Let’s not exterminate the exterminator

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The mongoose has no natural predators and is listed by the IUCN among 100 of the “World’s Worst” invaders. But it plays a primary ecological role in keeping the vermin population in check.

The Indian grey mongoose is the most common species of mongoose found in our forests, open fields and around human settlements and, contrary to popular belief, is not a rodent.

My first-ever encounter with a mongoose dates back to my boyhood in one of Munnar’s tea estates and, sadly enough, ended tragically for the doughty snake-killer. One morning, we boys found a grey-coated and pink-snouted creature with a furry tail nosing around in our backyard. Strangely, it seemed quite unafraid of us.

Our killer instincts were aroused at the sight of this unusual intruder that we were seeing for the first time. And with the mindless cruelty of boys whose imaginations were fired up with Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson’s captivating shikar tales, we repeatedly shot it with an air-rifle before finally bludgeoning it to death — only to learn, to our utter horror, that it was the cherished pet of the estate manager, a surly old Scotsman who happened to be my father’s boss. Visions of Dad being summarily sacked haunted us and, needless to say, no killing was ever hushed up more effectively!

I was to learn later that the Indian grey mongoose is often raised as a household pet as it is known to exercise remarkable biological control over vermin, especially snakes and rodents. In fact, the hapless mongoose in question had strayed into our backyard from the Scot’s bungalow a kilometre away. Fortunately, he assumed that his pet had returned to the wilds and gave up the search for it after a few days, much to our palpable relief.

A long, furry creature with a pointed face and bushy tail, the Indian grey mongoose (or common grey mongoose) is the most common species of mongoose found in our forests, open fields and around human settlements. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a rodent. It is omnivorous though the bulk of its diet is made up of live prey — mice, rats, lizards, snakes, fish, crabs, frogs, scorpions et al. — that it catches as an opportunistic hunter. However, it is also known to supplement its diet with birds’ eggs, hatchlings, nuts, fruits, roots, berries and seeds besides scavenging on waste.

Well known for keeping the snake population in check, the mongoose will seldom flinch from taking on a snake far bigger than it. Indeed, it is famed for its ability to combat venomous snakes like the cobra — a trait that has been immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his short story about “Rikki-tikki-tavi”. It primarily achieves this by tiring the snake out by enticing it to make multiple strikes which it acrobatically dodges. Once it seizes the snake between its jaws, the reptile’s fate is usually sealed.

I was once singularly fortunate to witness a mongoose and large rat snake locked in deadly combat in my semi-wooded compound. However, I could not identify the ultimate victor as the combatants thrashed their way frenziedly into dense shrubbery well out of sight.

The extent to which the mongoose helps keep the snake population under control is debatable — a matter that is yet to be studied scientifically. However, it is indisputable that it does. From my personal experience I have found that snake sightings in my compound that were common earlier, dropped sharply after a pair of mongooses took up residence in the dense underbrush there.

Known as “keeri” in Tamil and Malayalam, the Indian grey mongoose (‘Herpestes javanicus’) is found both singly and in pairs. It lives in burrows, thickets, among groves of trees or under rocks in different types of landscape. It is believed to mate between March and October, the gestation period ranging from 60 to 65 days. 2 to 4 offspring (called pups) are born at a time. The mongoose is capable of breeding 2 to 3 times in a year, and it can live for up to 20 years in captivity though its lifespan in the wild seldom exceeds 10 years.

According to the IUCN, most species of mongoose — numbering as many as 34 — are listed as threatened. Apart from the Indian grey mongoose, five other species are found in India alone, namely the Ruddy Mongoose, the Stripe-necked Mongoose, the Indian Brown Mongoose, the Crab-eating Mongoose and the Small Indian Mongoose. The Ruddy Mongoose, incidentally, has a tawny-coloured coat remarkably resembling that of a barking deer. This sometimes results in its being mistaken for the latter and shot by poachers.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the Indian mongoose was introduced into the Caribbean to control rodents in sugarcane plantations, where it is believed to have caused several bird species to become threatened or extinct. This has led to its being unflatteringly listed by the IUCN among 100 of the “World’s Worst” invaders.

Apart from humans, the mongoose has very few natural predators. Though it is protected in India, illegal trade in its hair (for the purpose of making paint brushes and shaving brushes) constitutes a significant threat. About 3,000 mongooses are believed to have been killed to produce 155 kg of untreated mongoose hair that was seized by the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in 2018. And this perhaps is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Hopefully, better sense will prevail and the mongoose’s true worth as an effective ‘biological controller’ of vermin will spare it the fate of our other endangered species of wildlife.

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