The World of Animal Supermoms

Moms…what would we do without them? Across the animal kingdom, it’s the materfamilias who rears the young. This International Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate the spectacular force of nature that is – Mom.

 

There are all kinds of moms in the world and each of them has a unique parenting style. This Mother’s Day, let’s take a look at some of these powerful women and how they impact their young’s life.

In this article, we’ll look at 3 categories of animal moms and their relationship with their young. Be sure to watch the videos of these moms in action. Here we go:

Mom #1: The Single Superstars

The moms under this list are the lone warriors of the animal kingdom. They single-handedly raise their young and train them to survive in this cruel, wild world:

  • Orangutans

Of all the mothers in the animal kingdom, Orangutan moms are the most patient, gentle and forbearing. Although they reside in groups where there are both males and females, the father seldom takes any interest in rearing his young.

The Orangutan mother is devoted to her baby’s upbringing right from birth. She builds the baby her nest in a tree (every night a new nest!), picks berries for her to eat, teaches her how to use tools, shows her ways to stay safe in the forest and essentially, makes her a responsible and contributing member of the group.

Orangutan mothers do have one fault though. They love their kids a little too much and spoil them rotten. So much so, that many orangutan babies stay with mom until they’re 10-12 years old.

  • Ruby-throated hummingbird

The female ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most diligent birds in the animal kingdom. She really works very hard when raising her young. A single mother by all definitions, her mate’s role ends at egg fertilization.

Once she’s ready to lay her eggs, the ruby-throated hummingbird sets about building the nest. It’s an arduous process, which can tire even bigger animals. Once her nest is built, she lays the eggs and gestation takes up to 2 weeks. Once the eggs hatch, the mother visits flower-upon-flower collecting nectar for her young. She makes repeat visits for days until the young are ready to take flight and fend for themselves.

For a mom this size, that’s a lot of work.

Mom #2: The Gritty Girl Gangs

Strength comes in numbers and these moms understand the immense benefits of community child rearing:

  • Elephants

When it comes to elephants, there is no such thing as a ‘single parent’. One cow-elephant having a baby equates to the entire herd having a baby. For elephants, the birth of a calf is a monumental occasion. The entire herd comes together to raise the baby after the mother’s 22 month gestation period. In fact, elephant calves spend more time with their aunts and siblings than their mothers. When a calf is threatened, each member of the group stops what she is doing and answers the baby’s call.

Elephant herds have designated babysitters (adolescent females a year or two from maturity, practicing their mothering skills), who take an active role in educating the calf and teaching it how to use its trunk, how to select the right leaves and how to be an asset to the herd.

  • Orcas

Have you ever seen an orca pod teaching the calf to hunt? No? Well, you should. Orcas are one of the most fearsome predators of the oceans and they are one species that believe in giving their young a hands-on learning experience.

When a calf is born, the entire pod (which is matrilineal) works together in caring for, feeding, cleaning and protecting the young from danger. When the calf is old enough to hunt, the mother (with her sisters, nieces and mother), takes the calf on hunting tours and teaches it to hunt seals and penguins.

This girl gang sticks up for its babies and there’s nothing they won’t do to keep the calves safe from harm.

Mom #3: The Paragons of Sacrifice

If the rest of the animal kingdom believes in staying alive for their young, there are those moms who willingly embrace death to give their wards a better chance at survival:

  • Octopus

When it comes to maternal devotion, no animal can beat the octopus. After laying her brood of eggs (that number in the tens of thousands), the mother octopus painstakingly works on keeping the eggs dirt-free. She gently blows freshwater on the eggs to keep them hydrated and nourished and spends up to 14 months protecting her eggs from predators.

During this time, the octopus does not leave her nest even for a second to feed and in the process wastes away into nothing. By the time the eggs are ready to hatch, the octopus mom will literally be a shell of what she once was.

In 2014, scientists found an octopus mom caring for her brood for 4.5 years! They aren’t sure yet how she survived that long without feeding.

  • Spiders

A parent eating their young is common in the wild. But Matriphagy, where a young devours its own mother is rarer still. But spider babies seem to find nothing unnatural about this arrangement.

The spider mother gives the new hatchlings her unfertilized eggs to eat during the first few days post-birth. Once this repository of eggs gets over, the mother offers herself up to her babies for their next meal. The baby spiders pierce the abdomen of the mother and greedily suck out her bodily fluids; killing her in the process.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

Are There Cannibalistic Plants?

