Wildbuzz | Himachal CM Virbhadra, nature’s loyalist
In an exclusive interaction with this writer at the Kumarhatti Forest rest house on Wednesday, the Himachal CM took a nature ramble down memory lane.
Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh nurtures neither pride nor claim to nobility’s pursuit of the blood sport of shikar. He does not flash an engraved scroll of tigers and leopards shot. “My forefathers (from the royal state of Bushahr) were fond of hunting but I never enjoyed shikar. An incident from my college days at St Stephen’s, Delhi, while pursuing history honours in the 1950s, stirred me. My college friends and I went deer hunting at Hauz Khas, which was then a jungle. A deer was wounded by a friend and it emitted piteous cries of pain like a human. I was asked to deliver the final shot. The wounded deer’s eyes haunted me. I never took up a gun again,” recounts Singh, who is reckoned in inner circles as a soft-hearted soul.
In an exclusive interaction with this writer at the Kumarhatti Forest rest house on Wednesday, the Himachal CM took a nature ramble down memory lane. Just as late PM Indira Gandhi grew up playing with tiger cubs and Red pandas at Teen Murti House and later rendered a peerless contribution to securing India’s flora and fauna, Singh’s rich exposure to wildlife during his childhood at Sarahan blossomed into a lifelong passion for conservation.
“We would put out ‘daana’ for birds in our lawns at Sarahan and even ‘jangli kabootars’ would flock to eat. Musk deer would visit our estates. To date, we maintain the practise of putting out ‘daana’ for birds. I am so happy that Himachal still has a population of house sparrows. I spot sparrows often in Shimla. However, for me, no bird or animal is a personal favourite, I love each and every creature,” declares Singh in his gentle, measured tone that draws on an elephantine memory.
Singh, a protege of Mrs Gandhi, was directed to lead Himachal as the CM in 1983, the first of his six tenures to date. Gandhi was so proactive that she ordered the then Punjab CM to inquire into news reports of partridges being served at a wedding hosted by a senior Punjab Police officer at Patiala and migratory ducks smuggled in the governor’s cavalcade following a tour of Harike! Her actions and vanguard policies established that political will at the apex level was a strategic imperative for conservation. Inspired by her fearless crusade, Singh plunged into battle against a tenacious forest mafia soon after taking charge in 1983.
“Himachal was fast losing its tree cover. I first got sawmills removed from within forest areas. I stopped apple transport in ‘petis’ (wooden boxes) and introduced cardboard boxes. This was stiffly opposed. They claimed apples could not be transported in anything but ‘petis’. I countered that by saying that if eggs could be transported safely in cardboard boxes, why not apples,” Singh told this writer, his eyes twinkling with memories of the wit and intrepid initiative that fetched his maiden triumph for a green Himachal.
Forest cover and wildlife in Himachal have flourished ever since due to protection afforded and Sarahan has a project to breed the vulnerable species, Western tragopan. How should India navigate a future, riven by increasing wildlife-people conflicts? The CM’s vision – distilled from a stewardship of governance spanning four decades – is that wildlife and people’s development require a delicate balance. “Animals such as monkeys, wild boars, deer, nilgai, etc, must be stopped from entering crops. It is a dire necessity. Our government is heavily subsidising farmers to install solar/electric fencing that repels intruding animals with a shock effect,” he adds.
MUMMY CALL, DADDY PIGGYBACK
Gharials may appear dumb, dangerous giant lizards but those who study these fish-eating crocodiles know they are harmless to human life, very intelligent and devoted parents. Lending fascinating insights into the breeding behaviour of this critically-endangered species at Chhatbir Zoo recently, Dr Shailendra Singh of the Turtle Survival Alliance pulled out a real nugget from his repository. Mummy’s call!
The female lays 30-40 eggs by digging a hole deep into river banks. When hatchlings are ready to emerge, they emit a low ‘crok-crok’ call for mummy. That call signals to the lurking mother that she needs to dig up the hole and let hatchlings emerge. As they emerge from the nest, the female takes them to the river and looks forward to a breather from maternal duties.
“The dominant male comes in to take charge. He lets the hatchlings climb onto his back and takes them around. They are safe with the male and get acclimatised to water. The mother, who is stressed and hungry due to her long vigil in the nest’s vicinity, is relieved of her charge and is free to feed and restore her health,” Dr Singh told this writer.
Gharials mature to breeding age after 10 years. Females can mate with multiple males and store the varied semen to fertilise eggs later, even delaying it to next season if conditions are unfavourable. The female Gharials can possibly control the ratio of male and female hatchlings in a clutch by temperature choice. “If temperature is 32 degrees Celsius in the soil, the clutch will be males and females equal. If it is above 32 degrees, then there will be more males. If below 32 degrees, say 29.5 degrees, then females will dominate in the clutch. The deeper the nest, cooler will be eggs’ temperature and female hatchlings dominate egg outcomes,” Dr Singh explained.
The Gharial, which was found on the Beas river system in Punjab but went extinct in the 1970s, is slated for a “soft re-introduction” on the river in the near future.
(Views expressed are personal)