Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
CITIES: AUGUST 12, 2001
P. Raghu Nandan
Amit Khullar/D.V.Jainer/Telepress Features
This urban conglomeration we call home, is also the home to a diverse selection of fauna, some like the snake we never imagined was here. In Chennai, and in other cities, we have unwittingly provided niches of safety for creatures that have adapted to urban life. It is not only the migrant birds that come annually to the Adyar estuary, nor the occasional visitor, like the monkey, which troops in from villages, the city has a plethora of creatures, which choose to live here. Amidst the tall buildings, the traffic, the urban garbage dumps, sewer lines and storm water drains, animal life survives, in fact thrives. It is a city within a city, the secret life of the urban wildlife.
Last year in the empty plot next door, workmen clearing the undergrowth ferreted out three snakes. There was general panic and a snake catcher was sent for; Murugan, the snake catcher, duly arrived that afternoon. He was a professional and combed the plot meticulously and searched the neighbouring houses as well. He showed us snake tracks in an unused garage. He said they were made a few days ago and were viper tracks. Elsewhere a portion of a rain water pipe lay on the ground, mud had collected in it. Murugan bent down and we saw in the beam of a flashlight a snake track a few inches wide. He said that pipe was the regular hiding place of a large cobra. Here in the middle of an urban city, a cobra? He laughed, "Snakes travel long distances all over the city and go hunting in the night. You are lucky there are no snakes here, but keep the downstairs windows closed at night."
If snakes live in the city, can mongoose be far behind? There is a family of mongoose in my garden. They hunt in our neighbourhood, but live in the storm water drains and underground burrows. The storm water drains, which are dry for most of the year, are a great place for the mongoose, to live and raise their young. Animals find shelter in places that we never imagined - junkyards, office blocks, playgrounds, undergrowth and vacant lots. Schools and colleges are silent places in the night, safe for nocturnal animals.
Thakur Dalip Singh
There used to be four coconut trees in our garden. In one season, every morning, we would find a coconut on the ground, with a neat hole on its side and the contents empty. It was always the same tree. The gardener told us it was a maranai (Palm Civet) that was responsible and suggested he get a narrikoravan (gypsy) to catch the "nuisance". I looked at the coconut, there was a perfect hole on its side and only one tree was being harvested. I explained to the gardener, "If someone can cut such a perfect hole on the side of a coconut, they deserve my respect, let us leave this tree for the maranai". I have seen this shy and talented animal a couple of times, in this city.
The ubiquitous rat survives in all parts of the globe and if left unchecked, creates havoc. Rats, bandicoots and voles have made themselves comfortable among human habitats. They are favourite prey for hawks, owls, cats, mongoose and other predators.
It was early May and my neighbour's mango tree was laden with fruit. I stayed awake, the time 1:30 a.m.; I turned my binoculars towards the mango tree and its nocturnal visitors - the flying foxes. These were huge bats, with a wingspan of four feet. They were noisy feeders, but graceful flyers. Once they finished feeding, one by one they would take off and fly away in a lazy flapping of their large wings. While I watched this, smaller insectivorous bats (Indian pipistrelle) flitted about catching small insects and mosquitoes. Every night around street lamps the smaller bats would feed on the insects attracted by the light. Bats help keep the insect population down. Research done by the Bat Conservation International, has shown that more insects are attracted to certain kinds of street lighting than others. By changing the kind of light we use we could actually bring down the insect population by letting the bats do their job. The smaller bats roost in old buildings, temple gopurams and thick fronds of the palmyra.
Animals and birds also find plenty of food in urban areas. The waste of a city, like leftovers, kitchen scraps, hotel and butchery scraps, seafood waste, grain storage, vegetable market scraps are all food for these creatures. The prey-predator equation also works amicably, with hawks feeding on squirrels when there is a population boom and owls and snakes keeping the rats in checks.
Walking down Anna Salai one afternoon, near the LIC building, I looked up and saw kites, eagles, vultures, sailing the thermals. That day there must have been at least several dozens of them in that area. They had spotted food, carrion and butchery refuse. Some of these birds make the city their home; others come from afar to feed on waste that we choose to leave about.
Manoj K. Jain
Squirrels can be seen in most urban Indian cities. During the day when the squirrels and mynahs start giving the alarm call, it is either a hawk or a cat, which is on the prowl. Owls and hawks are common residents in the city. Hawks can be seen perched on trees or tall buildings eyeing the surrounding area. There is a large rain tree on TTK Road, a busy thoroughfare; it is the home of an owl. It resides in a hole high up in the branches and comes out at night, to hunt for rats, lizards and other small prey.
Tall high rise are home to pigeons; in older parts of Triplicane near mosques, pigeons wheel around in large flocks. In New York, pigeons have become tourist attraction; they roost in the ledges of the skyscrapers, high above the ground. Seagulls haunt the garbage dumps and fishing wharfs in seaside towns. The one bird that has sadly become a rarity is the house sparrow. For unknown reasons, the sparrow has started to die out, similar to the fall in frog and toad population worldwide. Are they telling us something about the state of affairs of this world?
The list continues: the common crow, sun bird, weaver bird, tailor bird, seven sisters, green parakeets, blue kingfishers and the cuckoo; house lizards, skinks, chameleons and the endless list of insects. Chennai also has areas that attract wildlife, like the Adyar Estuary, Guindy National Park, Madhavaram Jheel, Simpson Estate, and Velachery Swamp. Why kid ourselves that man gave up the jungle when he moved to the city, the wildlife just moved in, making the city truly the concrete jungle.
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