Animals turn cannibalistic for a variety of reasons – hunger, lack of mates, competition for territory – to name a few. But have you ever heard of cannibalistic plants? There are carnivorous plants for sure. But are there plants that love their veggies? Turns out, yes there are. 

When scientists discovered that plants could be carnivorous, they were shocked. The discovery just went against the grain. But when they found out that plants could get cannibalistic too; it was a discovery that they just couldn’t wrap their heads around.

When plants eat their kin

When we talk about cannibalism in plants, we talk about plants which use other plants as food/prey as a parasite would its host.

The most fundamental way of segregating all parasitic plants is looking at how they function. Some parasitic plants affect the prey’s xylem (tissues near the roots), while others attack the prey’s phloem (tissues near the leaves). These plants grow hook-like ‘roots’ called haustoria, which they use to hang onto their hosts. The haustoria are also used to absorb nutrients from the host plants.

Dodder, aka cuscata, is a type of stem parasite that creeps and climbs around the stems and leaves of plants, biting into the plant using its haustoria and sucking out its juices. Hydnora is a root parasitic plant that sinks its haustoria into the roots of its prey, draining the plant of all its nutrients and juices.

Hydnora
Image: Hydnora; a carnivorous plant that feeds on insects also happens to be a parasitic plant. It’s a root parasite that feeds off other plants as a secondary food source.

Parasitic plants and photosynthesis

Another way of segregating parasitic plants is to understand whether they photosynthesize or not. In this case, there are two types of parasitic plants:

  • Holoparasites

Holoparasitic plants are a nightmare for gardeners around the world. These are non-photosynthesizing parasitic plants which rely solely on feeding-off other plants. They are extremely dangerous to plant health and some species lead to 100% mortality in the affected population if care isn’t taken to get rid of them.

Luckily, holoparasitic plants are quite ‘friendly’ to gardeners. They take a very long time to dry out their hosts, which gives gardeners and nursery caretakers plenty of time to tackle them. The dodder is a great example of a holoparasitic plant that is completely dependent on its host for nutrition.

Other holoparasites are squawroot, toothwort, broomrape and beechdrop.

parasitic plants
Image: Types of holoparasitic and hemiparasitic plants. Obligate parasites rely completely on their hosts to reproduce and will die out if they can’t find a permanent host to reproduce on; facultative parasites can reproduce as individual plants and don’t necessarily need a host plant to reproduce (although it can help if they have a permanent host).
  • Hemiparasites

Hemiparasitic plants derive food in two ways. They photosynthesize and gain valuable nutrition from the sun and soil just like any other plant. But they also leech-off neighbouring plants as parasites.

Since hemiparasitic plants also photosynthesize, they don’t actively feed-off other plants. It is only when they are unable to get nutrients from the sun and soil or they stand the chance of getting better nutrients from other plants that they turn parasitic.

Examples of hemiparasitic plants are mistletoe, Indian sandalwood, rattle plants, Indian paintbrush and velvetbells.

Parasitic plants and symbiotic relationships

Finally, the third way of segregating parasitic plants is to understand their relationship with their prey. Myco-heterotrophs are plants that appear to have a parasitic-symbiotic relationship with other plants.

A great example is the relationship between orchids and fungi. The orchids tap into the fungi’s mycorrhizal networks (tubular, filament-like structures that connect fungi to each other and other plants underground) and steal water, minerals and nutrients from the fungi.

Myco-heterotrophs can be either hemiparasitic or holoparasitic and despite masquerading as a symbiotic host, they add no visible value to the fungi.

The curse of the Vampire

Parasitic, cannibalistic plants do not root anywhere. Instead, the seeds look for a host and latch onto the host using the haustoria. A few days after feeding-off their host, the plants begin to voraciously multiply. Soon, the parasites grow to such an extent that they completely cover up their hosts and take over the neighbouring population. The food source is soon sucked dry and killed.

Dodder tree
Image: Dodder plant growth after months of parasitic feeding. The host plant will soon be completely covered and killed.

This feature of parasitic plants has earned them their scary title – The Vampire Plants.

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured Image: Vampire Plant 

Pledging To Protect The Planet From Plastic

One of the most dangerous man-made creations and a deathtrap for many, plastic is destroying the global ecosystem and its inhabitants. This World Earth Day 2018, let’s take a look at how plastic affects our planet and what we can do, to stop its damaging effects.

