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punjab Updated: Jul 21, 2013 10:53 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
Vikram Jit Singh
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The cuckoo conspiracy

The pied cuckoo is a wonder of wonders. It is a weak flier, yet it takes full advantage of winds originating off the African coast to migrate to India just ahead of monsoon rains. The purpose of migration: to lay eggs in the nest of turdoides babblers, which will become free foster parents of cuckoo chicks. There are two fascinating aspects of this behaviour, known as brood parasitism in avian science.

While playing at the Shiwalik Golf Club, Chandimandir, I noticed a male cuckoo with a green caterpillar in its beak. The male was flitting about in the branches of a kikar tree near the SGC executive secretary's office. The male's call had changed from its normal "piu-piu-pipew", rant to a soft sensual whisper, "chhikk-chhikk". A female was enticed with the caterpillar, and the male mounted her but kept the titbit just out of reach till he had completed the task. A slick seducer if there was one! This strategy provoked a remark from renowned green cartoonist, Rohan Chakravarty. "There is a lot that human males should learn from this smart guy!" But how does the cuckoo manage to lay eggs in other bird's nests? The male distracts babblers and the female cuckoo slinks in and lays her eggs, whose blue colour mimics babbler eggs.

At Mirzapur village to the north-west of Chandigarh, I witnessed this great game. For 30 minutes, the male cuckoo tried to distract jungle babblers by flying near their nest, but the latter summoned reinforcements and hounded the artful couple like a posse of cowboys gunning for cattle thieves. The cuckoos were determined, and would pause for breath on a nearby electricity wire, before resuming their aerial deceptions. But that day belonged to the doughty babblers, who foiled the cuckoo conspiracy.

Cat of 9 tales

One side of the tale is almost never told in the growing leopard-human conflict. Last week, a leopard attacked a buffalo calf in the courtyard of Ruldu Ram in Upper Jandla village, 10 km from Nangal, Punjab.

Ruldu, who is an employee with Bhakra Beas Management Board, was awoken at 11.30 pm by the bellowing of alarmed buffaloes. The family rushed out and saw the injured calf, which had four puncture marks of leopard canines on its neck. The leopard fled, and the calf escaped with injuries, but the villagers and local media created uproar the next day.

The forests and wildlife preservation department came under public pressure and shifted a cage from the Mullanpur IAF missile base to Jandla to trap the "devil leopard" and deployed a team with a tranquiliser gun. But in this rule and shrill cries of mobocracy was forgotten a basic fact: Jandla is set so deep into jungle that only a 22-ft road separates Ruldu's house from jungle. Can we fault the leopard's instinct for easy, tethered prey, so temptingly close to its natural abode?

Of Gandhis and guns

It was not only stacks of "Gandhis" (Rs 1,000 notes) that the Punjab vigilance bureau stumbled upon when they investigated then Punjab Public Service Commission chairman Ravi Sidhu in 2002. (Sidhu was recently convicted for accepting bribe.) Sleuths then found in Sidhu's house 231 bullets of 30.06 Springfield rifle and 269 of Eley competition trap and skeet cartridges for a .12 bore shotgun.

A connoisseur of fine weapons, Sidhu possessed two German-made Walther pistols, a .22 rifle by JG Anschutz, a Springfield rifle and a shotgun. Some other illegal weapons were whisked away in the nick of time and hidden in a Patiala armoury with the help of a top functionary of the then Punjab government who wanted to save the disgraced chairman from further trouble.

With unlimited wealth at his disposal, Sidhu in his heydays was fond of hunting, and the use of Eley cartridges mirrors the misuse by some top Indian trap and skeet shooters who expend these on poaching huge numbers of partridges and other game species. He even made forays into Jodhpur, Rajasthan, but the alert Bishnois had gotten wind of these activities and once gave Sidhu's Jeep-borne hunting party a hot chase at night.

By hook, crook or brook

Poachers preying on aquatic species cannot have a more idyllic spot. The nullah that meanders to Sukhna Lake from Saketri turns inaccessible during monsoons. But hardy poachers from nearby villages and shanties clamber down this monsoon brook's slopes, infested with wild shrubs.

Safe from observation, poachers set dozens of fishing lines and nets, and indiscriminately trap all wetland species, be it turtles, fish, frogs et al. Spawning fish and fingerlings are worst hit. There is a maze of hidden poacher tracks and ground "machaans" along the nullah. Poachers use ingenious fishing gear that relies on winding the string on empty plastic bottles while hooks or live worms as bait come cheap. These felons spend hours there fishing, and coolly smoking "bidis". Three such poachers were belatedly taken into custody on July 18 and a turtle and fish species seized (see photo).

However, the UT fisheries and wildlife staff are generally reluctant to nab poachers, gifting them a tension-free run. Even if they do catch poachers, they are let off with a warning and a thrashing, which carries little deterrence as these poachers are very resilient and are chronic meat-eaters. The result is wetland biodiversity suffers incalculable loss.