Friday, 29 July 2011

The fine line

Animal-human skirmishes are recurrent occurrences, typically at forest-settlement boundaries. Such examples abound in the forested, mountainous Western Ghats, where the humans have (legally and illegally) established their dwellings and agricultural fields virtually on the doorsteps of the forest inhabitants. Such conflict can be mainly classified into two:

-When humans encroach (mostly unlawfully) into their territories to collect firewood or forest products (including illegal felling of trees and hunting of deer and rabbits).

-When wild animals stray into the settlements and agricultural lands, usually during times of drought when the streams dry up. In the case of Ponmudi, the Kallar river becomes the focus of such skirmishes: the areas bordering the perennial (but relatively shallow) river continue to be fringed with foliage and both parties wage their battle over the resources. This is further aggravated by humans who illegally harvest wild grasses and reeds (Ochlandra travancorica) during the fair weather. This deficiency and destruction of habitat shifts the animal population towards the fertile agricultural lands with consequences such as attacks by gaurs (Bos gaurus), elephants harvesting plantain and coconut trees, wild boars utilising the cultivated tubers, and bears searching for anything edible. It is not uncommon for deer to end up in cooking pots, resulting in leopards retaliating by feasting on goats, calves, and dogs (!). Similarly, jackals target chickens and there are cases of attacks by tigers too.

In the case of urban wildlife, the boundaries become vaguer. Our family home is located in an area supposed to have been a forest around 150-200 years ago (presumably until a manor was constructed for the Chief Secretary of the government). Since then, it has been transformed into a sector of houses (both old and new), most having limited grounds (those which do have what is termed ‘well-maintained’ grounds, i.e. backyards devoid of trees).

In this instance, I cannot state that humans have ejected the resident wildlife out of their territories- such an event would have happened quite a while ago. The area is still frequented by numerous local and migratory bird species, including kingfishers (who were very fond of our outdoor fish ponds), crow pheasants, kites, kestrels, pigeons, cranes, and herons, as well as palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), mongoose (Herpestidae), squirrels, and bats (to name a few). But such peaceful coexistence is not the norm. A neighbour has made the full use of urban wildlife by laying traps for civet cats and mongoose, both of which end up either in his cooking pan or sold for high prices to vendors of quack medicines (civet cat meat is supposedly a cure for asthma).

Snakes tend to reach deplorable ends, regardless of their nature (poisonous or non-poisonous). Even the rat snake (considered to be auspicious) suffers a terrible plight due to mistaken identity. In our grounds, we’ve had kraits (Bungarus coeruleus) and vipers, apart from a regular ‘visitor’ of nearly four decades- a 6-foot hefty cobra (Naja naja). But recently, after being burdened by just too many reports of snakes nesting in an aged clump of golden palm trees in our front garden (next to our verandah), the parents uprooted the thicket and found, to their surprise, a huge nest of vipers. This brings one to the question- where does one draw the line?

Mongoose caught in the trap of our neighbour

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