 

5 Ways Plastic Impacts the Planet

  • It depletes a lot of non-renewable resources

Plastic is extracted, processed and shaped using scarce and non-renewable resources like petroleum, natural gas through a host of other energy-intensive procedures. These resources take billions of years to form naturally and using them extensively to manufacture something as harmful as plastic is a wasteful effort. A look at current extraction levels shows that we have oil left enough for just the next 53 years.

energy-sources-5-728
Image: Renewable v/s Non-renewable sources of energy.

 

  • It creates dangerous landfills 

Considering how many types of plastics are non-recyclable and a threat to the earth, incineration was the only feasible method of disposal. But given how we no longer possess the energy and resources needed to incinerate plastic and how we do not possess the technology to curb the pollution it leads to, this option no longer remains viable. That leaves just one option open – fill them in landfills.

As of today, 300 million tons of plastic are made each year, 50% of which are disposed-off in landfills. Chemical leaching from plastic into the ground affects the food we eat and the water we drink. Landfills that crumble and dissolve into water bodies pollute the ocean and threaten the lives of animals.

Kenya plastic
Image: A large landfill in Dandora, Kenya. This is how most landfills around the world look like.

 

  • It pollutes the ocean

The worst impact of plastic on the planet is its impact on the oceans. The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch contains 7 million tons of plastic that go down to a depth of 9 feet. 9% of the fish in the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch contains plastic waste in their diet. Most of this plastic comes from land after washing down from factories and oil refineries on the shore.

Plastic garbage patches exist in the Indian Ocean, North Atlantic Ocean, North Pacific Ocean, South Atlantic Ocean and South Pacific Ocean. Essentially, all the oceans in the world today are polluted with plastic; poisoning the water and endangering marine species.

 

  •  It kills animals

Plastic is the number 1 cause for the death of millions of marine animals. Today, more than a 100 million marine animals are killed each year as a result of plastic in the oceans. Research shows:

  • More than 50% of sea turtles are ingesting plastic on a daily basis; so much so that their digestive system is severely obstructed.

 

Turtle plastic
Image: A Hawksbill turtle lies unconscious after a plastic wrapper caught around its mouth, restricting breathing.

 

  • About 400 stellar sea lions off the coast of Alaska and British Columbia get their fins and throats entrapped in plastic bands, plastic covers and rubber bands each year, which eventually leads to drowning and death.

 

Sea lion
Image: A sea lion caught in plastic wires and old fishing gear.

 

  • 98% of the Laysan albatross population has died of internal organ damage after ingesting plastic when hunting fish.

 

Albatros plastic
Image: Dead body of a Laysan albatross filled with ingested plastic.

 

  • Approximately 31% of fish, dolphin and whale populations ingest microfibers from plastic bags and bottles floating in rivers and oceans after confusing them for plankton and algae; of which 22% die due to digestive system obstruction due to plastic.

 

Whale caught
Image: A whale caught in plastic nets left behind by fishermen.

 

Whale plastic
Image: 4kgs worth of plastic found in the body of the Cuvier whale that washed-up dead off the coast of Norway.

 

  • It hurts people

People who consume fish that have plastic in their digestive systems, people who accidentally inhale/consume plastic in the form of sandwich wrappers, people who heat food/beverages in plastic containers (leading to chemical contamination of food from the plastic) and people who work with/around plastic, may suffer from a host of problems such as digestive concerns, asthma attacks, premature/stillborn births in pregnant women, miscarriage, male infertility, cancer and abnormal sexual characteristics development.

 

sea-of-garbage-2
Image: Rag pickers search through the plastic-filled Citarum river in Jakarta. They form a large part of the population that die from plastic-induced illnesses. 

 

What can we do to save the planet from plastic?

There are many things we can do to reduce plastic pollution in the world. Try out these tips and make a difference:

  • Replace regular plastic with bioplastics and biodegradable plastics and recycled plastics.
  • Identify the plastic you depend on and try to find alternatives to replace them. For example, carry your own tableware to the office – metal forks, spoon, knives, cups and plates – instead of using the plastic ones found at the office.
  • Avoid purchasing bottled water. Instead, use the water fountain or watering drums placed in public spaces and offices. Carry your own bottle and fill it at a water station.
  • Do not buy beauty products that contain microbeads as one of the ingredients. Choose scrubs, soaps and creams that use only natural ingredients like sea salt, yogurt, oatmeal and more.
  • Carry home-cooked food. The lesser take-out you buy; the lesser plastic boxes will be manufactured.
  • Take jute/cotton bags to the grocery store when making purchases. These bags may cost more than plastic carry bags, but they are sturdier, last longer, look more beautiful and are environmentally-friendly.
  • Make your purchases in bulk. This will discourage stores from stocking plastic bag in huge quantities. You can also ask your grocer to stock cloth bags instead.
  • Consider second-hand purchasing. From toys to lunch boxes, you can find many items, still in good condition in yard sales and thrift stores. Lesser demand for plastic translates to lesser production of plastic items.
  • Support and uphold the plastic ban in your state. Use only cloth bags when necessary.
  • Recycle. Take a look at this guide to plastic recycling to know what you need to do.

