24 months and the breeding age of mithun bulls is 3-4 years. The gestation length is 270- 290 days and normally, it gives birth to one calf at a time. The newbornmithun calf often weighs 18-25 kg.

Diseases of mithun

Mithun is quite sturdy with an extraordinary ability to withstand various pathogens and diseases. Foot and mouth disease (FMD) is a common disease in mithun. It is a highly contagious and fatal viral disease. The infected mithun develops signs of fever followed by swelling of limbs, wounds in feet, excessive salivation, ulcers in tongue, gums and lips, limping, abortion and high mortality rate.

To date, no treatment is available for FMD, thus, it is advisable to vaccinate newborn calves at 4 months of age and repeat it every 6 months before monsoon season. Other major diseases of mithun include hemorrhagicsepticemia (HS), black quarter (BQ), tick and leech infestation, nematodiasis, Johne’s disease (JD), pneumonia, anthrax, coccidiosis, etc.

Economic potential of mithun farming

To date, potential of mithun to produce meat, milk and leather is not fully explored and it remains as an underutilized animal in northeast India. It is a need of the hour to use mithun more for commercial than cultural purposes. Mithun farming has now become an important source of income. There exists a great scope to promote mithun farming as a valuable source of organic meat and milk. Also, mithun possesses immense potential for use as draught purpose animal in hilly tracts.

Mithun is an efficient converter of forest biomass into superior quality meat. The meat of mithun is softer and better than other available sources of meat. Being low in fat, mithun meat is good for human health. There is a very high demand and preference of mithun meat among indigenous tribes. It is alwaysadvisable to slaughter mithun at the age of 4-5 years in order to get the highest amount of meat. Generally, the dressing percentage in mithun is 58-62%.

At present, consumption of mithun milk is unacceptable among tribal people and regarded as a taboo. Mithun can produce 1-1.5 kg day-1 of milk. Mithun milk is thicker and more nutritious than milk of other domestic animals. It is rich in fat (8-13%), solidsnot-fat (18-24%) and protein (5-7%). Based on energy value, 1 kg of mithun milk is equal to 2 kg of cow milk.

High lactoferrin, an antimicrobial compound in mithun milk, is associated with its medicinal property. Moreover, with technological intervention, mithun milk can be exploited to produce superior quality dairy products like cheese, curd, ghee, rasgulla, etc. due to its high protein content. Therefore, there is a need and extensive scope to promote mithun as a milch animal in northeast India.

The spread of awareness in tribal population regarding milking of mithun and sale and consumption of mithun milk could be useful in poverty alleviation and improvement of economic status. Mithun milk provides nutritional security to poor farmers of northeast India.

The leather processed from skin of mithun is of superior quality due to its toughness and long life. This unique mithun leather has ample scope in tanning industry for production of expensive goods like bags, purses, jackets, shoes, etc. which can fetch a very high commercial value in national and international markets.

Being a hardy and sure-footed animal, mithun is well suited for draught and pack purpose on steep slopes of hilly areas. Due to its outstanding work power, mithun could be used for various agricultural operations, land management and pulling carts in hilly landscapes. Thus, multi- dimensional mithun farming is important for socio-economic development of tribal population of northeast India.

Future prospects of mithun farming

Over the last few decades, increased deforestation is constantly leading to a decline in mithun population in northeastern states of India. Moreover, declining population has increased the risk of inbreeding in mithun. Today, considering the socio-economic importance of mithun in tribal culture, special attention is being given to mithun conservation.

The need at the moment is to bring free-ranging mithun under semiintensive system and promote this scientific method of mithun rearing among indigenous tribes.

At present, efforts are made to popularize semi-intensive system and controlled mithun breeding. Semi-intensive mithun farming is promoted as a profitable venture to sustain livelihoods of poor farmers.

Under semiintensive system, adequate care, appropriate treatment and ample protection can be given to mithun calves, pregnant females and sick mithuns and hence, mortality rate can be minimized. For this, mithun sheds need to be built where mithuns can be housed at night time once they return from jungles after grazing during daytime.

Furthermore, these sheds require availability of fodder and drinking water. This semi-intensive farming enables detection of mithun females in heat and breeding with superior bulls. Likewise, artificial insemination (AI) is another emerging technique in mithun husbandry and is considered important for future breeding policies of mithun along with estrous synchronization.

Lastly, development of new drugs and vaccines is regarded as one of the useful tools in mithun conservation apart from improved methods of disease prevention and control.

For further details contact: -
Public Relations & Media Management Cell,
CAU, Imphal.

* Vivek Joshi / Kamni Paia Biam / JK Chamuah / R Vikram / MH Khan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writers are from the ICAR-National Research Centre on Mithun, Medziphema, Dimapur, Nagaland 797106
This article was webcasted on May 28 2023 .

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