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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Why does the mongoose always beat the snake?

With its pugnacity and lightning-quick strikes, the mongoose has a formidable reputation as a hunter

Written by Ranjit Lal | September 20, 2020 6:47:13 am
ranjit lalFearless warriors: There’s no dearth of courage in the mongoose (Ranjit Lal)

I’ve never been a huge fan of the mongoose: there’s something about its in-your-face-protuberant eyes and sharp quivering snout that reminds me of someone sniffing for a scandal. Of course, this is hugely subjective. Mongooses took the centre stage in India with Kipling’s famous story ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ (The Jungle Book, 1894) where the hero was a mongoose and the villains, the cobras Nag and Nagaina. The mongoose has a legendary reputation as a cobra killer: decades ago when I was in school in Chennai, a snake catcher was summoned to catch a cobra that had been seen in the enormous, rambling playground. He turned up and produced a mongoose from his basket, and, sure enough, the animal flushed the snake out.

Mongooses evolved in Africa in two distinct groups (genera), one of which, including the meerkats, stayed on in Africa. The other went globetrotting – first to Spain, then South Asia, including India. There are six species found in India; four mainly stay in the forests of the Western Ghats, the other two – the Indian grey mongoose and the small Indian mongoose – have more or less spread everywhere and adapted their lifestyle to live alongside us, enjoying scrub jungles, fields, villages and even the desert.

At around 3 ft long, the Indian grey mongoose is the larger of the two and is the one to have made its name as a cobra killer. Its technique is simple: dart and feint at the snake at ninja speed, so that the latter is forced to strike repeatedly, until it is fagged out. Then, bite its head. Apart from cobras, it hunts rats, mice, ground-nesting birds, lizards, even hares and insects, while its smaller cousin goes for insects, fruits and tubers. It’s been believed that the mongoose is immune to cobra venom, but this is not exactly true. It does have some resistance to the venom, but it simply avoids being bitten with its ninja moves. Also, it frizzes up its fur stiffly, to become twice its size and makes it difficult for the snake’s strike to hit home. It’s a fearless hunter and attacker, plunging headlong at its victim and biting its head – no sly ambush from the rear here. Or, it will stalk its victim. and, when close enough, pounce. Or, it will follow its prey to its burrow and dig it out – for which its huge front claws are perfect. Let one loose in a hen-house and it will cause carnage, killing left, right and centre, far in excess of its needs – and, like a complete reprobate, guzzling up the blood.

The Indian grey mongoose is a salt-pepper shade of grey – each bristle having black and white bands: the ones found in the south are darker (with more prominent black bands) than the ones found in the north. The desert-dwelling ones are more russet. We, of course, are its most dangerous enemy – having discovered that its hair makes excellent paint and shaving brushes. Even though the mongoose is a protected species in India, huge amounts of mongoose hair are seized from time to time by the authorities. Farmers love the animal because it keeps both snakes and rats out of their fields and houses, especially during the monsoons, and, hence, it is a popular pet.

The small Indian mongoose is more olive brown than grey, and also quite happy around human surroundings. I think it is this species that I occasionally spotted on the Northern Ridge in Delhi, where I used to walk.

Both these species were introduced to the West Indies in the last century as well as the Pacific islands and to eastern Europe; in the Caribbean, they were chiefly supposed to eradicate rats from sugarcane fields. Some say they did their job well, others say they failed. But all agree they became a major threat because they decimated the native ground-nesting bird population, taking adults, chicks and eggs. They even hunted small native animals. They also made inroads into Texas where they are considered illegal immigrants. It really is so typical of us: we introduce an animal into a new environment where it is delighted with the menu on offer (which, we have not thought about) and goes berserk, partying, frolicking and having babies galore. Then we name it the villain of the piece and put a price on its head!

In general, mongooses have two to three litters a year, each litter having between two and five pups. They have their babies in burrows underground and it’s a single-parent household, with only the mom in charge.

Like ferrets and weasels, they seem to have a high-speed metabolism. We once watched three mongooses in the Okhla Bird Sanctuary shoot out of the undergrowth, chase and pounce on each other. I couldn’t tell whether these were just youngsters engaging in a tickling or play-fighting match, or adults indulging in an orgiastic ménage à trois: all you could see was a frantic, wriggling tangle of tails and legs. Honestly, they seemed to be making love and war at the same time!

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