“What animal looks like the combination of a horse and a cow with the beard of a turkey and short devil’s horns?” This description from Elizabeth Cary Mungall’s, Exotic Animal Field Guide remains my favorite of the nilgai antelope, a large exotic species found on the southernmost point of Texas.
Originally from India, the nilgai were introduced for conservation and for trophy tourism in the 1930s. The bizarre chimeric beast proved to be prolific: a couple dozen grew to upwards of 30,000 statewide. Conservation and tourism often go hand-in-hand, but the presence of nilgai in Texas is a more complicated situation, where a prized draw for hunters and a beloved meat source has also become a uniquely Texan pest.
My first exposure to them came from a cycling trip around Brownsville, Texas, during what we all now refer to as the Before Times. With approximately 428 miles of cycling and kayaking trails (the Caracara Trails) being developed around the Lower Rio Grande Valley, visitors get to enjoy a spectrum of Texas landscapes and wildlife preserves.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley is a mix of dry, lush, and tropical Texas scenery, as well as diverse wildlife from colorful birds to beautiful ocelots—the region feels exotic all by itself. Our group, a mix of press and political representatives, cycled by spiked yuccas and through a palette of emerald green avifauna and light-blue waters under an unrelenting sun at the stunning Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
Laguna Atascosa is home to more than 97,000 acres of land for the protection of shorebirds and endangered species.
“If you’re lucky,” one of my hosts told me, “you’ll get to see nilgai here.”
Another person in our group snarled at the mention of nilgai. “They keep trying to cull them. They’ve become pests.”
I sped up beyond our motley peloton to feel the breeze and to take some quick photos of the trail while I rode. As I reached to put my phone away, three nilgai swiftly jumped across the trail in front of me. A second earlier and I would have been in the way. One looked back just before she disappeared into the dark brush, leaving me with a curiosity—and a single blurry photo usually reserved for Bigfoot hunts.
How did they get to Texas?
The story of the nilgai in Texas begins in India, where their name means “blue cow”—blue is the color of the bull; the cows are brown. They are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, where the association with cattle means that Hindus consider them sacred. They are technically antelope, though they are in the same family (bovidae) and subfamily (bovinae) as your standard cow.
The animal is a grazer, preferring savannas and scattered tree canopies. With between 70,000 and 100,000 in India and more than 30,000 along the Texas-Mexico border, they are considered a species of “least concern” on the IUCN Red List.
Their sacred status in India provides protection from hunters, so their natural predator is the tiger or leopard. Their herds usually consist of 10 or less—though more than 20 are possible—and they are made up of bachelors run off by older males or of mostly females. Older males tend to travel solo, marking their territory by making defecation sites—called middens or latrines. They also mate frequently. (Females often give birth to twins.)
In India, those herds can decimate a crop when other food sources are low, turning them into pests. In an attempt to disassociate them from cows, and therefore their sacred status, the government tried to change their name to vanroz (“forest antelope”). More recently, farmers have been allowed to kill those that are eating their crops, but since the meat is sacred, they have to be turned over for cremation.
In Texas, of course, the story is very different, and it begins with King Ranch. (Request for comment from King Ranch was not returned.)
King Ranch was established by Captain Richard King in 1853. Today the ranch is the largest in the country at 825,000 acres, meaning that it is bigger than Rhode Island (roughly 776,957 acres). While Texas is an incredibly large state, approximately 95 percent of it is privately owned.
King saw his future as a rancher early in the state’s history and went for it. By most measures, he was successful at just about anything he touched.
When conservationist and hunter Caesar Kleberg arrived at King Ranch, their efforts turned more actively toward wildlife management, even setting the tone for the state’s future laws on the subject.
Kleberg was concerned about over-hunting and King Ranch and their Norias division became prime places to conserve game. In 1924, Kleberg bought nilgai—Texas’s first exotic game—from the San Diego Zoological Garden and they proved to be survivors. The King Ranch population of nilgai is around 15,000.
Today, ranches throughout the region have nilgai on their land for trophy hunting.
“They’re a very popular game in South Texas,” Michael Bodenchuk tells me. Bodenchuk is the state director of the Texas Wildlife Services Program for the USDA. Nilgai are adept at avoiding hunters, so for many they are a prized catch.
“All of the exotic wildlife in Texas are considered exotic food stock,” Bodenchuk says. He tells me that it is a category of the law and that they are the same as livestock, but with a significant difference.
When it comes to cows, Bodenchuk says, your mark on them means you can say, “that’s my cow.” But “with exotic food stock,” he adds, “they’re free-ranging. They belong to the landowner. If they’re on my side of the fence, they’re my nilgai, and if they jump the fence and are on your side of the fence, they’re your nilgai. They’re livestock, but they belong to whoever owns the land where they’re standing.”
This is where trophy tourism comes in.
Tourism in Texas provided upwards of $169.8 billion in economic impact in 2019, and one in 10 jobs in Texas are created through travel. The economic impact of the exotic wildlife industry in Texas is less studied. In 2007, Texas A&M put the total impact at around $1.3 billion annually and by 2016, the Exotic Wildlife Association estimated it at $3.3 billion.
Nilgai are essentially unregulated, with the exception that they require a hunting license. Landowners can charge whatever they want for a hunt. Bodenchuk adds that it can cost a hunter anywhere from $2,000 to $3,500 to hunt them.
But trophy tourism in Texas is not simply about getting outdoors. Many ranches also set out to provide a resort experience for their hunters.
The 18,000-acre (approximately 28-square-mile) Ox Ranch in Uvalde, Texas, offers all-inclusive hunting packages, with stays in luxury antique cabins and gourmet meals. Hunters usually book a three-day, two night package, which runs $1,000 a night during the week and $1250 on weekends ($200 a night for non-hunters).
