The wild bovine once known as Aurochs or Urus Bos primigenius went the way of the dodo and all that remains of them today is ancient European rock art and classical literature and mere shadows of wild bravado in the form of their domesticated cattle descendants. But what if at least some of their genetics survived in other wild bovines? What if the aurochs was not a distinct bovine species, but rather a super-species together with the wild cattle or banteng Bos javanicus of Southeast Asia?
The aurochs, urus or ure is an extinct wild bovine of massive proportions that once inhabited North Africa, Europe and Asia (excluding Southeast Asia). The species survived in a wild, untamed and undomesticated state until 1627 when the last known individual died in the Jaktorów Forest in Poland. However some traits of the wild aurochs have managed to survive in populations of domesticated cattle which descended from either the Eurasian subspecies leading to taurine-type cattle or the Indian subspecies leading to zebu-type cattle.
In size the proportions and body shape of the aurochs were strikingly different from modern cattle breeds and were comparable to European bison Bison bonasus and strikingly similar, even homogeneous, to the banteng Bos javanicus. In contrast to domesticated cattle breeds, the legs of wild aurochs were considerably longer and more slender, resulting in a shoulder height that nearly equalled their trunk length. The skull, fashioning large horns in bulls were similar to that of the banteng. As with the banteng (and closely related kouprey Bos sauveli) the body shape of the aurochs was athletic, and especially in bulls, showed a strongly expressed neck and shoulder musculature. Like banteng, sexual dimorphism was strongly expressed between males and females with cows being significantly smaller than bulls. Even in carrying cows, the udder was small and hardly visible from the side in common with that of other wild bovines, including banteng, kouprey, and gaur Bos gaurus. Overall, the skeletal morphology of the aurochs was remarkably similar to the banteng.
Similarly, in external appearance the coat colour of the aurochs (as reconstructed from historical and contemporary depictions) was strikingly homogeneous with that of the banteng, being relatively uniform throughout their wide range. Like the banteng, aurochs calves were born a chestnut colour. With maturity bull calves would later change their coat colour to a very deep brown or black, with a white eel stripe running down the spine, while cows retained the buff reddish-brown colour.
“…those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary…These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when take very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. The size, shape and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments.” – Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico
As the aurochs numbers dwindled their population sustained further pressures by becoming the hunting sport of nobility. So their population was decimated until the last individual died in the Jaktorów Forest in Poland in 1627, and the species slipped quietly from memory.
AUROCHS VS. BANTENG
Today, however, much interest has been sparked concerning the revival of the extinct aurochs from breeding back projects to the hopes of one day cloning them back into existence. Organisations like Rewilding Europe and True Nature Foundation have made much progress in obtaining animals from selective breeding projects using domesticated breeds with “primitive” features. These selective breeding projects may be viable especially given the fact that modern cattle are all descended from ancient aurochs ancestors, but what if at least some populations of wild bovines still exist with aurochs features? What if a living proxy could be found in the wild that so closely resembles an aurochs that they may have been indistinguishable to the general observer in morphology, external characteristics and even temperament? What if at least one subspecies of aurochs survived as the Southeast Asian banteng Bos javanicus? Let us consider such a relationship between the aurochs and the banteng.
In external appearance the living banteng shares remarkably similar characteristics to that of the extinct aurochs. Both animals started life with a chestnut coloured coat. The females of both species retained their buff chestnut colouration into adulthood, while the males of both species darkened into chocolate-brown or black with maturity. Both the banteng and the aurochs maintained an almost indistinguishable body form and size, with bulls being considerably larger than cows. Similarly both animals fashioned visually homogeneous horn sizes and shapes for both sexes respectively. The summation of all these characteristics renders the extinct aurochs Bos primigenius and living banteng Bos javanicus visually homogeneous.
Interestingly even the geographical distribution of the aurochs and the banteng may indicate a close relationship that may warrant the two to be considered two variations of a single “ecocline” or “cline” species. An ecocline or cline consist of ecotypes or forms of a single species that exhibit gradual phenotypic and/or genetic differences over a geographical area, typically as a result of environmental heterogeneity. If we consider the range of the aurochs and banteng we find that the Indian subspecies of aurochs reached their eastern limits in the exact geographical region where the banteng reached their western limits. These aspects may well indicate a close cline relationship between visually similar animals that are considered today as two distinct species. Further evidence that may well indicate this close cline relationship between banteng and the zebu-type auroch descendants are the fact that both banteng and zebu cattle interbreed freely where the two animals coexist in human inhabited areas of Southeast Asia with the hybrid offspring being fully fertile.
The banteng Bos javanicus, also known as tembadau in some parts of their range, is a magnificent species of wild bovine of Southeast Asia. They are similar in size to domesticated cattle, but display considerable sexual dimorphism which allows the sexes to be readily distinguishable by both colour and size. Throughout their range they inhabit a similar ecological niche as the aurochs did in Europe, being most abundant in forest/grassland mosaics, deciduous forests and woodlands.
They are currently considered as endangered by the IUCN, having underwent a population decrease of almost 80% in the last decade. Their total wild population is estimated at between 5,000 to 8,000 individuals, while no single population has more than 500 individuals with most having less than 50 individuals. Currently their population still seems to be decreasing throughout their range as a result of human/wildlife conflict, habitat destruction, increased hunting pressures, hybridisation with domesticated cattle, and infectious domesticated cattle diseases.
The threat of hybridisation is currently listed as a major threat to the wild banteng population. Bali cattle (a domesticated form of banteng) have wilfully been interbred with domesticated cattle and these hybrids readily interbreed with the wild bovines. Banteng also readily interbreed with domesticated cattle of the zebu-type (Bos primigenius) and hybrids are fully fertile. Domestic and feral livestock are thus a great threat to the genetic integrity of wild banteng.
In conclusion, can the banteng be considered as an aurochs proxy in rewilding initiatives? When considering the close relationship that the extinct aurochs once had to the living banteng genetically, morphologically, visually and behaviourally, it may well be considered sound and viable to use banteng in European rewilding initiatives. Banteng prefer the same habitat that aurochs once thrived in, and would therefore fulfil the exact same ecological niche. Both in size and in nature, the banteng represent almost indistinguishable characteristics to that of the extinct aurochs. In areas where predators are present the banteng would also be better suited and have considerable advantages over domesticated cattle breeds. In closing the banteng merits greater conservation value than domesticated cattle breeds and when used in European rewilding initiatives their global population would be afforded a greater buffer against the face of extinction.
The wild bovid once known as Aurochs or Urus Bos primigenius went the way of the dodo and all that remains of them today is ancient European rock art and classical literature and mere shadows of wild bravado in the form of their domesticated cattle descendants. But what if an aurochs subspecies survived the onslaughts of man? What if the aurochs survived as the banteng Bos javanicus of Southeast Asia?