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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Down in jungleland: Fullness of time

Humans can learn more about the virtues of slowing down in life from animals than from one another.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Updated: December 17, 2017 12:00:33 am
birds, animals, wild life, nature, birds flight, bird watching, indian express, indian express news Slow flight: A lot of birds choose to glide at ease, not fly in frenzy. (Source: Ranjit Lal)

In the animal kingdom, normally only the very young, the hunted or the hunting move at breakneck speed. Unlike most of us whose daily routine makes us run around like headless chickens as we rush from one futile appointment or meeting to another. And it’s time we put on the brakes and realised that all we’re really doing (as Bob Dylan once pointed out) is going “90 miles an hour down a dead end street”. One way to decompress is to watch animals.

Take elephants. Sedate and stately, they muse and sway under the trees and amble slowly but steadily from one location to another, snacking as they go. If spooked or angered, they can, of course, put on a surprising turn of speed — but that’s not the norm. You may argue, of course, that it’s difficult for something that weighs six tons to be zipping around like a hatchback. But many of us these days are approaching that weight and we haven’t slowed down one bit! The same holds true for hippos, gaur and rhinos: big beasts that never seem to be in a hurry.

As for the big cats — tigers, lions, leopards and even cheetahs — have you ever seen them in a headlong rush — except when they’re hunting and have just launched an attack? They stride across their domains calmly, their beautiful muscles rippling under their coats. They don’t rush around madly from one bush to another; they loll and laze.

Bears shamble about like 19th century naturalists out on a nature ramble — they’re too clumsy really to be in a hurry and, when panicked into fleeing, can only make you laugh (provided they’re not running towards you!)

It gets interesting, however, when we consider our closest relatives — the great apes and monkeys. Chimpanzees certainly seem to have inherited high-voltage paranoia from us (or is it the other way around?!) and do smash through the undergrowth, throwing temper tantrums every few minutes. It would be worthwhile monitoring their blood pressure and heart rate through a day, and then comparing it to ours. Macaques and baboons too live relatively high-tension lives — calm one moment, frenetic the next — just like us. But the two other big apes — the gorillas and orangutans, seem to be in no hurry at all to get things done quickly.

Orangutans are gloriously languorous in their movements as they climb trees and gorillas do not have to hurry or ‘take tension’ from anyone. Watch and learn! If left in peace, even animals that are normally on the menu of the carnivores will move around sedately, grazing, and do not gallop about madly without reason. Yes, they have to be more alert than the hunters and, once spooked, will flee and stampede with devastating consequences for anything in their path. But that’s not their normal pace of life. Even the sleek antelopes — the blackbuck and chinkara — will only put on explosive bursts of speed when they sense danger.

Birds provide interesting contrasts. Most small and medium sized birds fly pretty rapidly, and the little ones especially zip around rather like us in our hot hatches — as if they’re perpetually running late. Skeins of rosy pastors, for example, will swirl across the sky like plumes of smoke as they speed past, swerving in unison. But the big guns — pelicans, herons, vultures, eagles and kites — just soar lazily high up in the heavens, keeping their glittering eyes peeled. They’re in complete control and even the odd buffet of wind is smoothened out, with a derisive flick of a wingtip. If you need to calm down, watch them.

It seems to be much the same in the water. Crocodiles will slip noiselessly into the water and drift nonchalantly towards you with no sign of any haste, just deadly intent! In the oceans, sharks and orcas never look like they’re in a hurry. Jellyfish drift like diaphanous balloons and crabs trundle sideways on the seabed. Even the fish in your aquarium, for the most part, will drift placidly up and down their tank, only putting on spurts of speed if panicked.

There are smaller animals, especially rodents, that live their lives rather like us — in a blur of movement. Shrews zip around at top speed, and rats will scuttle across rooms, though, given a safe environment, they will slow down and nibble your toes in laid-back style. Snakes, too (except when they’re chasing rats), slither calmly through the undergrowth and the chameleon is, of course, the slow-motion maestro until it flicks its tongue out. And snails, tortoises and the slow loris are legendary for their lack of speed or urgency.

The whirring universe of creepy-crawlies may seem different. But here, too, there are the laid-backs. For example, giant rhinoceros beetles lumbering around and that all-time favourite — the dung-beetle. As you watch it painstakingly pushing its ball of dung, you feel your impatience rise. Eventually, he pauses, takes a breather and waves his pincers at you. The message is clear. “Chill dude! It will be done — in the fullness of time!”

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.

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