Plastics are a danger to the world. Today, we have innumerable alternatives to this white poison, which can help make the world a safe place. As creatures capable of intelligent thoughts and actions, it’s up to us to save the planet from harm. If we don’t, it could only mean the end.

For it’s just as celebrated writer Evo Morales said, “Sooner or later we will have to recognize that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans.”

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Featured Image: End Plastic Pollution

The Illuminating World of Animal Necropsies

There’s something intrinsically disturbing at the thought of an animal lying on a gurney, its insides cut open for the entire world to see. Something unsettling at the thought of seeing what they last ate for lunch or how their hearts look, underneath all that fur and feather. Welcome to the underbelly of science – animal autopsies, aka, necropsies.

 

Lolong, the largest saltwater crocodile in captivity, made his entry into the National Museum of Natural History, Manila in November 2011. Everything seemed to be going well at the outset. Staff who worked closely with Lolong was elated at how well he had adapted to life in captivity.

 

Crocodile lolong
Image: Lolong, the World’s Largest Crocodile in Captivity

 

This is why everyone at the Museum had been shocked when in February 2013 Lolong was found dead in his enclosure. His necropsy (animal autopsy) report showed that he had succumbed to congestive heart failure. The report also revealed that he had lipidosis in his liver, had fungal pneumonia and suffered from kidney failure.

But the most significant results of the necropsy report had nothing to do with the illnesses. The reports helped researchers understand why exactly Lolong developed these problems and helped them find ways to prevent the same happening to other crocodilians.

What is a necropsy?

Autopsies are performed on people to identify the cause of death. Necropsies are autopsies performed on animals.

As with human autopsies, necropsies start with an external examination of the specimen’s body to understand if there are any indicators of the cause of death. Next, the body is dissected and each organ is examined systematically. Tissue samples are collected from all major organs, the stomach contents are checked to understand diet (and if the food was poisoned) and the blood is tested to understand what enzymes and chemicals are present and in what quantities.

 

01_06282005
Image: Skeletal Display of Whale at the Nantucket Whaling Museum

 

In some animals, like whales and elephants, the skeleton is preserved and is sent to museums and veterinary schools for further study and display. Specimen organs may also be preserved for further tests.

3 Benefits of animal necropsies

Necropsies may sound gruesome and morbid (they certainly look so), but they have a number of benefits:

They help understand little-known creatures

In 2014 a completely-intact colossal squid was brought into the New Zealand Museum in Te Papa Tongarewa. This was just the second fully-intact colossal squid specimen in the world; a rare specimen and an even rarer opportunity to take a better look at these mysterious creatures.

A necropsy was conducted to understand their diet, mating habits and hunting strategies. The physiology of the squid was analyzed to understand if the animal had any special features which made it different from other squid species. The necropsy was also used to understand why the colossal squid grows to mammoth proportions and how it sustains itself in deep waters.

They help pinpoint and stop epidemics

2009 saw the Tasmanian Devil being listed on the Endangered Species list. This wasn’t due to poaching. Researchers discovered that the marsupials suffered from an unusual, highly-fatalistic and extremely contagious form of face cancer, called the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). Cancerous tumors would form on the face and neck of the animals, leaving them physically unable to hunt or eat. A few months into the illness, the Tasmanian Devils died of starvation and weakness.

Necropsy reports showed how the cancerous tumors spread across the body and how they looked and felt structurally. Blood tests gave scientists insight into the chemical changes taking place in the bodies of afflicted animals. The reports helped conservationists plan the Devil Ark project, which sought to breed 1000 genetically clean Tasmanian Devils with an immune system that was pre-designed to recognize and eliminate the DFTD. Recent research shows how human cancer treatment drugs may be able to treat DFTD.

 

 

Tasmanian Devil Cancer
Image: Tasmanian Devil With DFTD

 

They help identify cases of medical negligence and malpractice

We assume that zoos are the right places for displaced and orphaned animals. But little do we know of the horrors that take place behind closed doors. The Cleveland Zoo found itself in the midst of controversy when the chief of veterinary services was caught asking members of the zoo community to support medical experimentation on animals.

