It was a crisp January morning in 2017 in Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary. My family and I drove slowly by, soaking in the beauty of the forest. Amidst the the canopies bustling with bird activity, we got glimpses of Malabar pied hornbills, crested serpent eagle and racket tailed drongo amongst other birds. Giant wood spiders sat motionless, squarely in the middle of their large, intricate webs that were suspended off trees along the road. We heard the asyncronous symphony of barbets in the distance, while rays of sunshine streamed in through the thick canopy. Dandeli is a stunning mixture of dense deciduous forest interspersed with bamboo and ancient teak plantations. We were traversing through a relatively undisturbed patch of forest, teeming with a myriad of life forms.
As we trundled along the path, we chanced upon an unsuspecting Indian fox trotting through the shrubs by the side of the road. Fascinated, we watched it do this for a few minutes before we drove past the little canid and went our way. The fox seemed rather unperturbed by the vehicle and moved at a pace that almost made it seem like it had some urgent task to tend to!
The Indian fox is found across large parts of India. In fact, it is among the most widespread carnivore species in India. Most field guides suggest that Indian foxes are mainly found in open dry habitats such as grasslands and scrublands. They are also found in agricultural fields, having adapted to a diet predominantly composed of rodents. I had no idea at the time of my sighting that it was in an atypical habitat for Indian fox. It was only while reporting the sighting on Wild Canids–India Project that it came as a pleasant surprise. This sighting of the fox is one that is clearly etched in my mind, and it is all the more fascinating to realize that the one stray incident offered some new learnings, nearly two years later.
An ordinary agricultural landscape in the arid peninsular India and there is nothing much one notices apart from people, farmlands and livestock. Only with a closer look do you realize that there are hidden elements here, and the most enigmatic of these is the Indian grey wolf. It doesn’t have a spine-chilling growl or stripes and rosettes or even the ability to take down very large prey. But you may be just a few metres away and it knows how to disappear into the agricultural fields and you would never know. It would be panning the landscape from an elevated mound or moving across some rare patches of grasslands, but so well-blended that you may never get to see it. Wolves have the ability to appear and disappear at unexpected times and this is what makes them magical. They are not like the European or North American ones – grey, furry and large. They are some shade of taupe, just about mildly furry and rather lanky. They are social animals, i.e. they live in packs and generally one pair amongst them gives birth to a litter of pups during the colder months. All members of the pack help in raising the litter, and the pups start moving with the pack after they are above 7 to 8 months old. While they are known to prey on antelopes and livestock, they don’t mind some vegetables once in a while. None of us know how many wolves currently roam peninsular India and what the future holds for this extraordinary animal.
There are some special people in the arid areas of peninsular India who know these lands and the wolves very closely: the nomadic pastoralists. These groups move from one harvested field to the other, tracking fodder and water. One might chance upon them herding thousands of sheep along the roadside, carrying their entire household on horseback, and collared dogs moving amidst them. They can be distinguished from local pastoral groups by the womenfolk who move along with the horses and young children, and men herding livestock wearing brightly coloured turbans and gold in their ears. Wolves often take their livestock. But there is something unique about their relations with them, evident from some cultural narratives that one gets to hear. Some say that wolves are brothers and some say they are maternal uncles (Sodara mava in Kannada). As a family member, the wolf deserves a small share of the livestock. The story goes that wolves bless livestock through the occasional visits and the herd prospers if wolves take livestock on certain instances. So has the need for taking livestock recognized and valued by the people? And does this foster acceptance in these landscapes? At least the next time we hear stories about ‘the big bad wolf’, ‘the cunning wolf’ or ‘the wolf in sheep’s clothing’, we might remember this story from the heart of the Deccan peninsula. It reminds us that there are such beautiful, positive relationships between humans and wildlife, right here in India.
Malaika Mathew Chawla
My college friends and I were in Deussua, South Goa. Our field station was a cattle shed. The sky got lilac and then grey, full of birds and then bats. Grazing cows were heading back into their sheds and the poder (bread maker) with his horn entered the village on his bicycle. At sharp seven, the church bell rings. Almost immediately, the entire village erupts with sharp, piercing cries. The jackals have arrived. Just in that moment, every other being and sound become insignificant. Bhagrati bhaiya, a migrant worker employed at the cattle shed, remained cool and said in matter-of-fact manner: “Sham ke chaar baje, kutton ke jaise idhar udhar ghoomenge aur phir raat ko bahut awaaz karenge” (At 4 in the evening, they will roam around like dogs and then they make a lot of noise at night).
The golden jackal Canis aureus is found in many semi-rural landscapes of Goa. So much so that it finds a place in folksongs– mando and dulpod– and folktales. Children grow up listening to stories of kolo mama (Uncle Jackal) and kolo mami (Aunty Jackal). In one such story, the jackal climbs up the jamun tree to feed on ripened berries. The neighborhood children call out, “Kolo mama, kolo mama! Amkai thodi jamblam udoi re” (Uncle Jackal, please throw down some berries for us!). Instead, kolo mama has a good meal of the jamun and throws the seeds at the children. Other than sighting them, there is also hope and excitement with finding jackal scat. We learnt that the jackals fancied the same berries as we did– Syzigium caryophyllatum or ‘bhedsa’ in Konkani. I also recall being warned by neighbours about ‘foxes’ in the village. In Konkani, ‘kolo’– the term meant for jackals– is wrongly translated into English as fox.
Queries about jackals elicited a range of responses from residents of the village. Some were indifferent, some nostalgic, while some shared fascinating stories. One story, retold with relish, was that of a man who was circled by jackals in a field. Apparently, in an act of self-defense, he takes out his violin and plays a tune. Listening to this, the jackals take flight. Another story brought deep-searing pain, of a jackal pup, separated from his mother and sold, in the guise of a German shepherd dog. Day after day in our cattle shed “field station” we dreamt with open eyes. Of jackal packs with their pups, munching on jamun and living free. Not just in a village in Goa, but wherever they choose to be.
It was a chilly December morning in Buxa. Accompanied by Sitaram, my field assistant, we went to observe the Great hornbills at their roost site. We reached there before sunrise, and were waiting at a watchtower which was adjacent to the cliff where hornbills roost. While we sat there waiting for the sunrise, we could hear the calls of different birds. It was like an orchestral performance. Just when there was a hint of light pouring in down on the forest floor, tearing apart the dense canopy, we could see some movement in the undergrowth just opposite the watchtower. We were exhilarated to see a pack of dholes emerging out of the undergrowth and coming down to the waterhole in front of the watchtower. In the meantime, a wild boar had also arrived at the same place from a different direction. Seeing the pack, it bolted away! Interestingly till this time, they hadn’t noticed us.
The dholes went out around the waterhole, making sure nothing else was present near them. They looked at us for a few moments, then looked at each other, and decided to take a bath on that chilly winter morning! While they bathed and drank water one of them was keeping an eye on us. We sat perfectly still except for my finger which moved to click the shutter of my camera. Once they were done, they went into the undergrowth and sat consecutively like the formation of a railway coach, one beside the other, looking straight up at us. With all ten eyes gleaming at us, all I could think now was about those “shy” canids, and unaware of my surroundings. Almost 10–15 minutes passed with them staring at us. What they did after that was amazing. The one sitting the farthest from us disappeared into the dense vegetation inside, then another one and followed by the other two. But still, one individual was sitting there and looking up at us. Soon after, we heard the whistling sound of those individuals. We thought this to be the signal for the sentinel to join them, and leave us silly humans behind!