THE LEOPARD BOGEY
On July 17, alarm bells rang through the club house at the Chandigarh Golf Club. An alert member reported to the club’s General Manager, Brig. GS Julka (retd.), that a leopard’s pugmarks could be seen in the first sand bunker guarding the left flank at the 9th hole green. It turned out that the marks were actually those left by a dog. The confusion is not uncommon and occurs when a dog or another canid species (wolf, fox, jackal etc) treads through soft soil and the pad of their footmark leaves an artificially-expanded print, which is mistaken for that of a leopard by a layman. It is not that a leopard cannot wander into a club’s greenery because they can travel enormous distances at night, and these stealth killers may even live undetected in a semi-jungle area for months.
The distinguishing feature of the cat family’s pugmarks is that these do not leave any claw marks (nail points), unless walking over slippery/steep ground, or are startled. Dogs always leave nail marks in their footprints. This is because the cat family wields retractable claws or nails, which go into a sheath of skin and fur when not in use. This is like a Russell’s viper, which has extremely long fangs (16 mm) that fold back in a sheath along the jaw when not used, as opposed to the shorter but fixed fangs of a Spectacled cobra.
Animal tracking experts Brig. Ranjit Talwar (retd.) and Amir Usmani point out more distinctions to facilitate field identification: “Animals that run down their prey in a dog-like manner have large toes when compared to their pad size. Animals that catch their prey by stealth, such as cats, have large pads when compared to toe size. In the dog family, the gap between the top of the pad and the two middle toes is distinctly more than what is found in cats.’’
A leopard’s retractable claws are like a switchblade, with the multiple functions of a Swiss knife. Claws are unsheathed when hunting, gaining traction against the ground, or climbing trees. The sheath protects the claws against unnecessary attrition and maintains sharpness when the leopard moves about. The leopard’s powerful forearms and forepaws edged with sharp claws turn lethal when it takes a swipe at prey. When the prey is down, the curved claws assist in gripping it.
The doorbell rang incessantly. It was not another one of those sales executives, who can be as insistent and annoying as house flies. These were honey collectors, who had smoked out two huge hives of the Apis dorsata species down our lane and were peddling the natural treacle to residents. As proof of their prowess, they claimed that one humongous hive at the PGIMER had recently yielded them 34 kg of honey. They touted the honey as the purest available in contrast to marketed honey, which has combs and other wastes crushed into it and is laced with refined sugars.
The bees were loathe to leave the combs the collectors had broken off from the branches, and some had drowned in the honey collected in a large polythene bag. Some bees had their wings singed and were writhing, while others were buzzing about the combs placed on the side of the lane. Ants and birds had a field day preying on wounded bees while passing vehicles crushed them. It was as if the bees were suicidal `kamikaze’ pilots, possessed by a death wish. Though ‘smoking bees’ is far less damaging than destroying hives with diesel-flame throwers or pesticide sprays, it still leaves significant burn injuries and mortality.
Why do bees not abandon the hive when it is removed and flee from fire and human danger? I asked bee researcher, Dr. Neelima R Kumar, (ex-Zoology department, Panjab University). Fact is bees are attracted to pheromones or chemicals excreted from the comb and queen bee. ‘’If the queen bee flees after the hive is smoked, the worker bees will also depart after some time. But the comb also emits pheromones and the bees will be re-drawn to it. If the queen bee has died in the smoking process, the bees will continue to remain there as she emits the pheromones. The other worker bees will keep coming back to the hive point on the tree for days, and sometimes even after a year. Individual bees also emit pheromones and recognise each other, their kin etc from the peculiar pheromones each emits,’’ explained Dr Kumar.
NIGHT OF THE KRAITS
Over the last 10 days, as humidity has risen, the tricity’s snake-rescue expert Salim Khan is facing sleepless nights. On an average, he is getting two to three emergency calls to rescue snakes in houses, and these invariably turn out to be India’s most venomous land species, the Common krait. Khan says that when his cellphone blares in the wee hours, he knows from experience it will be a krait call. Kraits are nocturnal snakes, known to bite sleeping humans, and even climb beds to snuggle and seek warmth.
Kraits surface everywhere, from seedy Nayagaon tenements to the recent rescue from the Sector 44 house of the younger brother of former mayor Pradeep Chhabra. The krait had hidden under a doorway at the Chhabra house. Another lady from a Sector 31 kothi was frantic until Khan rescued the krait, which was hiding under a newspaper over which her idols and ‘puja’ articles were placed. Snake rescue calls are pouring in from the tricity’s hinterland, including the tricky situation faced by the Badals’ upcoming 7-star eco-resort, Oberoi Sukhvilas, at Pallanpur village. Since the resort has been carved out of pristine jungle and hillocks, dislodged snakes are surfacing here regularly leading to alarm bells ringing in the management.