We often bemoan the fact that we — city dwellers — are getting increasingly divorced from nature and this cannot be a good thing for our children or the future. We live sterilised lives in steel-and-glass skyscrapers or concrete bunkers (called housing estates) and our children grow up believing that milk comes from cartons and grass is made of plastic. Happily, the creatures of the wild have not completely given up on us, though, of course, a vast majority of them would hope that we pick up tips from the Bishnois of the Thar while dealing with them.
In many a case, the denizens of the wild have no choice but to put up with us because we have bulldozed ourselves into their lives like interfering mothers-in-law and made them adapt to our self-centred ways. Still, some of these denizens have got the better of us. Take monkeys — the two macaque species — the rhesus and bonnet — and the langur which have happily adapted to living in cities like Delhi, Jaipur and Chennai. Thanks to their connections with the big gun up there (“Do you know who I represent?”), they are usually unmolested and thrown papaya and parantha parties ever so often. For anything else, they simply snatch, spill, destroy and bite. Nor do they need Aadhaar cards for these activities, which, I think, should be made mandatory for them.
Most species of wild animals that city dwellers encounter have, alas, been forced to accept our presence. The leopards of Mumbai’s Borivali National Park have been hemmed in by the city’s bright lights, and, by default, discovered an all-you-can-eat-buffet of stray dogs, pigs and goats, and sadly, and mostly by mistake, the occasional child or woman living at the edges of the park. Their normal prey — deer — have dwindled. Up north, leopards are being forced to settle in the suburbs of Gurgaon as their natural habitats are encroached upon and the Aravallis ravaged, and they’ve been welcomed with sticks, stones and ugly lynchings.
In the north-east and south, herds of wild elephants, too, have had their forests destroyed or migratory corridors turned into broad-gauge railway tracks. They have sought shelter in tea gardens and coffee estates — again causing death and trauma to both themselves and us. Again, no prizes for guessing who the aggressor is. But then, when the elephants also discover granaries and country liquor bars in places where forests or grasslands used to be, they are not going to complain and god help you if you say they can’t have one for the road.
So, while, big wild animals have often been forced to share their lives with us, relations are tenuous. It will take a conscious effort on our part to adopt an empathetic attitude towards them. It’s easier to do so with birds. Black and brown-headed gulls, for example, flock to lakes, jheels, rivers, nallahs, tanks, coasts and talaos all over India during the winters, having flown down from the Himalayas where they breed. Both Mumbai and Delhi play host to blizzards of these birds. In both cities, they’re regularly fed by locals, even if it is with popcorn or namkeen. The wonderful story of the migratory demoiselle cranes of Khichan in Rajasthan is well-documented and shows that even feeding pigeons can lead to a happy outcome. (The gentleman, who set the ball rolling, fed pigeons, until a few demoiselle cranes discovered the handouts and spread the word. Soon, something like 15,000 cranes began turning up for the party that rocks from November to March!).
On a recent visit to Sukhna Lake, Chandigarh, I was delighted to see a flock of about 20-odd common pochards swimming right up to the bank, oblivious to paddle boats and crowds on the promenade. These are migratory wild ducks and the one thing they are paranoid of is men with guns. But once you win their trust, they will swim up to you unhesitatingly. That’s what we need to do: Win their confidence and they will surprise us by letting us share a little bit of their lives. Sure, this doesn’t mean that you open a bar for visiting pachyderms, or, a hamburger joint for leopards! If you’d rather avoid their company, don’t encroach on their territory in the first place.
Common amongst other wild creatures that people, especially in rural areas, must contend with are snakes. Again, leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone, but that’s often difficult when there are barefeet children running around. Happily, snakes normally do not want to share living space with us. If they do turn up at your place it usually means that you have been entertaining other less desirable house (and kitchen) guests: Rats!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.