Society

Three mammals whose pugmarks are missing in their usual urban haunts

A black-naped Hare that the Prestons rescued as a near-newborn nurtured and released in the wild after it had grown up. Photo: Preston Ahimaz   | Photo Credit: Preston Ahimaz

There is the tradition — now scarcely followed — of neighbours calling on a family that has just moved in. Twenty-five years ago, when Preston Ahimaz established his home in Madambakkam, long-time residents upheld this social practice. Enamoured of the Prestons’ garden, one family took this tradition a bit too far, stopping by the greenery almost every blooming day. It left Preston with a grin that has not shrunk a nanometre, to this day.

“Black-naped Hares would come into our garden, nibbling on the grass and eating the flowerheads,” recalls Preston, author of A Guide to Some Urban Fauna of India and forest consultant for TVS Motor Company which has urban-forestry initiatives going at its factories.

The garden visits continued for seven years, with the frequency steadily on the wane. However, when the visits stopped, there was a suddenness and finality, akin to what is felt when an overheated engine shuts off mid-journey.

“You do not see them here anymore, because the area has been completely built-up,” says a disappointed Preston. For his part, he still makes the mammals and creepy-crawlies feel welcome — to the point of leaving his house unprotected by a compound wall, and one ground in the three-ground plot completely vacant.

The Black-naped Hare (Lepus nigricollis) however had left the region never to return. It is by no means a singular experience.

What was once a common occurrence within the city seems almost totally restricted to isolated and protected pockets.

“Any area that is not disturbed and which has some scrubland around, would have the Black-naped Hare. You get to see it at Madras Christian College - Tambaram, Nanmangalam Reserve Forest, Guindy National Park and IIT-Madras,” Preston illustrates.

However, in localities organically suited to support Black-naped Hare populations, the species is largely a will-o’-the-wisp, leaving just a hazy trail, and remaining largely unseen.

“In 2017, along the tracks of the MRTS line, at ground-level, in Velachery, I saw the scat of the Black-naped Hare. The species should be found around that region even now. In places characterised by scrublands and grasslands, you should find the Black-naped Hare,” M. Yuvan, naturalist and author of A Naturalist’s Journal, stays hopeful.

Though the Black-naped Hare may be readily associated with scrublands, Preston touches upon the species occurrence data that shows it to be “not very habitat-specific”. To illustrate, it ranges around densely forested tracts as well as coastal regions marked by wide open spaces, as instantiated by their presence in Top Slips and Pulicat, respectively.

“A cosmopolitan species and not very habitat-specific, they can manage in any kind of habitat as long as there is some living space. However, if there is constant human pressure and presence, they will vanish,” says Preston. “Along the coast, on East Coast Road, wherever there are open patches of land with some vegetation, you will find the Black-naped Hare.”

Preston Ahimaz, naturalist and author of A Guide to Some Urban Fauna of India. Photo: Special Arrangement

Preston Ahimaz, naturalist and author of A Guide to Some Urban Fauna of India. Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Conceding that open land set aside for housing and agriculture is bound to give way to development sooner or later and one cannot argue about it, Preston emphasises that conserving the species would mean ensuring that areas designated as “protected” continue with that status.

As a warning, he conjures up a situation just because it is too ridiculous to be entertained in thought, let alone scripted into reality.

“You cannot breed hares in captivity — what is the point of it? Hares are prolific and will increase on their own. Just give them their habitat,” explains Preston.

The call of the jackal

There is a distinct timbre to a jackal’s howl distinguishing it from a dog’s. Of course, residents of localities within Chennai’s metropolitan area may still mistake it for a dog’s, as most people in Chennai’s urban and even semi-urban spaces, do not expect a jackal at their gates. Besides, for this majority, a symphony of howling jackals remains unheard.

A Golden Jackal at Guindy National Park. Photo: Vikas Madhav Nagarajan

A Golden Jackal at Guindy National Park. Photo: Vikas Madhav Nagarajan   | Photo Credit: Vikas Madhav Nagarajan

“In different places, you hear the howls of the Golden Jackal (canis aureus), at night. You would, in sections of Thoraipakkam and deep into Perungudi. Not many years ago, I would hear its howl in Baby Nagar, Velachery, in the evening and at night, when this section was undisturbed. That was before Perungudi Station Road was connected to the main road,” reveals Yuvan.

On the urban-adaptability quotient, the Golden Jackal trumps the Black-naped Hare by a long bushy tail.

“Unlike the Black-naped Hare, the Golden Jackal can live even in semi-urban areas, as they scavenge in garbage dumps” for a variety of leftovers that suits its eclectic diet plan, says Preston. In contrast, “the Black-naped Hare cannot live off humans except for some vegetable waste.”

Though better adapted and nocturnal, the Golden Jackal would baulk at an environment marked by huge disturbances, in terms of human and canine presence. Preston underlines that when these two factors are in check, the Golden Jackal thrives.

Vikas Madhav Nagarajan, naturalist and member of Madras Naturalists’ Society, recalls his first Golden Jackal sighting in an urban environment, as one in which a pack of stray dogs was hot on the heels of a terrified jackal.

“On the campus of the SSN college on Old Mahabalipuram Road, I have heard jackals howling. On the outskirts, around Mahabalipuram, there are many Golden Jackals — from Kelambakkam onwards, the possibility of a Golden Jackal sighting increases. There are just open grounds, and the possibility of them being driven by stray dogs is low,” adds Vikas.

As dogs and jackals belong to the same family (canidae) and sub-family (caninae), any diseases harboured by the former can be transferred to jackals. Yuvan says mange-ridden Golden Jackals in urban spaces are not uncommon. As with the Black-naped Hare, protected areas hold out hope for the Golden Jackal.

“At Guindy National Park (GNP), I would have seen 15 individuals. I would be on the road, and they would be sitting there; they would not run away on seeing you,” says Vikas, who would frequent GNP through 2016 as part of a special wildlife study project. “The Theosophical Society also has a Golden Jackal population; and I have seen a pack of five.”

Yuvan points out that MCC Tambaram should be having a healthy population of Golden Jackals.

Grey facts

When was the last time you ran into the Indian Grey Mongoose (Herpestes edwardsi) ?

“I have not seen the Indian Grey Mongoose in a very long time, and they used to be very common in and around Madambakkam. It is a question of the human juggernaut pushing away wildlife,” says Preston.

A gaggle of Indian Grey Mongooses at Adyar Poonga. Photo: M. Vedhan

A gaggle of Indian Grey Mongooses at Adyar Poonga. Photo: M. Vedhan   | Photo Credit: M. Vedhan

Yuvan weighs in: “The Indian Grey Mongoose’s ecological role is important, and it is fading away from the urban spaces. In front of my house, at Baby Nagar in Velachery, I had seen a mongoose pair with babies, and now with the thicket removed due to a construction, this mongoose family is gone too. Currently, in pockets and places with less noise, the Indian Grey Mongoose would definitely be present. It feeds on reptiles, famously snakes, and on smaller rodents, and birds. Being a predator, it plays a crucial role in the food chain. We have to preserve habitats and leave thickets alone wherever we should and can, to keep this species in our midst.”

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 6:41:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/three-mammals-whose-pugmarks-are-fading-away-from-urban-spaces/article34005359.ece

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