Children

Who will have the last LAUGH ?

It’s playtime: Hyenas having a whale of a time.   | Photo Credit: BirdImages

We were walking on the boundary of the Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand, when our guide headed towards a dense patch of massive trees. Anu, my friend and I exchanged apprehensive glances. “Vikram, isn’t this elephant country? Is it safe to walk further into the forest?” we asked anxiously.

“Oh, we won’t go too deep in, madam,” he assured us.

Soon, we reached a watchtower and climbed up. We got a view of the park, tall trees interspersed with patches of grassland. Suddenly, Vikram said, “A striped hyena has recently given birth to a litter of cubs. Want to see it?”

Within seconds, Anu’s smile changed to an expression of horror and she exclaimed, “Have you lost your mind? We are not coming!”

I, on the other hand, was filled with a sense of adventure. Although I did feel a tiny bit scared, but sensed Vikram’s confidence, and did not want to let go of this opportunity of a lifetime, I pleaded with Anu to accompany us. She refused vehemently and finally, we decided that I would make a quick dash to the hyena den with Vikram.

As we walked closer to the den, Vikram said,“There are three cubs, about two weeks old now. They will become completely independent of their mother only after two years.”

It is known that any female wild animal is likely to be more aggressive when she has offspring to protect. I thought of Anu, safe atop the watchtower, before I asked, “Are hyenas known to attack humans?”

“Rarely, but there have been attacks when they feel threatened by human presence,” he replied.

Old wives’ tales

While I felt tempted to return, Vikram added, “Madam, there are many superstitions about the striped hyena in different cultures. The reason for this is mainly their appearance and their call, a long laughing one, which ends in a cackle. They sound especially eerie at night.”

Some believe they have powers to mesmerise their victims with their eyes, while others call them stupid. Many stories depict them as evil and treacherous. There are even stories of hyenas digging up corpses from burial grounds and scavenging on them.”

“But they do scavenge, don’t they?” I asked.

“They scavenge on the remains of prey left by tigers, leopards and other large predators. They also hunt rodents, lizards, insects, and at times are even known to kill small goats and sheep.”

Soon, we reached a clearing in the forest. In front of us was a wide, shallow pit. On the other side, I could see a small tunnel-like opening. “That is the den,” Vikram whispered.

We were wary not to make any sounds. And then, it happened. A large hyena walked out of the tunnel and stood facing us. It was greyish with black vertical stripes on its body and horizontal ones on the legs. It had a slouchy posture because its forelegs were longer than its hind ones. It looked at us menacingly and as it glared, the fur on its shoulder and back became erect, giving it a threatening appearance. Though there was a safe enough distance between us, I began to panic. Vikram kept his composure and asked me not to make any sudden movement, but to stay still and to continue looking at it. “This is the male, the female and the cubs must be inside,” he whispered.

Vikram knew that the hyena would not charge at us, unless provoked. After a couple of minutes which seemed like hours, Vikram decided it was safe to move back. Following his gesture, I took a step back. The hyena did not move. Slowly, we took few more steps backwards, and finally bid the hyena adieu.

We walked back in complete silence, my mind reliving the sight of the hyena standing protectively outside his den, defending his young and his territory.

A hyena is often hunted for its body parts, which are considered medicinal. With growing urbanisation, much of its habitat is disappearing, posing another big threat to its existence.

Like thousands of other species, the hyena too is facing dwindling numbers. Human activities, often undertaken to satisfy our greed, have been largely responsible for endangering many species. Only time will tell who has the last laugh.

Conservation and Nature is a series brought to you by Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group (www.kalpavriksh.org)

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 11:11:09 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/who-will-have-the-last-laugh/article26895650.ece

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