This isn’t the only time zoo authorities have abused their power. Scarborough Sea Life Sanctuary was found having subscribed the Humboldt penguins in their care anti-depressants because of the birds’ inability to adapt to the zoo’s climate. While the authorities claim that the penguins are healthier and happier than before, if not used judiciously, this could lead to an overdose and then death.

Necropsies conducted by court-authorized pathologists help uncover the hidden truths behind these animal-friendly facades. They help act as evidentiary support in medico-legal cases.

 

The messy nature of necropsies can overshadow the good they do for animals, wild and captive. But, with awareness, we can begin to accept and appreciate their role in conservation.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Image Sources: Feature image

 

Monotremes: The Round Pegs in the Square World of Mammalia

They aren’t reptiles, but they lay eggs. They aren’t amphibians, but some do take to the water. They aren’t birds, but they have webbed feet. They also produce milk and rear their young. Is this a case of an identity crisis or are we dealing with an oddball from the animal kingdom?

 

If you had to differentiate a mammal from its Animalia cousins, you would look for two specific characteristics:

  • Their warm blood
  • Their ability to give birth

Any animal that doesn’t check these two boxes is automatically disqualified from the mammalian classification. For the large part, this would be a good test to administer. But not when the animals under consideration are Monotremes.

Say hello to the non-conformists

The Duck-Billed Platypus

 

Platypus 3
Image: Duck-billed Platypus

 

  • Size

Males: 50 cms

Females 43 cms

Weight: 1.6 – 2.4 kgs.

  • Body structure

The platypus resembles a cross between a beaver and a duck. They have beak-like snouts which are actually sensory tools that contain electroreceptors. These receptors allow the platypus to sense the electrical pulses generated by other animals as a result of muscle contraction. The platypus uses these electrical pulses to find and feed on small fish and invertebrates.

Currently, there is one species of platypus in the world.

  • Venom and toxicity

Platypus spurs are connected to a venom sack found on their hind legs, near the ankle. The venom is a combination of b-defensins proteins which are designed to destroy viral and bacterial pathogens. While the toxin isn’t fatal to humans, it will cause excruciating pain when injected.

Scientists have observed that platypus use the venom only during the mating season when battling other males for females. During the non-mating season, the platypus’s body does not produce the poison and remains dry.

The Echidna

 

Echidna 1
Image: Echidna

 

  • Size

Males & females: 30-45 cms.

Weight: 2-7 kilograms.

  • Body structure

The four species of echidna are land-based animals and they resemble the porcupine, given their spines. The short-beaked echidna is an ant-eater, feeding exclusively on anthills and termite mounds. Its long-beaked cousins also feed on earthworms and bugs, in addition to ants and termites. They use their electroreceptors-filled snouts to find food.

Both the monotremes have a short build and large shoulder muscles which give them the physical force to dig into the ground. They are also ‘cold’ blooded, having a body temperature of 32C, which is 5C lower than other mammals.

  • Venom and toxicity

The echidna’s spurs are non-poisonous and completely harmless; it may sometimes be used for defensive purposes.

 

Monotremes
Image: Types of Monotremes

 

3 facts we know about monotremes

Not much is known about these mysterious animals, but here are a few facts that we do know:

  • They are neither mammalian nor are they non-mammalian

Like birds, monotremes have webbed feet, possess beak-shaped snouts and have no teeth. Like amphibians, the duck-billed platypus is an excellent swimmer, staying close to water bodies and spending most of its life in cool rivers and lakes. Additionally, like reptiles, they have a cloaca (a single opening that is used as the digestive, reproductive, and urinary tract) and they lay eggs. But this doesn’t make them solely non-mammalian.

The spiny anteater (echidna) and the duck-billed platypus possess certain physiological characteristics, like – the single bone in the lower jaw, the three small bones in the inner ear, hair on the body, high rate of metabolism and the ability to produce milk – all of which are endemic to mammals.

 

Echidna Platypus Physical Differences
Image: Physical Differences Between Platypus & Echidna

 

  • They lay eggs, but have premature births

The duck-billed platypus resembles reptiles and amphibians in its reproductory characteristics. Females lay 1-2 eggs at a time and burrow 20-30 meters below the ground to lay their eggs. The eggs hatch within 10 days of laying.

