Silence in the tree

IT WAS ONLY WHEN I FIRST visited India (in January 1994) that I first saw animals that I had only ever seen in captivity, in zoos. It amazed me that in the heart of a big city such as Bangalore I could see monkeys running wild, cormorants drying their wings in the sun, and large birds of prey (eg kites) swooping high above the ground and occasionally making brief landings to steal food of outdoor tables.

During our honeymoon in South India we spent a night in the Bandipur National Park (in Karnataka close to its border with Tamil Nadu). While we were there, we were shown the fresh footprint of a tiger and saw elephants. The highlight of our visit to the place was taking a ride on the top of a large elephant. As it padded serenely through the jungle, it snacked on the grasses which it plucked from the ground with its trunk. Our guide on the elephant pointed out wild deer (sambar) that seemed unperturbed by our passing. It was a delightful experience. We also saw termite mounds that were almost six feet high. I had never seen such things before, except in photographs.

The elephants we met in Bandipur and have seen in other places in India are not usually ‘wild’ animals. They are usually beasts of burden in the employ of mankind. It was only when we visited South Africa in 2003 that we saw truly wild elephants. We visited the Addo Elephant National Park, which is not far from the city of Port Elizabeth. For the first hour or more, we drove around the park, not seeing any elephants. We saw plenty of other tourists’ vehicles but no pachyderms. At about one o’clock, lunch time, the other visitors’ cars and camper vans disappeared from the roads in the park. We continued driving, somewhat disappointed to have only briefly glimpsed a few elephants sheltering in a clump of trees some distance away from the road.

We were about to give up on the Addo park when we rounded a curve, and found the roadway blocked by several huge elephants with one baby. A couple of adults were gradually demolishing the foliage on a large tree, and the others were standing around motionless. We stopped our car. One of the elephants looked at us, menacingly so it seemed. We stared at the trunked creatures and some of them stared at us. The roads in the park were one way. The elephants showed no sign of moving away. We knew that we should do nothing to antagonise the beasts, especially as they were likely to have been very protective of the baby. We could not drive forward safely. “What to do?”, as people often say in India.  There was only one practical solution. That was to turn the car around and drive along the one-way road in the wrong direction. We did this without problems because there was no other traffic on the road at that time of the day.

Another of my wild animal encounters also occurred in South Africa, at Boulders Beach close to Cape Town. I was surprised to discover that in this part of Africa, admittedly one of its places nearest to Antarctica, there is a large colony of penguins living in the wild. They are so-called African penguins (Spheniscus demersus). They settled on Boulders Beach as recently as 1982. Other colonies of this species can be found on the southern African coast between Namibia and Algoa Bay (near Port Elizabeth). A raised boardwalk has been constructed at Boulders Beach to allow visitors to wander through the penguins’ habitat without coming into contact with them. It was delightful watching the creatures going about their daily life. However, the fish smell they create is very strong.

In early 1995, a few months before our daughter was born, we visited California, driving to San Francisco along the coast from San Diego. It was in the latter that we encountered another marine creature living in the wild. We stopped at an inlet of the sea favoured by wild seals. Many years later, I enjoyed watching wild seals gambolling near to Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives, Cornwall.

Our friends, who live near to San Francisco, took us out to Point Reyes one afternoon. The aim of the excursion was to watch whales. We were not alone at our destination. I looked out at the choppy ocean and saw nothing but the white crests of waves. Meanwhile, around me people were becoming extremely excited as they saw what they believed to be whales. It was a pleasant place to see, but as for spotting whales, I drew a blank.

Returning to Bangalore in India and sightings of wildlife, let me describe what happened one Sunday afternoon in the southern suburb of Koramangala, where my parents-in-law had a second floor (third if you are from the US) flat. The living room had windows that looked out towards a huge old banyan tree. It was a tree that provided endless entertainment for the observer. It was full of chirruping birds, busy squirrels, and often troupes of monkeys. There was never a dull moment in its complex network of leafy branches.

One Sunday afternoon, my in-laws had invited Dr and Mrs Srinivasan to take tea with us. We sat by the window with our chairs arranged in a semicircle so that we could enjoy the lovely view of the tree. The windows were open. After some time, I noticed that there was no sound coming from the birds in the banyan. The squirrels were not scuttling about in the branches. It was unusually and eerily silent. Then, I noticed it. At the base of the tree, there was a cobra, its head posed as it is depicted in Hindu temple sculptures. The presence of this motionless, almost statuesque, reptile had silenced the birds and stilled the squirrels. Dr Srinivasan and I were spellbound. I did not have my camera with me. I did not want to leave the cobra lest it disappeared and, also, realised that the camera I used then would not have captured the reptile adequately. Eventually, after we had finished our tea and snacks, the snake moved on and normal activity resumed in the branches of the banyan. This experience of wildlife was for me more exciting than the elephants, monkeys, kites, and the penguins.

Tragically, the owners of the land (who should best remain unnamed) on which the banyan tree grew, a protected plant, illegally felled the banyan one night to clear the land for a building project. Fortunately, this happened after my father-in-law had passed away because he would have been heartbroken if he had been alive to see it. The view of the banyan tree is what endeared him to the flat that he and my mother-in-law bought to live the closing years of their life.

Returning to London, another big city, it is not difficult to spot wildlife. After dark, foxes are commonly seen even on streets quite near the centre of the city. Our local open space, Kensington Gardens, is well-populated with green parakeets. They are wild but at the same time very tame. They, like the ubiquitous grey squirrels, are happy to feed from the hands of visitors. Although I have yet to see a truly exotic wild creature in London, plenty of marine fowl take advantage of the rich pickings available in the capital. Years ago, my PhD supervisor, a keen naturalist, explained to me that the vegetation growing on the banks of railway lines serve as corridors or extensions of countryside that reach right into the heart of London. It is along these that wildlife makes its way into the centre of the city.

Although I would not usually go out of my way to visit a nature reserve or safari park, I do get a thrill when I spot a creature that I normally associate with zoos in the wild. I will bring this to an end with one more tale from India.

There is a wildlife reserve close to Mysore in the State of Karnataka. We visited this with our then small daughter and three members of the Karnataka State Forestry Police, who were looking after us as guests of the then Commissioner of this police force. Looking after us was clearly more fun for the three officers than their normal routine. When we entered the reserve, they noticed that a boat was just about to set off for a trip around a lake. It was a large rowing boat already crammed full of Indian tourists. All six of us squeezed into the boat and we cast off. There were no life-jackets on board and the boat was so full that its edge was less than an inch above the surface of the lake. Being of a slightly nervous disposition, my heart was in my mouth as the boat swayed port to starboard and vice-versa. Had I been prone to panic attacks, I would have had one when I realised that what I thought were logs floating on the water were, in fact, crocodiles. Luckily, I survived the trip, but still shudder when I think that we were far closer to the crocs than we were to the fearsome cobra.

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