You are what you eat, at least, that’s what we’ve always been told. Thus, if you’re carnivorous, you’re bloodthirsty, have huge ugly canines, are violent, aggressive and drool a lot, and spend your time looking for things to kill. If you’re vegetarian, you’re peace-loving, docile and have big innocent eyes and spend your hours languidly chewing cud and um…ruminating, or running away from things wanting to kill you. And this is why the crass rednecks of the Western world, and the Mongol hordes were able to invade our peaceful land and rule over our vegetarian flocks and win all the Olympic medals…chomp, chomp!
A look at the wild animal kingdom reveals a different picture. In Africa, the wildest of wild places, the single-most dangerous animal is not the lion or leopard or the sniveling hyena or crocodile or wild dog — it’s the hippo. Hippos kill more people every year than all the carnivores put together. They attack with misguided provocation — the big bulls ostensibly think you’ve made eyes at their babes and want to take over their harem, and the ladies think you have designs on their roly-poly barrage balloon offspring. Really, who would make eyes at a lady hippo (Gloria in Madagascar notwithstanding), or want to rough and tumble with 300 kg of frolicsome hippo baby? But if the river-master spots you, he will charge your boat or canoe, flip it over and chomp you into chunks with those dreadful teeth and then spit you out and leave you for the crocs to finish. Nice.
In India, the animal most feared in the jungles is again, not the tiger or leopard, but the elephant. Meet one of these reputedly peace-loving giants in the jungle and even the most seasoned forest guard will get tense. Meet a tiger, and at the most the big cat will make a rude face and rude noises and slink away, the leopard (even if you’re a dog or a child and it is hungry) won’t let you see it, even as it tracks every move you make.
But elephants? In India, they’ve killed over 1,000 people in the last three years. They’ll stomp over you, plunge their tusks into you (now you know what they’re really meant for — not gracing your drawing room mantelpiece certainly) and toss you like a scrunched up piece of wastepaper.
Take rhinos, both African and Indian. There’s something cute about them, what with their baby faces and rolling, sashaying gait, but they are as unpredictable and hot-tempered as they get. Perhaps, their poor eyesight makes them insecure, but they have exceptional senses of hearing and smell and can pinpoint your position pretty accurately. Their motto? When in doubt, charge! When not in doubt, charge! So you get to know, first hand, what that horn is really good for. And then, of course, there’s that other unpredictable and notoriously short-fused family of bovines: the wild buffalo. They’ll trample you to pulp or toss you like a rag doll for absolutely no reason. As peace-loving, cud-chewing vegetarians, these guys have some explaining to do.
Of course, there is an explanation for the green brigade’s extreme tetchiness. They’re getting fed up of their babies (and themselves) being on the menu of the carnivores and so take no chances at all. Attack is the best form of defence, especially if you tip the scales at five tons. When dealing with a species like ourselves, that’s a sensible policy to adopt — who else kills not necessarily to survive, but to nail their heads on walls and show them off as badges of courage?
Yet, man-eating animals, be they the big cats, crocs or sharks account for far fewer of us than the vegetarian clan. It seems we have very strong objections to being hunted down and eaten. I suppose that’s why we tolerate so many lakh of people being killed by cars every year.
And yet, that is one of nature’s cardinal rules: kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. So why should we object? If you’re eaten after being killed, at least you’re serving an ecological purpose and letting some other creature get its quota of calories, vitamins and protein. If you’re trampled to mush and just left to rot — well, that seems a bit of a waste of effort (and you’ll be spreading E.coli and whatnot as you dissolve). Sure, the keedas and jackals and vultures will party (if the carcass is not retrieved), but your ruminant killer will have expended all that energy for nothing really.
Besides, carnivores kill only enough for a meal — which may last it and its family for days. It will not usually — weasels and foxes in chicken coops are exceptions — kill indiscriminately. A buffalo or elephant on the rampage will kill as many as it possibly can and then pacifically munch banana leaves or bamboo.
The message emerging from all this mastication is clear: mess with the “pacific” ghass-phoos clan at your peril. Push their buttons just a little too much and be prepared to pay.
And that we’re already doing.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher