In the forests of the night


There is so much we can learn from the animal kingdom, most of all their peaceful sharing of resources.There is surely a lesson in it for us.

The jungle was bathed in moonlight; the night air was crisp and cold. I had parked the jeep by the side of the mud road under the overhanging branches of a huge tree, and by now my eyes had become accustomed to the dark. Close by, I could see a herd of sambar feeding in the shallows of a lake. My teeth were chattering and I wondered how the deer were able to tolerate the cold with such apparent ease. Pulling my jacket tight around myself, I took a gulp of steaming coffee from my flask. I was hoping to see some ‘nightlife’, a tiger perhaps, or if I got really lucky, a leopard.

My jeep was fitted with a powerful halogen lamp with which I could stab the darkness for a few hundred metres and more. Earlier, I had spied a crocodile on the far side of the lake, its eyes glowing like embers above the surface of the water. At night, in the jungle, hearing plays a vital role for the hunter and the hunted. Sounds travel for miles and for those who understand their meaning, night calls tell fascinating stories. It was a chital’s sharp ‘peeow’, for instance, repeated at 20 to 30 second intervals, that had alerted me to the possibility of the predator in the near vicinity. Probably the resident tigress with her cubs in tow.

Before me, however, the scene was most peaceful, the sambar showing no signs of nervousness at all. After a half-hour wait, as I was preparing to drive off to another part of the forest, she appeared like a phantom at the water’s edge. Tall grass lay between her and the deer and as the breeze was blowing shoreward from the lake, they could neither see nor smell the cat. Her paws, of course, designed for silent walking, betrayed absolutely no sound whatsoever.

No matter how often you see a large cat in a jungle, a fresh sighting is always an exciting, heart thudding experience. The tigress did indeed have her cubs with her, but she was not out hunting. Her purpose was perhaps even more important. She was teaching her young ones, no more than four or five months old, the art of stealth. And what a good job she did. There before me, less than 20 metres away, were a herd of sambar and between them and me, a tigress with two cubs passed by without the deer even realising her presence! The young ones almost seemed able to read her mind as they froze, or crept in the grass as she desired.

There before me, less than 20 metres away, were a herd of sambar and between them and me, a tigress with two cubs passed by without the deer even realising her presence!

We may never understand fully or appreciate the advantages of sharing resources as members of the animal kingdom do. Why is it that certain (nocturnal) life forms are active after dark, while others (diurnal) prefer daylight? It is really quite simple. By working in shifts, the same area can be used by more than one type of creature within a span of 24 hours. An Osprey, a very graceful, fish-eating bird may, for instance, monopolise a favourite hunting spot during the day from where it will even chase away other Ospreys.

Yet, when darkness falls, and the Osprey roosts for the night, its favoured hunting spot might be exploited by a Brown Fish Owl. Both birds benefit by not competing with each other. Such ‘understanding’ also takes place among mammals as different from each other as langurs and bats. During the day, langurs will spend hours feeding noisily in the branches of fruit-bearing trees. When night falls, however, they clear the way for bats, which may fly as far as 15 km to feed on the same trees. The Osprey and the owl, as well as the langur and bat occupy a specific niche, a word that describes any life form’s relationship to its food sources, or its enemies.


Bittu Sahgal

The writer is Editor, Sanctuary magazine