The Gaur (Bos gaurus) is a large, dark-coated animal which belongs to the Bovinae subfamily. Bison, cattle, yak and water buffalo are some other animals in this subfamily. They are the heaviest and most powerful of all wild cattle, and are among the largest living land animals; only elephants, rhinos, and hippos grow larger. This animal is distributed in South and South-East Asia. The Ceylon gaur (Binomial name – Bibos sinhaleyus) was smaller than the Indian gaur, which is now extinct, as reported by several British writers since 1681.
Though it is now extinct, Sri Lankans still refer to it in everyday speech and it is referenced in village names such as Gawarammana, Gawara-eliya, Gawara-vila, Gawara-kele and a grass species; Gawara Maana (Garnotia exaristata) which grows on highland plains.
The earliest reference is dated 1681, that is ‘An Historical Relation of Ceylon’ by Robert Knox. He has mentioned that
Here are also Buffalo’s; also a sort of beast they call Gauvera, so much resembling a Bull, that I think it one of that kind. His back stands up with a sharp ridge; all his four feet white up half his legs. I never saw but one, which was kept among the Kings Creatures
John Doily, writing in his Diaries (1812), provides the first reference after Knox from English literature pertaining to Ceylon
There is also . . . A species of animal called Gawara, about the size of a half-grown Buffalo, & much the same colour, but with its horns hanging down. It is very seldom seen, because it studiously avoids man, and runs away at the very scent of him. It is said that Gawara was once caught and sent to Kandy – It died about a month afterwards.
Major Forbes, writing in ‘Eleven Years in Ceylon (1840:II.159)’, mentions
One of the range of plains that extend amongst the hills between Nuwara-ellia and Adam’s Peak is called Gaura-ellia; this name it is said to have obtained in consequence of a large and fierce animal, called a gaura, which was caught there about fifty years ago. This creature is probably, we may say certainly, extinct in Ceylon, as none have been seen by Europeans; but in several parts of the country, particularly in Lagalla, its former existence is vouched for by the names of places, as the ‘Gaura-field,’ the ‘Gaura-flat,’ etc
The next evidence is by James Emerson Tennet from his book; Ceylon: An account of the island Physical, Historical and Topographical (1859). There he has mentioned that he had met an old man residing near Hortain Plains saying that he had seen what he believed to have been a gaur, and which he described as between an elk and a buffalo in size, dark brown in colour, and very scantily provided with hair during his young.
According to Sinhala legends, the strength of men was tested by pitting them against gaurs kept in the royal preserves. The winners were appointed as bodyguards of the Sinhala king. From these evidence, we can assume that these animals would have lived in the hill country. Though leg bones and teeth of gaur have been found in the Ratnapura area in some numbers, it was the discovery in 1962 of a skull with two horns that led Dr. P.E.P. Deraniyagala to identify the Sinhala gavara as the gaur. (Dr. Paules Edward Pieris Deraniyagala (1900 – 1976) was a paleontologist, zoologist, and also an artist from Sri Lanka. He specialized in fauna and human fossils of the Indian subcontinent. Between 1939 -1963 he was the Director of the National Museum of Ceylon, and between 1961-1964 he was also the Dean of the Faculty of Arts).
The hunting and deforestation in the hill country for tea cultivation by the British would have caused the extinction of these mammals. Since the Gaur population of India by two outbreaks of cattle diseases (Rinderpest/Foot and Mouth) destroyed the population of Gaur from these forests in great numbers, it is reasonable to hypothesize that diseases might also have caused the extinction of these mammals.