Status and prospect of Mithun farming in NE India

Vivek Joshi, Kamni Paia Biam, JK Chamuah, R Vikram and 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.
(To be contd)