Down in jungleland: In the line of fire

Surviving encounters in the wild, and in cities.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Published:March 13, 2016 1:30 am

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I’ve often wondered whether wildlifers gather around the bonfire at night and swap yarns about all the close calls they’ve had in their careers. God knows there are entire TV shows dedicated to the subject. Just for the record, I too have been subject to ferocious, unprovoked attacks by furious members of the animal kingdom and have been lucky to emerge (almost) unscathed.

One of the scariest was the repeated attempts of a black kite to rip my face off and gouge my eyes out with its talons. This was way back, when I lived in Bombay (as it was then). The bird had a nest in a peepul tree outside the verandah and once the eggs hatched, standing in the verandah became a very dangerous thing to do. The kite mom would slip off the nest, disappear around the side of the building, gain height, then swoop down, eyes blazing, claws extended, beak agape, and murder in her heart. The verandah overhang prevented any actual physical contact. All this while, in the nest, hideous siblicide (and maybe cannibalism) was taking place: the eldest chick was happily murdering its younger sibling by pecking it to pieces. The parent kites just ignored the runt and let their ladla go ahead with the carnage. Some parents, I tell you! Once the chick flew, the parents reverted to normal behaviour and would only show interest in you if you walked around waving a sandwich or samosa in your hand.

Then there was the time when I was charged at by a dragonfly at the Sultanpur bird sanctuary in Haryana. Dragonflies are ferocious carnivorous aerial attackers who pounce on their victims in mid-air and rip them to shreds, so they are not to be trifled with. I was happily birding in a grassy patch when I suddenly became aware of this great blue-grey dragonfly flying straight at me. It braked and hovered just in front of me, its huge bulbous eyes twitching (They’ve got something like 32,000 individual lenses, so you can’t possibly hide from them). Then it turned around and flew off some distance before flying straight back at me full pelt. This manoeuver was repeated several times. The message was clear: it deemed I had infringed its airspace and if I didn’t move away, it would not be responsible for the consequences. I did wonder what those would be — in eras gone by, when dragonflies were giants, you could, perhaps, think they might scoop you up in that barbed basket formed by their legs and chomp off your head in mid-flight as they do to their victims. Given the current size mismatch and the lack of hellfire missiles in its arsenal, one has to say the fellow had guts.

Which brings me to the case of the nilgai who thought I was making eyes at its harem. Again this was at Sultanpur around dusk, many winters ago. I was watching waterfowl on the lake when I suddenly heard an angry grunt emerge from the gloom. Ahead of me was a small herd of sloe-eyed golden nilgai does, grazing peacefully in the water, which, at first, I hadn’t even noticed as I was watching the ducks doing their happy bottoms up tail-wag rotation. The grunting appeared to come from behind me. I turned around and in the gathering dusk, I could make out the looming bulk of a nilgai bull, eyeing me with undisguised suspicion. What the heck was his problem, I wondered. The penny (thankfully) dropped soon. The bull was getting just a little shirty now, stomping his feet in the shallow water and nodding his head. I had seen nilgai bulls fight before and had no intention of becoming a combatant with this fellow, nor was I interested in his does. So I backed off and watched as he galumphed his way to his harem and herded them off.

If you’ve survived an attack by a big cat that’s really saying something, but if you’ve survived an attack by a small and very rabid cat, that’s equally something. Out on Delhi’s Ridge for an evening walk with the dog we then had, we found that we were being stalked by a cat. It slunk alongside us in the undergrowth, its eyes riveted on us, for a good 500 m or so. No normal cat behaves like that, so feeling uneasy, we speeded up. Suddenly, my father yelled. The cat had sprung at him, claws extended. My father fended it off with his stick and the creature went for the dog. Chops, being a true boxer, happily biffed out at it with his paws. Eventually, the cat was driven off, but it had drawn blood from both my father and Chops. We drove straight to the vet and then to a doctor. I felt terribly sorry for the cat: it had been indoctrinated by the ghastly rabies virus to bite and scratch so the virus could be passed on to the victim and survive, even while the host died a horrible death.

Finally, to the wild animal that nailed me. I was at a zebra crossing in Connaught Place, waiting for an autorickshaw to pass. I stepped out and wham! A manic motorbike careened straight into me, sending me flying. No bones broken, but for the next fortnight, I could only sleep standing up. And even now, years later, when I’m out on the streets, I keep a keen eye out, for you never know when and from where animals can attack!

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher

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