YOUNG WORLD

Time to think wild

SHALINI UMACHANDRAN

An unusual friendship ... a still from "Croc Boy".

An unusual friendship ... a still from "Croc Boy".  

Whether you're the kind who runs screaming when you see a hairy spider or follow it trying to study it, you're the right kind because you're not stomping on it and killing it. As the world celebrated Wildlife Week from October 1-7, the best thing to do would be to understand that animals and insects are not just scary creepy-crawlies but essential for our survival.

"Wildlife conservation is not just another charity or cause to donate to. It's much more vital. It is everyone's job to create awareness about and be sensitive to animals' needs. It's not like giving money for cancer or donating blood. There is no point running campaigns for other causes unless you are aware of the threat to our survival by destroying nature," says Chennai-based filmmaker and naturalist Romulus Whittaker.

Wildlife week is a celebration of our wild heritage and puts the spotlight on all creatures great and small. "The goal is to educate people about wildlife, other resources and our ecology. India has an amazing diversity of native plants and animals living in a variety of complex habitats. However, animals should not be forgotten after those seven days. It is essential to have sustained campaign on the same," says Anuradha Sawhney, Chief Functionary, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India.

To celebrate Wildlife Week, NatureQuest, Chennai, screened the film "Croc Boy" directed by Rom Whittaker. "Croc Boy", which narrates the story of the rather unusual friendship between a village boy and a mugger crocodile, was the first Indian feature film on wildlife. The story is very simple — you don't really need to know a lot about animals, you just need to know that they're not scary and be sensitive to their existence.

Spotlight on all creatures great and small

Spotlight on all creatures great and small  

Says Whittaker, "Taking a look at what's in your backyard is enough to learn about wildlife. You find crows, squirrels, parrots, spiders, snakes and, sometimes, even kites in the trees and parks in your area. Observing is the first step to building interest. It's all about individual interest."

Delhi-based naturalist Ranjit Lal agrees that studying and observing life around you, seeing the changes that take place during the seasons in the cities is enough of an effort. "Delhi has a lot of greenery. Appreciating it will help you realise that what you do will affect other creatures. Most often, teachers themselves faint at the sight of a cockroach. If the students know more about the creatures, they can help remove their teachers' fears."

Experts say that there is greater awareness about the issue though there is still a long way to go. "More people are now asking for the tiger to be saved, particularly youngsters. As a result, we now see campaigns to recycle waste, avoid plastics and save forests. Every political party manifesto claims to champion the environment. But paradoxically, as the level of `environmental awareness' reaches dizzy heights the degradation of our surroundings has plummeted to unfathomed depths!" says Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary, a conservation and environment magazine that was started in 1981 to raise awareness among Indians of their disappearing natural heritage. The overwhelming response to the magazine led to the birth of Sanctuary Cub, a children's nature magazine, in 1984. Sanctuary Cub conducts nature walks, camps, slide shows and rallies for children with the help of qualified naturalists and environmental educationists. In 1999, Sanctuary started the Kids for Tigers programme, which reaches out to one million children, through 1,500 teachers in 750 schools across India. "These are the kinds of activities needed to create awareness about wildlife," says Rom. He says he often hops out of his car when he sees a group of children annoying an animal or reptile. "If we had regular clubs and treks, we'd be more aware that animals and reptiles are not scary at all. That's what we're trying to say through "Croc Boy" — that the lizard you see is really not that scary and won't hurt you unless you bother it."

Anuradha says that conservation awareness is definitely picking up. However, felling trees, poaching animals, land encroachments in sanctuaries and protected birds being captured continues. "Most often people don't even know that trade in parakeets and turtles is illegal. Despite the Wildlife Protection Act, which bans the trade and trapping of all indigenous birds, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which restricts the trade of foreign birds, the black market in birds thrives openly in many places, involving 300 of the country's estimated 1,200 species. At the Hoga market in Kolkata every Sunday, village trappers sell more than 6,000 birds to local sellers every market day. The next morning, the sellers offer their captives at other markets in and around the city. Hati Bagan in Kolkata, Nakhas market in Lucknow and Crawford Market in Mumbai are three booming bird-trading locations," she says.

Look around in your backyard to find new friends.

Look around in your backyard to find new friends.  

The biggest threat to wildlife is, of course, destruction of habitat by humans. "Imagine if there were one billion elephants running around the country. There would be no space for man. And that's what's happening to animals. There are too many of us and we're demanding more malls and flyovers, so there is no place for animals," says Ranjit Lal.

Campaigning for wildlife does not necessarily mean carrying placards and shouting slogans. A more practical approach would be getting out into the parks, listening and observing more and joining the local nature clubs. Sensitivity to the fact that we share the world with other creatures and respecting their space and right to life is sufficient. "You don't need to make a career out of wildlife and Nature. You can be a banker or an engineer and still make time for nature. I guarantee that there's not one uninteresting moment when you're studying or observing nature," says Rom Whittaker.

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* The housefly is the most sophisticated flying creature in the world.

* A spider's web is as strong as a bulletproof jacket.

Time to think wild

* A large eagle nest is big enough for two full-grown adults to sit in.

* Porcupines are very good swimmers and graze on plants in shallow water.

Time to think wild

* An elephant can run eight times faster than a human.

* An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain.

* A polar bear's fur is not white; its hair is colourless.

* Along with chimpanzees, bonobos (pygmy chimpanzee) are genetically our closest living relatives.

* Elephants calves usually weigh about 100kg at birth.

Time to think wild

* The blue whale is the largest animal ever to have lived --bigger than the dinosaurs.

* Though the name "centipede" means "a hundred legs", most centipedes actually have much fewer. The common centipede has 15 pairs of legs and is an agile hunter.

* Ostriches do not need to drink -- they can make their own water internally and get the rest from vegetation.

* Sharks have an unlimited supply of teeth set in layered rows in the gums. If one tooth falls out, a tooth from another layer takes its place. A shark may shed as many as 50,000 teeth in its lifetime.

* African penguins are also called Jackass penguins as their call resembles a donkey's bray.

* Lizards shed their tails as a defence mechanism to distract predators.