All creatures great and small….

Large animal extinctions—the fall of the cheetah, the slow fading of the tiger, the plight of the elephant make it to the headlines, perhaps even enter our conscience, but how many are aware of the devastation closer home…the loss of nature in our immediate surroundings?

Spring just passed us by. It was a silent spring, colourless—largely devoid of bird song, the brilliance of butterflies, the buzz of bees-‘smaller beings’, no less important in the ecological scheme of things than the tiger.

I remember a time not too long ago when there were peacocks in my backyard— racous males and broody hens whose eggs I keep a protective eye over, bunking school in the hope of catching the eggs hatch. I witnessed the momentous birth, and so felt personally responsible for their well-being. Peacocks were just part of the animals in my sanctuary- there was the rare partridge, parakeets were aplenty and in symphony with the babblers and lapwings were so noisy we couldn’t hear ourselves think. Sparrows were a nuisance; their irksome—but charming-presence ensured that fans with their murderous intent couldn’t be switched on. Langurs dropped by for water–and any handouts we cared to give, sun birds flittered over the hibiscus flowers, the baya weaver industriously wove one nest after another, hoping to win over a wife with his skills. Squirrels stole fur that fell of the dog’s back, and food from his bowl as well, chameleons sunbathed, occasionally flicking their tongue to swallow a spider.

There were frogs that turned a brilliant blue in the monsoon —colours that they don to attract a mate; occasional snakes, largely harmless rat snakes that were left alone, much to the alarm of the household help-one of whom abandoned ship when he found one curled under his bed. One fine day a battle ensued between the resident mongoose family and a snake. We nervously gathered to watch the deadly battle, but after a lot of hissing, spitting and posturing both parties tamely parted ways. I do not know why and I do not know if we were disappointed, or relieved at this tame anti-climax. At night, we would hear the soft hoot of the owl but only if the jackals stilled their insistent howls.

We took all this activity for granted, the creatures were part of our lives. Any casualty—like a chick fallen of the nest was given tender medical care—usually a futile effort, and the departed soul accorded a tearful burial.

While ours might have been an exceptionally animal-friendly household, it wasn’t a big deal. There was room for all God’s creatures—on land, air, water—and in hearts.

It’s a changed world now. Fast-developing and hostile to nature.

The peacocks don’t nest in my old house anymore, there is nowhere to lay eggs, and grow new families. Peacocks are ground nesters and are losing ground as construction and manicured lawns close in. Last heard a new block has been paved over the backyard, and the wilderness. The creatures of my garden are now extinct.

Construction is swallowing up, and cementing any open space and pond and grassland. One particular ‘development’ that hurts is a wetland I frequented in the winters in east Delhi. There is no trace of the wetland now, two glitzy malls have taken over. I feel sick to my heart at the thought of migrants birds flying thousands of miles from chilly climes to seek refuge, only to find that ‘their’ destination does not exist anymore. Imagine arriving after a particularly weary journey to find that your home has simply ceased to be.

Another thing, do not be fooled that all manner of greens is good. The fancy gated colony in Gurgoan where I now reside sold itself on ‘landscaped spaces’, but it is a sterile green, lacking the fecundity of a grubby garden. The designer garden and exotic trees use huge amounts of water, and support little life. But, it is the overdose of poisonous pesticides that is killing the bees, the birds, and us.

The loss of green cover and biodiversity in our immediate environment is a microism of what is happening to our planet. Bees, birds, frogs, snakes are pollinators and pest controllers and have a crucial role in the ecosystem…the strands are which rapidly unfolding.

The Sunday Guardian, June 6, 2010

5 Responses to “All creatures great and small….

  • Glad you wrote this… brought a million nostalgic memories flooding back. The afternoon prowls in the garden at home or in a particularly forested park nearby, with its fish pond, where exciting sightings like that of a mongoose were not uncommon. On summer nights the lawn would be filled with toads, may be five per square foot, who would gather there to feast on insects drawn in by the light of the street lamp. When the neighbours’ dachshund went hysterical, you could be sure that the monitor lizard residing in the garage had made an appearance. The same dachshund once gave chase to a jackal which arrived out of no where. I had checklisted some 65+ species of birds in this little ‘sanctuary’ of mine, spanning all of 300 metres by perhaps 20 metres. Nothing was better in life than to laze with a Gerald Durrell and cold coffee under a shady mango tree in this private sanctuary…

    Today, alas, the toad is a rare sight, I guess because the insects are gone. The mongoose is gone too, as are the monitor lizards. I cannot remember the last time when I saw a spotted dove crooning on the electric wires near the lamp post. The sunbird has become an extremely rare sight, as have parakeets. A sparrow? What’s that?

    Alarming, ain’t it?

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  • Sigh Prerna, this malaise is everywhere… and yet how blind we are to it. I had gone for a bird watching trip to dadri last weekend. And was appalled to see some heavy duty commercial complex earmarked at the land we could spot so many birds. It pained my heart to realise that in just a year or two, there will be hardly any bird life left there.
    I also love cycling early in the morning. And recently restarted it after a gap of 4-5 months. There is lush agricultural land just a few kilometers from my place where I could spot many birds. But when i cycled there this time, i was shocked to see some sprawling ‘silicon city’ coming up there. Goodbye birds! We don’t give a F*ck to you. All we care about is our concrete jungle.

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