Wild Buzz: Innocence of terror

  • Vikram Jit Singh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 19, 2016 10:04 IST
80 of the 98 rescued keelback hatchlings. (Nitan Singh )

Innocence of terror

If you can imagine wiry snake hatchlings crawl all over an old haveli, shelter underneath the barnyard’s bricks outside, and some squashed under buffalo hooves, you will have arrived at a visualisation of a real-life episode from Kang Jabeer village in Phillaur tehsil of Punjab. Ninety-eight hatchlings of the Checkered keelback were rescued in three batches (15, 80 and three) recently from landlord Mandeep Singh’shaveli. The keelback, a non-venomous snake, is given to fecundity though 98 is on the extreme side as 90 eggs is stated to be the upper limit for this species on the authoritative website of Indiansnakes.org. Another extreme claim is from the Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park, Pune, where a captive keelback laid 110 eggs!

The bulk of the 98 hatchlings were rescued by Nitan Singh of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Nawanshahr, who went through the haveliwith a fine sieve to rescue 80. Nitan also calmed the frayed nerves of the landlord and his farmhands by correctly identifying the species and clarifying they were harmless.

“One adult snake was observed near the haveli’s walls. My farmhand, Chhotu, refused to sleep in the haveli because he would get up at night to answer nature’s call and find hatchlings crawling all over. A pond lies outside the haveli’s walls and the mother snake came from there,” said Mandeep.

Snake expert Vivek R Sharma says keelbacks “can carry larger number of eggs due to the small size of eggs. The monsoon mortality rate of this species is high because it is found in a wide range of water bodies and juvenile keelbacks face multiple predators such as birds, large frogs, other snakes, large carnivorous fishes etc”.

Clockwise from top right: A sambar drinks water from the polluted drain in the reserve forest; the drain emerges from underneath Madhya Marg and enters forest; the dead Comb duck; and the dead Spotbill duck floating in the lake. (VIKRAM JIT SINGH / NAVTEJ SINGH)


If you happen to travel past the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) and head out of the smart city-in-the-making, you may not be aware of a drain gurgling under your wheels. This drain goes underneath the Madhya Marg from the PGIMER side and emerges just ahead of the new traffic lights flanked by fruit sellers. It is a filthy, dark drain reeking of what seems hospital/laundry waste. It then drains through the Patiala ki Rao reserve forests to Dhanas lake via a meander of a few kilometres where sambar and neelgai drink this water. The lake harbours migratory and resident bird species, and last year, quintals of fish died though the cause was superficially attributed to “low oxygen content and fish over-population”.

The reeds flanking the entry of the drain into the lake have withered to turn white in black water. The drain also poisons the city’s aquifers. On June 13, a dead Spotbill duck was photographed at that flank and on June 15, a dead Comb duck was found drifting near the lake head. The latter bore a wound on the neck, which forest and wildlife department staff ascribed to catapult poachers. The Spotbill was buried quietly by the lake’s caretaker to pre-empt a hue and cry. A regular at the lake, photographer Navtej Singh, is concerned over declining bird numbers and diversity.

Environment director Santosh Kumar admitted: “The drain seemed to be coming from the PGIMER and was concealed under the road, though upon inquiry we could not trace its origins at the PGIMER’s laundry plant”. Kumar said the PGIMER authorities were not moved by his letters. “’Water should be treated before release. On the one hand we are transforming Chandigarh into a smart city, and on the other hand a government agency is adding to pollution. I have now raised the matter with the municipal corporation.”

PGIMER spokesperson Manju Wadwalkar denied the pollution and quoted the letter of the hospital engineer to the member-secretary, Chandigarh Polllution Control Board, to state: “The undersigned, after personally surveying the area, has concluded that there is no waste water being discharged by the institute into the forest area across the road.” However, there was no response forthcoming from Wadwalkar on the written query from this writer how waste water from the PGIMER was treated and where it was disposed of.

With the authorities playing pass the parcel, who then, is polluting the lake?

Two reproductive termites preparing to fly. (Vikram Jit Singh)


Overnight rains that drenched the tricity on June 14-15 evidently spurred the romantic impulses in termites (deemak), those feared Lilliputian armies of nature’s underworld whose secretive invasions are the scourge of houses and horticulture. At 9am on June 15, swarms of reproductive termites equipped with wings emerged from slits in the soil in a Sector 19-A park and struggled upwards like helicopters buffeted by wind turbulence. Some crashed to the ground, while others never got flying and were set upon by scavenging parties of big, black ants.

“The termites in the accompanying picture belong to the genus, Odonotermes. An estimated seven-10 species of this genus is commonly found in the tricity,” Prof Vijay Lakshmi Sharma of Panjab University’s zoology department told this writer.

Termites damage crops, forest vegetation and other material containing cellulose. But these “arch villains” also play an important, under-recognised role in recycling soil nutrients by assisting bio-degradation of decomposing wood, dung, humus etc.

“Termites provide a good example of a highly-evolved social organisation, with the development of caste system and division of labour. Different castes in a termite colony include winged reproductives (alates) and apterous and sterile workers and soldiers (neutral). The alates make nuptial flights called swarming, after which they shed their wings. They burrow into the ground in pairs, mate and found a new colony. Sterile castes constitute most of the colony population,” writes Shiphali Gupta in her study, ‘A taxonomic account of termites of Haryana and Chandigarh areas’.

Contact the writer at vjswild1@gmail.com

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