It’s mind-boggling, the number of denizens that lay claim to their right to private property and are ready to fight to the death for it. Behind this is the simple desire to give their babies a headstart in life, offering them only the very best and full SPG protection.
I’ve watched party-frocked butterflies fiercely drive each other away from a lantana patch, and I was once challenged by a dragonfly into whose hunting air space I had inadvertently encroached. Ants will defend their colonies (and queen) to the death — and even raid other colonies, killing adults and abducting larvae, which are then raised as slaves. Higher up the food chain I have watched the friendly, smiling gecko wriggle fearlessly at an intruder while claiming rights to a huge expanse of drawing room wall. Trespass on a crocodile’s neck of the swamp and be prepared to be charged by a roaring monster galloping towards you at 30 mph.
Birds are no less. As the breeding season approaches, the gents will don finery, choose a hugely exposed perch and sing or dance — hoping to make the ladies swoon and other gents cower. Birds, like the ruff, gather in flocks and fiercely defend their “leks”, tiny pieces of land, which each one claims and from which they hope to show off to the ladies. Go anywhere near where a lapwing has put down its eggs, and you’ll be subject to a dive-bombing attack, accompanied by hysterical accusations, “Did-ye-do-it, did-ye-do it?”, till you flee, embarrassed. Raptors that think you have inimical designs on their young will launch kamikaze-like dives at you.
There are some birds which use cunning to keep away rivals. A magpie robin that I met in Goa, pretended to be three different males by singing three different songs from three different perches within the same area to discourage any outsiders.
The “gentle” vegetarians are no less, nor are the harem keepers (sometimes they are both). Hippos are fanatical when it comes to guarding their territory — if a master bull suspects (which is usually always) that you’ve been making eyes at his voluptuous, sashaying ladies, he will charge and bite you without hesitation. Beach-master walruses and sea lions exhaust themselves beating away rivals from their territories and their girls. Some of the hooved clan — wildebeest, for example — do not declare territories because they’re mostly nomadic, but when it’s time to woo the ladies, the gents will demarcate small temporary territories from which they dare their rivals to intrude.
Once, out on the Ridge in Delhi, I was brought to a halt as a battalion of rhesus macaque suddenly exploded out of the bush, screaming blue murder and ripped into another group. The second group was routed, and fled screeching onto Rajpur Road, while the “defenders” grunted, bared their canines and sat back on their padded haunches. Caught in the crossfire, I did not move a muscle until the dust had properly settled. So it was good to learn that gorillas are not particularly territory-obsessed; while the silverback will defend his ladies and his babies to the death, they are free to wander around and mingle with other groups and families.
The large carnivores — tigers and lions et al — are famously territorial. They’ll stake out large areas as their own, and will patrol it rigorously. Only visits from members of the opposite sex (especially if wearing perfume) are tolerated, even welcomed. But two gents or two ladies will fight each other to the gory end if one intrudes on another’s area.
Carnivore moms are renowned for the protection of their family — and adapt different strategies. A tiger-mom-to-be, will scope out several dens and move her babies from one to another if she suspects the current one has been compromised. Some spider moms fiercely guard their silken nest cocoons, even dragging them out of harm’s way, if needed. Elephant moms will form a fortress around their babies and defy all comers. Lionesses often leave the pride and go into deep bush, when they’re about to have their cubs, and only bring their babies out to meet the family once they think they’re old and strong enough. Sometimes, the ladies will gang up against a rogue male which may have driven away the old geezer that had so far been their protector, because they know the usurper would kill their babies so that he can make his own with them.
And, as for us, when it comes to property and territory, as the late Begum of Awadh tacked up outside her “palace”, the Malcha Mahal on the Delhi Ridge: ‘Intruders shall be gundown!’
(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)