Monday, April 29, 2019

Down in Jungleland: Revenge of the Macaques

Some animals and birds have learned to live like us.

Recently, I watched a short video clip of a pair of gigantic wild tuskers crossing the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, which was busy even at 2 am. Later, they crossed again during the day, when traffic thundered up and down incessantly. They crossed with more care than most of us do, looking right and left before stepping forth. There was another short clip showing elephants stepping over a knocked-down, but live, electric fence. They did so with great caution, lifting each huge leg well above the wires, and keeping trunks and tails out of the way. Both clips drew laughter and admiration from viewers, who admired the good sense that the animals displayed. A friend, however, remarked that it was really sad: elephants should not need to know how to cross roads or step over electrified fences.
Ever since we began barging into their spaces, wild animals have had to either flee deeper into the forests or adapt and learn to live with us. Animals like elephants and tigers use forest corridors to get from one forest to another and we have encroached on these, building expressways or setting up tea and coffee plantations. Still, elephants will use these traditional routes, even if a little warily, and, of course, sometimes, there is trouble. Roads and highways running through wildlife territories pose a grave danger: because we drive recklessly, an inordinately high number of animals get run over and killed.
In Gujarat’s Gir forest, the problem seems to be developing the other way around (not that we have left the National Park and Sanctuary sacrosanct). The lions are now bursting out of the protected area into the southern regions of the forest and into what we see as “our” space. While, generally, both humans and lions are learning to live with each other, you really wonder how tenable this situation will be in the future: we are turning increasingly intolerant and lynch-loving, and as the lion population grows, so will hostile interactions.
Leopards, too, have quickly learned to adapt to semi-urban living. As long as they have a forest to take cover in, they’re quite happy to be living on the edges of urban areas, taking dogs, pigs and goats (and tragically, the odd child). Gurugram and Borivali (in Mumbai) are prime examples. But leopards frequently land in trouble, somehow finding themselves in someone’s bathroom or at the bottom of a well. The hysteria displayed by us in these situations is, to say the least, totally unedifying.
Some animals have, of course, taken the battle to us — and may even be getting the better of us. Rhesus macaques (which enjoy religious sanctity) have discovered the attractions of living near temples and big city markets and have moved into cities like Jaipur and Delhi en masse for generations now. These city-bred simians are not in the least afraid of us, and will mob you if you raise a hand against them. We, however, appear keener to throw them papaya and parantha parties, which suits them just fine. There’s a story about how the British caught city-monkeys by the trainload and shunted them out into the wilderness, from where they promptly caught the next train back into town. But ask the people in the hills, and they will say that city-bred hoodlum macaques have been secretly released in their areas and have begun creating havoc there, destroying their crops and orchards and terrorising them, as well as the genteel local macaques.
Birds, too, have learned to adapt to human surroundings. Egrets normally fished or caught insects flushed by wild herbivores: then they discovered that a far more reliable way of catching insects was to follow herds of livestock which were brought out for grazing, day after day, without fail. Now, alas, they’ve also discovered (as have several other species) our garbage dumps and landfills. Crows and kites probably can’t live without us. Gulls, too, so pristine and sleek, seem to have forsaken fishing on the high seas and simply follow fishing trawlers. Huge flocks have discovered that rivers running through towns and cities are a good place to spend time in, because people feed them namkeen mixture. If a flock of gulls expects a handout and you don’t have anything on hand, it may mob you like the birds in the Alfred Hitchcock film.

The house sparrow, too, moved in from the wild grasslands once we began cultivating seed crops, like wheat and bajra. First, they followed farmers to their farmyards, and then to the markets where the amount of grain spill provided enough fare. Then, they expanded their diet and became permanent (non-rent-paying) tenants with us. This went on until recently when, due to reasons still being argued over, they began to disappear.
The birds that are giving us a good dose of our own medicine are the blue rock pigeons. They breed, virally, like us. The males behave disgracefully most of the time — they bully and drive away smaller birds and set up home and make a stinking mess virtually everywhere. But then, can we really say that we didn’t deserve this?
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.

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