Most of us who go for trips to national parks or wildlife sanctuaries, whether in India or abroad, feel cheated if we don’t see the “big five”, so to speak. Some of us even throw unseemly tantrums which any chimpanzee or badly-brought-up macaque would do when, say, deprived of a banana. The biggies on our list usually include the lion or tiger or leopard, buffalo or bison, elephant, rhino, crocodile, hippo, giraffe and any other that may be our favourite. In the process we forget the vast army of tiny tots that are always hard at work keeping these magnum stars in top condition: ensuring that they’re healthy and their coats are as glossy as the tresses of a shampoo model. Some go beyond the call of duty and ensure the very survival of the big guys.
The big browsers — deer, rhino, hippo, buffalo and elephant — all have a retinue of small birds fluttering around them, hopping on to their backs, even delicately investigating the insides of their flapping ears, deftly removing ticks and other parasites. In Africa, oxpeckers do the job and, in India, mynahs, drongoes and egrets intrepidly ride bareback on rhinos and water buffalo. There’s a bonus here for them: apart from the parasites on the big animal’s hide, there are the insects the animal disturbs in the grass as it moves on, which the birds snap up.
But there’s an even tinier creature these giants are beholden to: the ever-toiling dung-beetle, which I have to confess is a personal favourite. Animals like elephants and rhino produce vast quantities of dung every day, containing large proportions of undigested food. If left to rot, it would really cause a stink in more ways than one — for example, by encouraging flies which would spread disease. The dung-beetle (of which, there are many species) uses his shovel-shaped pincers to roll a ball of dung (some bury it where they find it, others simply live in it), and then buries it in a hole. Madam dung-beetle lays her eggs in it, so that it can be consumed by her babies. In doing so, the nutrients are recycled and the soil rejuvenated. That apart, undigested seeds in the dung are distributed all around — and in the rich, fecund soil, they can sprout far away from their parent plant. Basically, the little beetles are into afforestation — which is good news for the big guys, right from the buffalo to the lion. It has been reported that when cattle were introduced to Australia, the local dung-beetles were unable to process their dung. This was a potentially disastrous situation, with cattle-ranches being left knee-deep in dung. They had to import dung-beetles from other countries which were accustomed to processing cattle dung to do the clean-up.
Crocodiles too have outsourced their dental hygiene. Nifty little Egyptian plovers hop in and out of the gaping mouths of Nile crocodiles to pick up bits of food stuck between the teeth. The crocs get sparkling teeth, the plovers a protein-rich diet. There’s another intrepid bird, the dikkop, which even nests cheek-by-jowl with a croc. This little bird will, with outspread wings, shepherd the mama croc (like a traffic cop) to her own nest if the reptile mistakenly comes too close to the bird’s own nest — and the croc obeys its directions. And when the mama-croc is out hunting, the bird keeps a watch over both their nests — if a predator, like for example a monitor lizard shows up, the bird alerts the mama-croc till she is out of the water.
Sharks, whales, dolphins and numerous other fish, all have teams of brightly coloured cleaner fish (like wrasse) which either swim with them or position themselves at cleaning stations spas where they ensure their clientele are left with shiny, smooth skin and gills, ridding them of parasites and dead skin. Some of these cleaner fish also nibble at their clients’ tissues and mucous (which are very nutritious) but must be careful not to let greed get the better of them and upset their august clientele.
But one of the tiniest guys in the business should have the right to toot the loudest horn of them all. Banyan trees, as we all know, are the lords of the jungle upon whom the survival of the whole forest depends. But this giant, in turn, is dependent on a little black fig wasp to pollinate it. The banyan tree is a member of the huge ficus khaandaan which has around 1,000 members. And get this, each ficus species has its own specific designer species of wasp to pollinate. If anything happens to that little wasp, the end will be nigh for the great banyan — and the future of the entire forest would look bleak. So, if there is any creature that deserves 24×7 SPG cover, it has to be the little fig wasp!