Generally humans are bad news for wild spaces and creatures, and we appear to be good for nothing else besides procreating with as much ease as falling off a log. But in this piece, I'm going to celebrate the fact that some adaptable creatures never had it so good until humans appeared on the scene. No, it's not just the crows, rats and cockroaches which have us to thank for their ever increasing numbers.
Take leopards. For a long time we thought that these animals ought to live in the forest. “That's where they belong, of course” say the wise. If any was unfortunate enough to be seen outside, we said, “Poor thing. It's lost its home or perhaps it has no food in the forests.” So like the Good Samaritan we trapped the creature and transferred it to a forest we determined was appropriate for its survival.
Recent research shows that these animals are not lost, nor are they randomly straying; the farmlands are what they call home. Where there are no forests, they hide in sugarcane fields. Where there are no monkeys or deer to eat, they survive on free-ranging livestock, stray dogs and feral pigs.
There are many places across the country where leopards don't even know what a forest is nor have they ever seen a wild deer.
Similar is the case of three of the commonest venomous snakes of India: cobras, kraits, and Russell's vipers. Farmlands are rich not just with grain but also fat rats and mice who build intricate burrows. Rodent-eating snakes get plenty of prey and a place to stay when the surrounding fields are flooded. Thanks to our super-abundance of rats and mice there are many more of these snakes in farmlands than in any forest. And sarus cranes, the world's tallest flying birds, breed and raise their young in the mosaic of rice fields and wetlands of Uttar Pradesh!
Over the last decade, vultures have been in sharp decline, poisoned by the veterinary anti-inflammatory drug for livestock, diclofenac. But prior to the crisis, these birds were seen by the hundreds because of our habit of leaving animal carcasses out in the open. Vultures are the ultimate cleaning machines, able to strip the flesh from dead animals in minutes. In cities, we are used to seeing stray dogs rummaging in the garbage but in their heyday, the avian scavengers ruled these stinky refuse piles. In some cities such as Bangalore and Mysore, black kites have taken over and where there is water, brahminy kites.
Mysteriously, vultures never crossed the Palk Strait to colonise Sri Lanka. On a recent visit to the island nation, Rom and I pointed and gasped at a variety of creatures that locals take for granted. Obese water monitor lizards filled the niche of vultures by lording over the garbage dumps. Star tortoises thrive in farmlands and are perhaps the only tortoises in the world to be called a pest as they chomp on succulent tomatoes!
In some parts of Sri Lanka, man's activities have benefited even elephants. Wherever one-crop, rain-fed agriculture is practised (in areas with elephants), the pachyderms thrive on regenerating weeds in the fallow season. Researchers say that if not for these rich, human-created feeding grounds, Sri Lanka would not support such high densities of elephants.
In and around Yala National Park in Sri Lanka's deep South, are numerous irrigation ponds where hundreds of mugger crocodiles live. Thanks to the ancient people who once grew rice here, this tiny part of the country holds more of these reptiles than anywhere in the vast subcontinent of India.
In all these instances, farming practices accidentally combined with farmers' tolerance to create an animal-rich landscape.
With a little more focussed effort outside of forests and sanctuaries, we could do so much for the creatures that are a bit more finicky in their requirements for survival.
(The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)