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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Fair Game

In the wild, the hunt is always on

Written by Ranjit Lal | November 1, 2020 6:20:44 am
ranjit lal, predators, wildlife, tribal communities, indianexpress, sundayeye, eye 2020, ranjit lal column,Peek-a-boo: Animals only hunt out of necessity (Source: Ranjit Lal)

To some extent, we all have the hunting instinct, or we wouldn’t have survived. The best natural hunters are, of course, the carnivores: the big cats and canids, and even omnivores, like bears. But size doesn’t matter: have you ever watched a praying mantis lie in ambush on a leaf, then lunge out with its gin-trap arms and lop off its prey’s head and eat it as if it were enjoying a bhutta? The ladies do that to their husbands, too. Diabolical wasps seek out spiders or caterpillars, paralyse them and then lay an egg on them so that the baby has fresh meat on tap when it’s born!

Some animals, like tigers, hunt alone. They stalk their prey, crouch and leap, either biting through the spinal cord or suffocating the victim. Others, like lions, wolves and wild dogs, hunt in packs, where each member has a specific role and a trap is set. These guys have a better kill rate than the loners. Actually, most hunts do not end in success for the hunter — there’s always more than a fair chance for the prey to escape (and be hunted on another day!), either thanks to fleetness of foot, or because they have their own defensive strategies like safety in numbers. Most predators will avoid tangling with heavyweights armed with massive sweeping horns and very short tempers: they can’t risk getting injured, because in the wild that is, inevitably, a death sentence.

Each creature has its own technique: raptors such as eagles and falcons swoop down like fighter bombers and make off with their prey in their iron talons. Birds on a high-protein insect diet will winkle out grubs from under leaves or dig them out from the ground. Gannets and kingfishers spear-dive, herons spear-fish, and, in the deep blue, some fish bury themselves in the muddy depths or conceal themselves in waving fronds of kelp, waiting in ambush. Sharks pick up minute electrical signals and home in and the gigantic whales — eating, perhaps, the smallest of prey — simply open wide and swallow entire colonies in one gulp.

Every trick in the book is used: whether it is lying in wait, camouflaged like a commando, to ambush, a cunning trap, a stalk-and-leap operation, or just an all-out high-speed chase.

And, in a sense, even the herbivores “hunt”. They have it relatively easy, because, usually, their prey can’t run or hide. But, yes, elephants will push over entire trees just to get a measly mouthful of the fresh tender leaves growing at the top, or strip the bark off a tree, causing it to die. Herbivores can mow through savannah landscapes leaving bare soil behind, again looking for the most tender young leaves. Vegetarian and omnivorous insects like locusts ravage entire landscapes in minutes.

Most predators are well-equipped for the job: with razor sharp teeth, grappling iron talons, sheer strength and speed, excellent sight, hearing and smell, and even venom. Even so, their prey, equally well-equipped with sight, smell and hearing and a sixth sense danger-detection ability (not to mention alarm system), always have a 50-50 chance of getting away. There is nothing malicious about the hunt, even if it looks horribly cruel (like wild dogs disemboweling a wildebeest and eating it alive). Every predator in the animal kingdom only hunts to survive: they’re not stupid enough to risk their lives to hunt for “pleasure”. Yes, they might fight each other to the death for territory or mating rights, and will defend their young ferociously, but they would rather avoid trouble than seek it out.

That has been left to us. Yes, tribal communities and indigenous people did hunt to feed themselves and their clans. The rest of us, led by the animal-loving white man, felt deprived. And, so, we went out hunting, for “pleasure” and “sport”. There is a thrill in stalking your prey and scoring a hit, but we have ensured that the odds are stacked nearly 100 per cent in our favour. Unlike tribal hunters, we don’t get up close and attack with spears and machetes — or even bows and arrows. That would be so cruel and you could so easily be disemboweled. So, we use rifles — from, say, a kilometre away. The white man, and our own maharajas sat in the safety of an elephant’s howdah, had their victims driven towards them and then opened up. Then, of course, the triumphant photo of the intrepid hunter with a foot on the victim and a smirk on his face followed. The animal’s head would be mounted on the walls, or its whole body beautifully stuffed in a ferocious posture. It couldn’t get worse, you’d think, but it has. Canned hunting ensures you get your “trophy” under controlled conditions. The “prey” is let loose in an enclosure, maybe sedated; you sit in your SUV and take it down with a high-powered rifle. What a marvelous testimony to courage!

Many years ago, I shot and injured a garden lizard with an air-gun. When I went to deliver the coup de grâce, the air-gun jammed, leaving me feeling horrible. Having made its point, the lizard gracefully died, ensuring I would never point a gun at any living creature again.

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