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Friday, December 13, 2019

Hop, Skip and Jump

Of hares and cavorting bunnies.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Published: November 10, 2019 7:16:49 am
Hares and their close cousins, the rabbits seem to have bipolar personalities.

Anyone who has driven down a forested track late in the evening, or, at night, might have picked one up in their headlamps: a bunny crouched by the side of the road eyeing the vehicle nervously before lollopping off into the undergrowth. The black-naped hare, our only common wild rabbit, can be found pretty much all over the country, preferring large tracts of bush and jungle, “thatch” or elephant grass, and hilly areas with depressions (where, presumably, it can crouch down and hide from predators.) I was, therefore, particularly delighted when, several years ago, I winkled them out on a few occasions on the wild, dry, scrubby flank of the Northern Ridge in Delhi — not five minutes from where I live.

They’re stubby little animals, with long ears (beautifully refulgent in the setting sun) and a brown coat (mixed with black) and actually do have a black patch on the nape of their necks, that gives them their name. Their tails, too, are black-tipped. Their under-parts are white and real heavies can tip the scales at 7 kg, though 1.3 kg is more par for the course. Their hindlegs are large and powerful.

Hares and their close cousins, the rabbits seem to have bipolar personalities: On the one hand, they seem timid little creatures, just waiting to get away from you and possessing all the personality of a cabbage. On the other hand, when the mating madness strikes them they can turn into lusty dudes, cavorting in the fields and kick-boxing each other rather in the manner of riled up kangaroos. The gents are fiercely territorial and may rule over an area extending to 1,000 sq m. They breed in the rains, with the females giving birth to as many as eight babies (called leverets) at a time, in a hollow in the ground called a “form”. Baby hares are born with their eyes open and are not helpless and blind like their newborn rabbit relatives.

They are, of course, vegetarian — many farmers would think to a fault — as they nibble at their produce in the fields, damaging trees and crops. Anyone with a farm has, I would guess, at some time or other had their cabbage or lettuce patch devastated by these guys. They come out early in the morning or late in the evening, lying low during the day. In turn, they are hunted down by us, raptors, foxes, wolves and dogs. I was told a wonderful story by a family friend about a couple of German Shepherds they kept at a farm in Haridwar.

The whole place was radically and strictly vegetarian, and so were the dogs meant to be. The lady was worried that this would upset the dogs, but found they seemed completely happy with their “sinless” diet. It was then discovered that the pair were getting their protein supplements by joyfully hunting rabbits in the fields around the farm, and so, were not at all fazed by whatever vegetarian fare they were being legally served!

Rabbits and hares are often uncharitably called dumb, but maybe they’re not as dumb as we think. Wind farms have been roundly and rightly cursed by conservationists, for all the birds (including the about-to-be extinct Great Indian bustard) their huge propellers kill and the noise they produce. A study seems to have found that black-naped hares actually prefer living on wind farms. One can only presume that is because they have realised that their predators would keep away from these areas.

The black-naped hare seems to be doing okay for itself and is not on any endangered species list as yet. This reminds me of that old joke:
Q: Why do rabbits have more fun than people?
A: Because there are more rabbits than people.
Q: Why are there more rabbits than people?
A: Because rabbits have more fun than people.

Alas, this can’t apply to our own little hispid hare (which, is smaller than the black-naped) that is found only in the tall grass savannah patches of Assam. Over the years, the habitat of this brown, bristly little hare has shrunk drastically, thanks to agriculture and the practice of setting fire to the grass. One dismal estimate, dating back to 2001, says there are, perhaps, just 110 animals left in the wild, and, unlike other rabbits and hares, they do not fare well in captive breeding programmes. They are certainly among the rarest animals in the world.

Hares and rabbits have featured in fiction across the world through centuries: from mad March hares and white rabbits in Alice in Wonderland, the ever-grinning Bugs Bunny and Peter Rabbit to the formidable General Woundwort in Richard Adam’s classic Watership Down. They have also featured (horrifyingly, some would say) in any number of recipe books, though I must hastily admit I’ve never attempted to make a rabbit stew or jugged a hare myself. Well, not as yet!

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher

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