The echidna, on the other hand, resembles marsupials. They lay up to 3-5 eggs per batch and they store these eggs in a pouch that grows on their bodies. The eggs are gestated in the pouches and they hatch between 10 and 14 days.

When born, the newborns resemble fetuses (as seen in placental mammals). This short gestation period, coupled with the young’s need to physically develop outside the womb, is what is called a premature birth.

At this point, both monotreme species rear their young like birthing mammals. They produce thick, vitamin-filled milk out of their sweat glands that the young can suckle on.

This video of a monotreme birth is a rare insight into the reproductory behaviors of these little-known creatures:

 

  • The platypus is the echidna’s ancestor

Research shows that about 200 million years ago monotremes split from the line of traditional mammals and evolved physiological traits that differentiate them from placental mammals. Some scientists believe this could be an evolutionary reaction to competition to resources like food, land and mates.

Marsupials made their way to Australia 71 to 54 million years ago, creating stiff competition for the monotremes. By evolving different characteristics – like the ability to swim and lay eggs – monotremes were able to find new places to occupy and new ways to continue their bloodline.

The first ever monotremes were platypus-like animals. But over a period of 15-25 million years, a change was noticeable, with the body of certain species of platypus becoming more like that of the echidna. Scientists can only speculate that this was again an evolutionary requirement, to help monotremes adapt to the various geographical and environmental conditions of the new lands they were occupying.

 

Platypus 4
Image: Re-constructed Image of Steropodon galmani, The Earliest Known Ancestor of the Monotremes 

 

Living fossils

As of today, the duck-billed platypus and the echidna have remained physiologically the same as they first were when evolved. Little is known about why they remain in this stunted evolutionary form. But, with new monotreme fossils being discovered, there is hope that the veil shrouding these mysterious creatures may finally be removed.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

In Memoriam: An Ode To Sudan

The Earth heard a heartbeat

Like the pitter-patter of rain

And there lay in her craggy lap

The fruit of the womb, a tungsten flame.

 

The lone monarch of the wastelands

A blue-blood by birth

An oriflamme of an age-old battle

A torch-bearer for the Earth.

 

Born to a namesake land

He was the past, present and future rolled-into-one

An expression, an extension of kith and kin

To the bipeds a savior, a chance at a second run.

 

But to his mother, a babe

Who for 18 months she bore

A child to be left unencumbered

With the murderous truth of yore.

 

Over time he grew, a fine specimen of his kind

Became a father to three and grandfather to one

But he still had a job to complete

Which could lead to The End, if left undone.

 

But age took its toll

The bells had rung their chime

He was finally free now

To munch on the grass of time.

 

Given the honor of a guard

He spent his days in drowsy delight

Had his own tinder account*

Drawing attention from every king and knight.

 

Finally released was he from his mortal frame

Allowed to exit from this vicious play

Now onward he lumbers, to his next pasture

Look at him going, he takes your breath away.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Notes: 

Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino in the world, died on March 19, 2018, due to age-related problems. More on this here.

*Sudan was one of the few endangered animals to be on Tinder; an attempt to save his kind from extinction.

 

Image sources: Huffington Post 

All Hail the Queen: The Badass Women of the Animal Kingdom

They call them the ‘gentler sex’, but these powerful ladies from the animal world are anything but gentle. Strong and resilient, the matriarchs in this list are empresses; deadly and doting rolled-into-one. If you thought the men were accomplished, you won’t believe the prowess of the women. It’s time to meet the mistresses of the game.

The males of any species have always been considered more powerful, more creative, more strategic and more ruthless. But a look at these animals and you’ll wonder at the powerhouses that are females. You will admire them for their courage, their ingenuity and their desire to turn the odds in their favor.

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate the power, the beauty and the talent of the ladies of the animal world.

Meet the doyennes of the animal kingdom

  • Praying mantis

They say love hurts and love with a praying mantis is a definite stinger. Just ask a male praying mantis and he’ll tell you all about it.

Volatile in the extreme, the female praying mantis needs a satiating meal to willingly get into the bridal chamber; and who does she ask for as the sacrifice, but her lover.  During mating, the female praying mantis cuts off the head of the male and eats it; and saves the body for nourishment when laying the eggs.

Dangerous creatures to begin with female praying mantis are the original femme fatales of the animal world.

Praying mantis

  • Spotted hyena

‘Ballsy woman’, that’s what they call a girl who has the courage to counter the men. But when it comes to the spotted hyena, we may need to take this address a bit literally.

