A century ago, Tamil Nadu had six native breeds of cattle. Over the last 15 years, one has become extinct and the others are in danger of following. That would be a huge loss. Each breed has evolved in perfect harmony with its local region.

Kangayams, fed on grasses in the calcium-rich soil, are astonishingly sturdy and can pull up to 2.5 times their body weight with ease. Umbalacherys have shorter legs, which make it easy for them to walk around in the water-filled fields of the state’s Delta region. Barugurs in the hills of Erode district and Malai Maadus in Theni district are adept at walking in hilly terrain. Pulikulam found mostly in the region around Madurai, Sivaganga, Ramnad, Pudukottai, parts of Tiruchy districts, can walk all day as they are grazed.

Native cattle, which have evolved over millennia, are an integral part of rural life, especially for small and marginal farmers. They serve multiple purposes: they provide milk and farmyard manure, they are used for ploughing and transportation.

By reiterating a ban on the traditional bull-taming sport of jallikattu on Tuesday, the Supreme Court may have undermined their chances of survival. To understand why, it’s essential to look at the role jallikattu plays in the state’s rural ecosystem.

An essential role

Jallikattu events are held once the winter harvest is finished. Bulls reared specially for the sport are taken out to participate. Spectators take note of the best bulls on display and seek them out in the shandies or cattle markets that are held from December till April all over Tamil Nadu. Since small farmers cannot afford to keep stud bulls, villages through the state buy a common temple bull to service all the cows of the settlement. Jallikattu events provide the opportunity for bulls to be exhibited.

Jallikattu helps bulls establish their pedigree. The calves from such bulls, which have displayed their agility on the sports field, are in great demand.

Male calves are kept only in regions with a tradition of sports like jallikattu. In other regions, male calves are sold and taken to slaughter in only a few days. With the reduced availability of males, farmers have to go for artificial insemination. Native cows do not yield as much milk as the imported breeds and are not supported by breeding programmes. This results in the proliferation of cross-bred cattle. Unless bulls are bred and reared in the region, their offspring will be less likely to adapt to changes in the climate and local environment.

Article 48 of the Constitution requires to the state to “endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”. Unless we engage with the traditional livestock keepers and support them, we will lose these breeds as well as lay the ground for commercial dairies and slaughter houses to overwhelm small farmers.

Banning jallikattu will hasten this process.

Himakiran Angula, an organic farmer and entrepreneur based in Chennai, is a trustee of the Seenapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation, an organisation working to conserve native breeds of cattle in Tamil Nadu.