“We try to only harvest the mature [nilgai] bulls,” Jason Molitor, CEO of Ox Ranch tells me.
The rate includes your meals, vehicle, stay, and guide—and if hunting isn’t your thing, you can try yoga. The owners even have another company on their ranch that allows you to drive and shoot a WWII tank or fire an M2 Browning. (I’m told the Venn diagram crossover between hunters and tank firing is not as large as you'd think.)
The trophy rate for nilgai ($5500) includes field dressing, transportation of the animal to the meat processor and taxidermist, ammunition, and runway access. (Unlike some ranches, Ox Ranch only charges the trophy fee if you wound or kill a nilgai.)
Like most Texas ranches, Ox Ranch sees much of what it does in terms of conservation. Trophy tourism and conservation is a complicated and fiery rabbit-hole of a debate.
Some see the introduction of exotic species, like nilgai, as filling a gap in the ecosystem left by over-hunting, while others argue that species should be left to their native habitats.
“There are different species that probably would be extinct if they didn’t exist on Texas ranches,” Molitor says. “Scimitar is a good example.” (The Scimitar-Horned Oryx, whose native habitat is Chad, is listed as extinct in the wild by the Red List.)
“They are, by far and large, more in Texas than they’re in their native habitat.” Molitor adds, saying that the reintroduction of scimitars in Chad are frequently done from Texas ranches. “If it wasn’t for places like this, they probably would go extinct,” he says.
Organizations like the Humane Society see things differently, arguing against what they see as “canned” or “captive hunting” (used interchangeably)—hunting based on an enclosure, versus a “fair chase” in the wild.
“Animals in canned hunts are callously bred to be slaughtered, stuffed and hung on someone’s wall,” Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, tells The Daily Beast. “It is a heartless and cruel industry that must end in Texas and around the world.”
Not everyone agrees on how to define canned or captive hunting.
“The exotic game industry has gotten some bad press from some people that, in my opinion, are not exactly doing fair chase,” Molitor tells me. “If you’ve got 200 acres and it’s high fenced, and there’s no cover, and you go to hunt an animal in that area, or sometimes even smaller areas than that—I would consider that canned hunting and something I’d be opposed to.”
Molitor believes that it is a different situation if you’re talking thousands of square acres of land with natural cover that requires hunters to get out and use their skills.
Kitty Block disagrees.
“The size of the enclosure doesn’t matter,” Block says. “In larger enclosures, the animals are often accustomed to eating at feeding stations at regular intervals, and the trophy hunter will be there waiting in a hunting blind set up near the feeder. It is not uncommon for a captive hunt with thousands of fenced acres to still offer a ‘100% success’ guarantee to shoot an animal, or offer a ‘no kill, no pay’ policy on the animals.”
The finer points can be like watching a tennis match.
On the one hand, some animals, like nilgai, do not eat at feeding stations, so hunting them requires hiking the land. On the other hand, they do return to their precise defecation points regularly to mark their territory, which Molitor acknowledges as not working in their favor.
One one hand, the wild doesn’t have fences to keep species contained or blinds for hunters to shoot from, but on the other hand, it does come with some predictability about where animals feed and what land restrictions there are for a species. And even using phrases like “on the one hand” and “on the other hand,” as I’m doing now, obfuscates the bigger in-between questions like, can there be a one-size-fits-all approach or should we stop eating meat altogether?
Then there is the newest nilgai dilemma—the cattle fever tick.
At one time, the tick was ubiquitous in Texas. In the 1890s, ranchers at King Ranch helped to develop a technique to handle them.
“They have a dipping vat,” Michael Bodenchuk explains, “and the cows would run through it and be completely drenched in the insecticide and then turn them loose into the pasture to gather more ticks, and then bring them back within 14 days, so they never had a full lifecycle.”
Over time this created a type of barrier against ticks and that helped to move it down to the Rio Grande River. “There are people that ride the river every day to look for cattle and push them back,” Bodenchuk tells me. But the tick is still found in Mexico, he notes, and both cattle and nilgai cross back and forth, bringing ticks with them. “Dipping vats don’t work for nilgai and they can’t be lured by bait like whitetail deer to get treated.”
As nilgai are adept at breaking free of ranch fencing, difficult to hunt, and can have territory of upwards of 70,000 acres, traveling large distances in a single day, they are considered prime spreaders of the tick.
At Laguna Atascosa, the tick is handled by prescribed burns and by sponsoring nilgai hunts. Some free-ranging nilgai are culled from helicopters in Texas to keep their numbers down.
Kitty Block doesn’t see hunting as the right solution. The problem, Block says, is an industry that introduces non-native species into a different ecosystem.
“Trying to control non-native species roaming around Texas with controversial and unpopular methods like culling,” says Block, “is like trying to stop a leaky faucet with a bucket – it may temporarily spare you from a mess, but the problem won’t be solved.”
Block believes the best solution is to return to conserving wildlife in their native habitat.
Tourism is frequently wedded with controversy on important issues, like sustainability or inequity. In Texas, wildlife on public and private land bring a lot of tourists in each year, and that, along with the controversy, isn’t likely to change soon. Nilgai are a unique tourism niche in Texas—since they can’t be hunted in India—but they are also a uniquely Texan pest, in that their massive proliferation is spreading a dangerous tick.
Nilgai are fascinating, but odd animals that manage to bring in trophy hunters from around the country—somehow, it makes sense to me that they would appeal to Texans. Yes, Texas isn’t their native habitat, and they probably should never have made it there in the first place, but it feels like a very Texan thing for an Ohioan cycling a wildlife preserve in a tropical Texas gulf to be almost trampled by an exotic animal from India.