Female hyenas are the leaders of their canine packs, resembling their male counterparts in their mannerisms, behavior and also (wait-for-it) anatomy. That’s right, anatomically speaking, female hyenas possess genitalia that resembles the male sexual organs.

Called ‘pseudo-penises’, these organs are enlarged clitoris, that resembles the male reproductive organs. The pseudo-penises are a result of high concentration of androgen in the body, which results in the development of masculine characteristics; most notably the female’s vicious temper and mean bite.

Hyena

  • Whiptail lizard

Who thinks women need men to procreate? Well, the whiptail lizards of South America certainly don’t. These lizards are truly the ‘Amazonians’ of the vertebrate world and they’re skilled in ‘virgin births’.

The possession of an extra pair of chromosomes (compared to their lizard counterparts) allows the all-female gang of whiptail lizards to lay eggs that don’t need sperm to fertilize. These self-fertilized eggs hatch into more females, who possess the same genetic make-up as their mothers.

This type of asexual reproduction is impressive even in invertebrates (where this is common), but for vertebrates like the whiptail lizard, this is positively biblical.

Whiptail lizard

  • Bonobos

When Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata, he may have derived inspiration from the Bonobo. If there is one thing the pygmy chimpanzees can teach us, is that More Sex = Less Conflict. Mistresses in the art of seduction, the female bonobos use sex as a tool for maintaining peace in the troop.

But when this doesn’t work, they rely on their strong sisterhood. If a male harasses, victimizes or hurts one female, the entire band of girls gang up on him and strike back. They even go as far as refusing sex for an entire lot of eligible bachelors; finally forcing the males to intervene and punish the bad-mannered member.

When things simmer down and the men behave, the females ‘swing’ into action and treat them to some sweet loving.

Bonobo

  • Elephants

When it comes to females who break the glass ceiling, nothing beats the elephants. Their organizational ability and leadership skills will put an A-list CEO to shame. If there’s something we can learn from them it’s – girl power and perseverance.

The matronly matriarchs of the animal world, female elephants lead groups of up to 100 across the vast savannah in search of food and water, all the while managing a bunch of boisterous whippersnappers. Most of the matriarchs in the herd are over 50 years old (quite old in elephant years) and they take an active interest in collectively raising the calves.

The best way to describe a herd of female elephants is as a ‘self-reliant society’. There are no males allowed in this group.

Elephant herd

  • Orcas

All of the greatest lineages in history have one thing in common – they’ve all been led by powerful and enterprising women. The same is true with the killer whales.

Orcas form bonds for life and when a daughter is born, she stays with her mother until the very end. Often, daughters and mothers stay together even after the daughter has daughters of her own. These ladies form large pods called ‘matrilines’, which include hundreds of female killer whales.

The mothers teach their daughters to hunt, to raise young and to even toy with the emotions of the males. If there’s ever an orphaned baby or an adolescent she-calf, you can rest assured she won’t be alone for long. Protective in the extreme, a mother orca will never let anyone hurt a young female.

Killer whale

  • Honeybees

What can you say about a colony that spends its life serving the Queen? A completely matriarchal society, life in a honeybee colony revolves around their female sovereign.

Right from the time they are born, all drones (synonyms – good-for-nothing and hanger-on ;)) are trained to serve the queen. The females in the colony take center stage and spend their lives selecting a single queen bee, raising her on royal jelly and taking care of her every need.

If the queen dies, don’t worry. Chances are, the females have already identified an heir, who is also a woman; and are in the process of transforming her from a pauper to a princess.

Honeybee

There are many more females who deserve a mention on this list, but we’ll leave them for next time. Till then, long live the Queen!

-NISHA PRAKASH

Farting Herring and Other Fish that Break Wind

Boom-boom, duck call, honker and whopper are some of the many names it goes by. But in layman terms, we call it ‘farting’. Considered to be a mammalian feature, researchers have discovered that our sea-dwelling friends too exhibit the tendency to thunder from down under.

Marine researchers Bob Batty, Ben Wilson and Larry Dill made an outstanding and super-hilarious discovery in 2003 – fish fart. For their unique discovery, the trio was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize, given for highly improbable scientific discovers that initially make people laugh; and then make them think.

When studying Pacific and Atlantic herrings off the coast of Canada and Scotland, the researchers discovered the fish expelling gas from their bodies. When recorded on camera, the sounds (and the bubbles released) resembled human farts underwater. What caught the scientists’ attention was how the fish synchronized the expelling of gas, like that of an orchestra.

