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Wildbuzz | The stealth deer

punjab Updated: Jun 18, 2017 12:52 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
A camera trap image of a barking deer traversing a Siswan trail at night.

A camera trap image of a barking deer traversing a Siswan trail at night.(Wildlife Institute of India)

The most elusive deer to observe in the wilderness is the Barking deer or ‘Kakar’ (also known as Indian muntjac or Red muntjac). It is a classic skulker or stealth species, lurking in deep bush and only the slightest disturbance of vegetation reveals that the deer was there a few seconds back.

Having spent most of my childhood wandering in jungles and the countryside with my shikari father, I had yet to see this elusive deer, which secures its common name from the ‘short, cackling dog-like barks’ it emits when fleeing danger. Interestingly, the female Barking deer is a mammal with the lowest-recorded diploid number of chromosomes: just six!

In that era, shikari lore was rich with anecdotes about this smallish deer, the challenge it afforded to the hunter and the decent venison for the table.

My first sighting of the Barking deer was, fittingly, a dramatic moment. It was the late 1970s and we were hunting in the Tajewala-Kalesar jungles of Haryana. A ‘hakka’ or beat shoot was organised for us and my late father directed me to keep company with Flying Sikh Milkha Singh and his son, Jeev. Both of us lads climbed a small tree while the Flying Sikh crouched behind the tree and waited for the deer, wild boars and Red junglefowl to be roused from their lairs and driven towards lurking guns.

After about 30 minutes of a bated breath ambush, we heard stones clattering down the hillside, dislodged as they were in sheer panic. A magnificent glossy, chestnut-reddish Barking deer burst into view bang opposite us and dashed across the nullah. At such close range, the deer was a sitting duck and the Flying Sikh let fly, firing four buckshot cartridges via a quick reload. He missed all four shots. Later that evening over stiff pegs, the Flying Sikh was subject to a round of jocular pokes. He promptly blamed his poor marksmanship on malfunction of the exotic Iranian cartridges he had imported with much fanfare! Hic hic!

The stealth of the Barking deer again impressed upon me recently, while trekking deep into the impenetrable jungles of the Shivaliks. I could only secure glimpses of disappearing deer backsides! However, the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, in conjunction with the Punjab Forest and Wildlife department conducted a faunal survey of the Siswan dam-Mirzapur dam jungles last month, deploying 35 camera traps. One of the thousands of images so procured of diverse species was a striking picture of a Barking deer treading a Siswan trail at night, a path that I had taken often but was never fortunate to have chanced upon the dapper resident in full glory.

Rat snake males locked in combat at the Shivalik Golf Club, Chandimandir. (COMMANDER RBS GILL (RETD.))

A GENTLEMANLY DUEL

When males lock in combat, the lure of a lurking femme fatale or the control of territory/land can’t be too far away. Golfer, nature enthusiast and retired naval commander, RBS Gill, came across two very long and entwined snakes just after he had teed-off from the 17th hole at the Shivalik Golf Club (SEPTA), Chandimandir, on June 14.

As his four-ball crossed the bridge over the deep nullah, Gill saw these two entwined snakes with their heads swaying and making vigorous movements. Popular fancy would mistake them for cobras indulging in a ritual courtship dance, intense entanglement and the throes of passionate love-making. This eyeball-catching entanglement is also a sculpted symbol of fertility in ancient temples. Popular imagination would also draw parallels to the captive cobra ‘dancing to the music of the snake charmer’s been (gourd flute)’.

Gill was quick to whip out his smartphone and videograph the two entwined snakes, each not less than 8-9 feet. They were for the better part of 90 seconds unmoved by Gill’s presence. Gill was quick-witted enough to insert himself in the video frame after the snakes fled into the nullah so that his mates did not doubt the veracity of his authentic video by labelling it an ‘internet lift, paste and WhatsApp viral share’ bid.

Well, facts are that what Gill videographed were non-venomous Rat snakes, an extremely agile species. The duo were males and the effort of swaying and clashing is to fling the rival onto the ground, the victor’s head poised over the defeated. Neither is it a dance, just as cobras react to the flute’s movement and are not hypnotised by the enchanting music played by the snake charmer.

Most interestingly, such snake bouts adhere to the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. Grievous harm to combatants is avoided as males desist from biting each other and is more akin to an arm-wrestle between two male humans without inflicting injury, rather than a ‘Wild West’ death duel at high noon over the faster draw of a .45 Colt revolver. The interlocking of male snakes can sustain for more than an hour, severely testing stamina as males keep a major portion of their bodies above ground and move forcefully to dominate the other.

vjswild1@gmail.com