With its beady eyes and pointed pinkish snout and sinuous wriggle, it has never been a favourite of mine in the charismatic countdown. (Perhaps, the most charming of the clan, and certainly celebrities with filmmakers, are Africa’s meerkats.) And yes, the plural of mongoose, is mongooses not mongeese! They have a USP, however, which has made them world famous: they’re fearless slayers of snakes, especially cobras, and if you see a mongoose in your garden, beware of serpents (though maybe for not very long). Decades ago in Madras, I remember the excitement when a snake charmer was summoned to school: a cobra had been sighted in the huge grounds. He let loose a mongoose (“find it, boy!”), and lo and behold, it had rooted out the snake in no time at all. The snake charmer coiled away the cobra and packed away his mongoose and fee, and only much later did I suspect that he had probably released the snake into the garden in the first place.
But yes, watching a mongoose and cobra together was considered top class entertainment, and it’s one of the few things that can make even the most avid serpent-hater feel for the reptile. In the face of those quicksilver darting attacks and feints, even a striking cobra has little chance. And while the mongoose does have a stronger resistance to snake venom than most other creatures, it is not completely immune and a good dose of venom will lay it low. The only saving grace about these “shows” was that the snake charmer (wonder how the word “charmer” came to be used for this fellow) would pick up the snake before the mongoose could really cut it up.
The mongooses come from a clan all of their own (the Herpestidae) and six species are found in India. They are fierce hunters, actively running down — or attacking — rats, snakes, scorpions, frogs, lizards, poultry and birds’ eggs (a great favourite), among other things. A running bite to the back of the neck or frontal assault is usually how they dispatch their prey. Excellent rat-catchers, they are a boon to farmers, though they can wreak havoc in a poultry yard or pigeon coop, slaughtering far in excess of what they consume, and allegedly ghoulishly guzzling the blood of their victims. They are said to make excellent pets (a neighbour — again in Madras all those years ago — had one), though frankly, I would much prefer taking a dog for a walk than a mongoose. It does have its uses if you share accommodation with a lot of rats and bandicoots.
Mongooses are found pretty much all over the country. The two most common species are the common mongoose and the small Indian mongoose. The former is tawny grayish brown, about three feet long (half of which is tail), the latter, about half that size, and olive-brown (rather similar to the colour of the rhesus macaque). They’re quite at home in large gardens, parks and woodlands in big cities. I have seen them in the garden and very frequently on the northern Ridge, and there was one memorable occasion where a threesome were having an absolutely scandalous and very frenetic orgy at the Okhla bird sanctuary — duly documented but, sorry, not shamed on Facebook or YouTube! They have no particular breeding season and a pair may produce five or six litters (of two or three babies) a year, with the father playing no role in rearing the young. There’s an energetic urgency about whatever they do; they scuttle and scamper, wriggle and slither, and are never lax and lazy in their movements. Whatever else you may think about them, these little guys have attitude!
They also, alas, have fine hair which, artists lust over because they make for such excellent paintbrushes. (Many are unaware of what happens to the poor mongoose in the process.) It’s a big business and mongooses have been mercilessly hunted down, trapped, stoned or beaten to death in their thousands for their hair. They say it takes 50 mongooses to produce 1 kg of paintbrush quality hair. The animals are now protected by the Wildlife (Protection) Act. Single seizures have been made pointing to the slaughter of 50,000 animals, which gives an indication of the extent of the problem. According to one report, the trade flourishes in Uttarakhand, UP, MP, Bihar, West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Chhattisgarh and the places that receive the goods include the Middle East, Europe and the United States.
A suspect paintbrush will have the following tell-tale qualities, so check yours out quickly:
The hairs will be stiff and stand straight up from the brush.
The brush will be shaded in gradations of grey, brown and dark brown:
The tips are dark brown with cream or grayish in the center and again, dark near the root.
The brush will paint beautifully especially all those fine details and clean easily. However, if you are an artist, fear not: there are synthetic substitutes in the market and “painting with blood” (as journalists love putting it) is not something you should be doing, or encouraging your kids to do.
What could be encouraged, however, is putting a mongoose down the trousers of those involved in this awful business.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher
The story appeared in print with the headline Not One More Hiss Out of You