Thursday, January 08, 2009

India II: Animal Kingdom

MITHRIDATES
India may have a democracy for its people, but the animals don't appear to recognize it. They are the undisputed kings of this country. That's an elephant walking down the street in Udaipur. Happens all the time. Taxi, rickshaw, scooter? Sorry, you'll just have to wait for Babar to make his way up the hill — and he ain't in no hurry. Even the cow gets out of the way. You think cows are messy? What happens when our big gray friend feels the need to relieve himself? There's no alternate week street cleaning service — it just becomes part of the permanent living landscape. Man can pave the roads, but the cows, dogs and elephants spend the next several decades reclaiming it for themselves.

And what of those sacred cows? In most states in India it is illegal to kill a cow. As a result, not only does one have to settle for a bowel-disturbing Chicken Maharaja King at the McDonald's at Mumbai Central, but once a cow stops giving milk its owner releases it into the wild. "Wild" in India meaning everything from backcountry to the side of the highway to the middle of town. I stayed for a couple of days with a family in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, and one such noble creature had made his retirement home in a small field in a packed residential area. No cricket to be played there. And wherever we went cows ate from the dumpster, crowded the streets, and created fertilizer. If cows are sacred and god is in the cow, then is that godshit I just stepped in?

But they're not alone. Wild (again, rabid?) dogs abound. The good news is that Indian dogs — unlike their Ecuadorian counterparts — seem pretty chill. You might have to step over several each block, but they're so used to the multitude and have nothing to guard that they leave passers by alone. Petting one might lead to a few trips to the clinic, but other than that they seemed harmless. One lucky mongrel got to ride in the lap of his scooter-riding master down the highway. Quite a remarkable training feat if you ask me — or maybe its just instinct to curl up in a ball and stay put.

I grew quite fond of the neighborhood monkeys. Two of them made the rounds every morning and one liked to stop right in the open doorway. Never came in the living room though, just took a peek in, watched a bit of the cricket, and went on his merry way.

But the leopards were the highlight. In southern Rajasthan, in the Mt Abu-Udaipur-Jodhpur triangle is a giant wildlife refuge filled with Panthera Pardi. I'm not sure what "refuge" means in India — other than the government owns the land — but it did look like development was pretty limited. I went on a leopard "safari" out of Bera and in the late afternoon hopped in a jeep with the owner, Sunil, his son, and an employee, Debashish, to go looking for leopards as they came down from the hills to hunt. On the way to the refuge we picked up a goat — what's the goat for? — and Debashish tied the poor bugger to a stake at the bottom of the hill and got out of the jeep to wait in the bushes. We drove around for a while until we got a call from Sunil's brother that the leopard had made a "kill". Apparently, Sunil's brother hadn't left anyone with his goat and while he walked to his jeep our spotted friend took advantage and claimed her dinner. We spent the next several hours watching the feast — after rescuing our own had gadya — and catching glimpses of the two cubs safe up in the hills occasionally taking peeks to make sure some scraps were left for them. We were standing outside the jeep, probably fifteen feet from the big cat, who knew we were there, but didn't seem to care.

She ate everything but the hind hooves that were still attached to the post. Too bad about the goat and all, but the girl's gotta eat something. As it turns out, that something is often a goat stolen from the local village. This isn't Africa, where wide open spaces and plentiful wildlife allow the big cats to feast on wild gazelles. There's always a village nearby and the leopards survive in part by sneaking into a local's house and taking his livestock. The villagers don't like this, naturally, and sometimes resort to poisoning the carcass. When the leopard comes back to finish off his dinner, she eats the poison. In a case of local businesses looking out for their future where the central government is ill-equipped to regulate, Sunil decided to pay the local villagers for their losses in return for not poisoning the leopards. A small cost to the businessman, but a huge gain perhaps for the local leopard population.

Such a long post and I haven't got to boars, camels, crocodiles, donkeys, or the giant lizard who shared a cabin with me. Oh well, maybe in a future post.

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