Meet Billy, the goat. Resident of Barren Island in the Andamans. (Barren Island is home to the only active volcano in the country). Billy has survived the volcano’s eruptions by migrating to the unaffected side of the island, feeding on its sparse foliage and surviving, no, thriving, on seawater. Yes, seawater.
Generically, Billy is a feral goat—nomadic, untamed—in barren Barren Island.
Dr SPS Ahlawat, Director of the Central Agricultural Research Institute in Port Blair, says few other animals have been known to withstand the vagaries of such harsh environment. And research on the feral goat could have wide reaching implications for the world in general and India in particular.
For one, the feral goat could be the answer to the livestock problems of drought-affected regions, where fresh water is in short supply. Secondly, research work on its kidney, which has adapted to the highly saline seawater, could yield rich results. (Drinking saline water can kill a human being in a matter of days). Finally, Dr Ahlawat says feral goats like Billy could be bred in “zero management farms” that can provide enormous quantities of mutton at next to no cost.
But how did Billy get on Barren Island in the first place? Some say his caprine ancestors were shipwrecked, circa 1800. Those with a more fertile imagination say Charles Darwin relocated Billy here for one of his experiments!
But if Billy is such hot property, why isn’t he world-famous yet? Dr Ahlawat sighs and says something that many scientists cite throughout the country: bureaucratic hurdles.
Thanks to the strict wildlife laws of the Andamans, it has taken him two years to get permission to take just one pair of goats off the island into port Blair. And the institute hasn’t made much headway with the limited progeny it has worked on. So, it will be quite some time before maverick Billy finds his way to dinner tables.
(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times newspaper on May 10, 2000)