I know they’re there, biding their time. Probably huddled in clumps inside the hollow trunks of trees (where I’ve seen them crowding around). They can seal themselves up retaining the moisture inside their bodies for three years, so one dud monsoon is nothing to them. (It’s called aestivation — surely a form of yoga.) But yes, let it thunder and let it rain and they’ll be out in droves, indulging in orgies in public places.
I first noticed them several years ago and boy, have I dug up the dirt on them since: Giant African land snails that have spread to every continent in the world except Antarctica. Way back in 1847, a Brit let loose the first pair in Chowringhee in Calcutta. They took their time but have now taken over Delhi’s historic Ridge — where I walk most evenings — and have spread havoc across many other parts of the country. On the Ridge, there must be thousands. They’re big guys, and can grow up to 8 inches long and move ponderously on their own slime. Their conical shells are maroon-brown with broad stripes and everything else glistens with mucous. They’re amongst the top 100 invasive pest species in the world and have an eclectic and voracious appetite that includes 500 varieties of plants, concrete (for the calcium they require for their shells) and even each other.
And what a hectic sex life they lead! They’re hermaphrodites — both male and female — so when a pair of them meet as the thunder rumbles, the male half of one mates with the female half of the other and vice versa. (Try teaching sex education to these guys).
Actually, on several occasions, I have seen three or four of them jammed together in a squishy, glutinous mess. God knows what kind of orgy and soap opera was going on — and the silly chowkidars can only harass poor college kids daring to hold hands. In the course of its five-year life, each one may lay around 1,000 eggs. They can distribute a nasty form of meningitis, if infected specimens are handled or eaten undercooked and no other creature finds them appetising — certainly not here on the Ridge. (They were considered a good source of protein in their home continent and for army troops). Even my last dog, backed away, sneezing in disgust when he sniffed at them. In some parts of the country, they’re considered sacred, and farmers in those regions swear they’re harmless. Alas, the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary. In the West, they’re kept as pets, (“Have your spinach, Speedy…good boy! good gurrrl!”) — though it’s illegal to do so.
So, you may ask, why am I dissing them like this? Considering that in one earlier piece I had defended the rights of “illegal” immigrant species on the grounds of survival of the fittest and because in the ultimate analysis we’re all immigrants, blah blah?
Well, I was going through a list of the plants these guys have an appetite for and that includes, bhindi, (okra), bananas, brinjal and papaya — all of which I have growing in the garden. And no darned, snot-covered snail is going to get between me and my veggies!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher
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