iconimg Saturday, August 29, 2015

Vikram Jit Singh
August 18, 2013
Most people can recall headlines about Indian Wall lizards "poisoning" school mid-day meals. Housewives, too, live in dread of these ceiling spooks falling into boiling milk and ensuring the family some early visas to heaven! However, these perceptions are unscientific. Reptile expert Gerry Martin says lizards can bite humans but most often they can't even break the skin. Lizards bite only if caught; otherwise they scuttle away. They are not venomous. "Geckos (lizards) can't be harmful in any toxic way. A gecko that falls in milk simply gets cooked and the milk isn't really vegetarian anymore!" says Martin.

Lizards actually help households as bio-agents, feeding on insects, mosquitoes, cockroaches etc. It is because householders are prejudiced by a lizard's "ugly" appearance that their fascinating behaviour escapes notice. Martin says lizards carefully observed can be more entertaining than TV shows! Larger males try and occupy as much space as possible and allow females and the young to stay within these spaces. Males constantly have stand-offs and fights. Lizards are wall hounds, chasing down and eating anything that moves within their sight.


Photo Courtesy: LS Rawat

The shooting of an innocent leopard in Himachal Pradesh's Thunag region under the guise of tackling a man-eater by Nawab Shafath Ali Khan of Hyderabad on August 11 has stirred controversy. Though leopard-man conflict is high in Himachal, it is Uttarakhand where maximum humans die in leopard attacks and the highest number of leopards are hunted down as "man-eaters". As many as 550 leopards have been killed in the last 10 years in Uttarakhand.

One such hunter is LS Rawat (see photo), who claims to have shot "43 man-eating leopards". The common opinion on the cause of this conflict is that forests are invaded by humans, and poachers finish the leopard's prey base. However, scientific research by wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya indicates that poaching of leopards may be causing increasing attacks on humans.

Uttarakhand and Himachal are close to Nepal (a destination for illegal wildlife articles) and poaching of leopards in these states is the maximum. Shooting leopards encourages younger leopards to occupy vacated territory, and being inexperienced these new leopards can turn to killing humans. Leopards wounded by poachers can target humans, as also cubs left behind by a mother killed by poachers or a mother that sees her cubs being shot. Athreya quotes studies from Junnar, Maharashtra, where leopards live peacefully with humans in a landscape which has no wild prey, and big cats survive on domestic animals. Athreya questions: If so many man-eating leopards have been shot, why have human deaths not stopped in Uttarakhand?


Photo Courtesy: Varinder Singh

Saffron literally glows when the National Flag unfurls on Independence Day. But for these two rat snakes, saffron was the colour of a suffocating, imperilling imprisonment. They had been illegally stuffed in a wicker basket padded with saffron cloth by snake charmers at a fair in Talwara (Hoshiarpur). But, as providence would have it, the snakes got an unusual fighter for their freedom: Head constable Varinder Singh, who is nicknamed "Sonu Cool" in snake study groups.

In charge of the security detail of former Punjab DGP PS Gill's house in Chandigarh, Varinder's kinky off-duty passion is rescuing snakes and researching lesser-known biodiversity in the Lower Shivaliks. Most burly Punjab cops, though, prefer a lathicharge on spotting a snake! Varinder visited the fair before Independence Day and saw humble folk who, at the bidding of priests, were offering milk to snakes and donations to charmers as part of 'snake pooja'. There was no wildlife official to take action against this open violation of laws. But Varinder convinced the charmers to free the snakes as these are prone to perishing quickly in close captivity.


Photo Courtesy: KS Gopi Sundar

 One of the more charming excursions into the countryside behind Chandigarh is the drive to Mirzapur dam in the monsoon. The mosaic of wild and cultivated vegetation dazzles with its infinite variations on a green theme. I would see Lesser Whistling ducks with their brown-maroon-chestnut plumage perched prettily in paddy. I assumed correctly, and bird books confirmed it, that these birds forage in fields for grains, tender shoots, frogs, small fish, snails, worms etc. Until ornithologist KS Gopi Sundar broadened my understanding.

Sundar, who has worked on wetlands in the Indo-Gangetic plains, discovered that these ducks also breed in flooded paddy. This has also been observed by Sumit Sen in the Sunderbans. "This species is adaptable to removal of trees and wetlands that are its usual breeding habitats. This habit, however, is not possible in areas with dry crops like sugarcane and soybean. The Spotbilled duck also attempts to breed in flooded paddies but seem not to fare as well if wetlands don't exist close to where they breed."