Wild buzz: Lapwings over Saragarhi | columns | Hindustan Times
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Wild buzz: Lapwings over Saragarhi

That glorious chapter of Punjab’s valour also opens an adjoining window into avian history and the once-abundance of the sociable lapwing, an iconic species, now critically endangered and subject of a global conservation programme.

columns Updated: Sep 10, 2017 11:14 IST
Sociable lapwings at Bikaner, Rajasthan, in January 2017.
Sociable lapwings at Bikaner, Rajasthan, in January 2017. (DR SURYA PRAKASH)

Come Tuesday, Punjab will commemorate one of the greatest last stands of military history, the defence of Saragarhi Post by the 36th Sikh on September 12, 1897. A contingent of serving British Army officers will visit the memorial in Ferozepur on ‘Saragarhi Day’, declared a public holiday in Punjab. That glorious chapter of Punjab’s valour also opens an adjoining window into avian history and the once-abundance of the sociable lapwing, an iconic species, now critically endangered and subject of a global conservation programme.

That fateful day 120 years back, 21 soldiers led by Havildar Ishar Singh held off 10,000 Pashtun Orakzai tribesmen. An estimated 600 of the enemy were killed by Sikhs and artillery fire. The Saragarhi Post was constantly in touch with Fort Lockhart through heliography, allowing historians to reconstruct the battle. Both Lockhart and Saragarhi overlooked the Kurrum Valley, which served as a migratory passage for birds.

The stolid Indian soldiers may have vaguely attributed birds flying over them to “chirris, chaklis or panchhis” but their British bosses madly fancied quill and feather. Such officers not only went about “chasing chicks” over perilous ridge and swaying bridge in spare moments but also documented observations for posterity, including a wayward lapwing that alighted at Lockhart during a military parade, was shot and dispatched to a London museum!

In his note published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS) of 1899 titled, ‘Birds collected and observed at Thull during five months in 1898, and notes on their identification’, Major RH Rattray stated, “During April, large flocks of these birds (lapwings) passed up the Kurram Valley. They usually stayed a day or two near the river before passing up. I must have seen about 300 passing one day.”

Another note published in the JBNHS of 1911 by Lt CHT Whitehead stated, “Small flocks (sociable lapwings) pass through from the last week in February till the end of March; many of them are in full plumage... A solitary example was shot on the parade ground at Fort Lockhart (6,500 feet) where it had alighted during parade.”

From that abundance, the lapwing declined precipitously and currently, a handful migrate to India-Pakistan from breeding grounds in Central Asia and Russia. Poaching during migration, coupled with agricultural expansion and overgrazing in lapwing breeding grounds, are main reasons for the species’ decline.

GARDEN OF EVE

A rat snake residing in (right) Sarabjit Mahal’s lush garden. (SARABJIT S MAHAL)

Urban residents need not be afraid of harmless species such as rat snakes and common palm civets, who find abode in their gardens. However, ignorance and their “ugly” looks that do not fit into our socially-conditioned notions of “beauty”, results in eviction of these creatures or them being killed. I asked legendary herpetologist Rom Whitaker as to how citizens should deal with non-venomous and venomous snakes.

“Non-venomous species should definitely be encouraged, not in the house perhaps, but certainly in the garden and fields where they control rats. Removing non-venomous snakes, particularly rat snakes (the celebrated ‘friend of the farmer’), can leave the niche open for venomous ones to move in! The bottomline is that venomous snakes do not belong in our home gardens (which is different from a farmer’s large garden, rice fields etc, where venomous snakes control rodents),’’ Whitaker told this writer.

Whitaker’s pragmatic counsel is followed by Sarabjit Mahal, whose mansion and lush garden are located on the periphery of Ambala Cantonment. Mahal has fashioned innovative snake-wrangling hooks and butterfly nets to rescue and relocate venomous snakes such as common kraits and spectacled cobras. He rescued three cobras and two kraits this monsoon from his house/garden. However, rat snakes have lived in his garden for the last 12 years, and he has made a waterfall and grown creepers for their refuge and pleasure.

Mahal also placed river boulders near the waterfall and did not cement them so that rat snakes could duck into their crevices for love, refuge, rest and nest.

“Everyone in our household is in sync with nature. Will shred anyone being cruel to animals!” declares Mahal.

THE COBBLER’S STRING

Honey bee collectors wander around the tricity’s bungalow gardens, offering to rid residents of giant honey bee hives.

Ready for sale to cobblers, bee combs squeezed dry of honey. (VIKRAM JIT SINGH/HT)

After smoking out the hive, they go door to door selling wild honey. They do not abandon the honey combs, which are squeezed dry of honey. These dry combs are sold piecemeal to cobblers located in the sector market or in bulk to Mauli Jagran shoemakers at rates upwards of Rs 200 per kg, which rivals the price of direct-sale wild honey.

The combs are first cooked like porridge and then sieved for water content to obtain bee wax. This wax, which is shaped into soap cakes, is used to polish, smear and coat raw string to lend it a lustre and make it “pucca”’ for traditional handicraft shoemaking. Bee wax, sourced from the beekeeping sector or apiary farms apart from wild honey collectors, is used by the cosmetics industry, too, which pays a good price for this valuable raw material.

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