Fish

Upon further research, the trio realized that the farts produced by the fish weren’t fecal gas and didn’t serve a digestive purpose. The so-called ‘farts’ were in reality fresh oxygen that the fish inhaled through their mouths and exhaled through their anuses, in an attempt to communicate.

The trio of Batty, Wilson and Dill went as far as feeding the fish to check if the farts changed in any way (as they would if they served a digestive purpose). But, they discovered that the sounds and the bubbles remained the same.

Tooting their own horn

Herrings are one of the very few fish who have been recorded producing fart-like noises underwater. Scientists say these herring farts resemble the high-pitched sound a raspberry makes when squeezed.

Although not verified, researchers believe that these high-pitched noises are produced by herrings in an attempt to keep the shoal together after dark. Some scientists have taken a step further in this direction and have claimed that the ‘farts’ could be how individual herrings communicate with each other when part of a massive shoal. Given how the noises start only at night, scientists believe that the high-frequency vocalizations could also be a way to help lost or straggling herrings get back to the safety of the shoal.

Of course, these vocalizations are far from being a safety net. In fact, these farts act as double-edged swords, often attracting predators like whales, sharks and porpoises to the herrings.

An additional role of the farts could be that of a protective shield. The thousands of bubbles formed by the farts have been observed being used as a medium of protection at night. The air released post-explosion of the bubbles, creates a temporary layer of air around the herring, protecting them.

Not alone in the world of tubas and trumpets

If you think herring are the only musical creatures of the sea, think again. Here are 3 other animals that pass gas underwater:

  • Tiger sharks

Just like herrings, sand tiger sharks have been observed to ‘fart’. They gulp down air through their mouths and expel it forcefully out through their cloacas, which are penis-like organs that sharks use during mating. These farts aren’t a digestion-related gaseous expulsion but are a form of communication.

Shark

  • Cod

Male codfish have been observed producing loud grunts by forcefully expelling water out of their bodies. These ‘farts’ are in fact a form of communication during mating. The lower the frequency and longer the grunt, the more earnest is the wooing.

  • Pollack

Similar to their cod brethren, Pollack fish too emit grunts and buzzes during mating. Although resembling human farts, these vocalizations serve only a reproductive purpose. Apart from mating, most fish vigorously inhale and exhale air underwater, in an attempt to maintain buoyancy.

A talent of the mammals?

So far, only mammals have been observed producing farts and expelling fecal gas. Even dolphins, whales and other cetaceans like porpoises and dorudons have been observed to fart; and these farts are related to digestion. It seems, for now, the talent of breaking wind remains with the mammalians.

P.S: You may come across this video online entitled ‘shark fart’. Please note that this is a shark ‘pooping’. Apart from sand tiger sharks, no other shark species have been found to expel gas.

-NISHA PRAKASH

5 Things You Need to Know About Elephant Tusks

Over 30,000 elephants are killed each year globally for their tusks. The demand comes primarily from Asian markets where they are believed to possess medicinal properties. 

 An elephant’s tusks are its crowning glory and unfortunately, they’ve held the collective imagination of the world’s poachers for decades. While we do know that they are prized for their appearance, texture and medicinal properties, there are some facts about elephant tusks that scientists have recently discovered.

Let’s take a look at what they are.

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5 lesser known facts about elephant tusks

  • Tusks are actually hollow teeth

An elephant’s tusks are elongated upper incisors made from dentine and coated with enamel-like cementum. This layer is usually called as the ‘bark’, as it gives the tusk its texture. When making ivory products, carvers leave the bark intact to give the carving a superior appearance.

The root of the tusks is embedded in the elephant’s skull and consists of nerve endings and pulp. This means an elephant experiences sensations like pain through the tusks when uprooting vegetation or carrying loads.

One-third of the tusks are actually hollow and the rest is filled with inorganic material and collagen, giving it the smooth shape and structure it has.

  • Elephants are right/left tusked

Humans are either right or left-handed. Similarly, elephants are either right/left tusked. What does this mean?

Well, research shows that elephants prefer using one tusk over the other; and they use a single tusk (right/left) extensively to dig up vegetation and to attack predators. This tusk which elephants use extensively is called the ‘Master Tusk’.

If the master tusk gets damaged or breaks off due to extensive use, it will continue to grow, so long as the damage/breakage is not at the root. A tusk that breaks-off at the root does not regenerate and leads to the elephant developing a life-threating infection.

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  • Most tuskers today have lost the ‘big tusk’ gene

Tusk size is a matter of genetics and when there are more male elephants with big tusks, the chances of the big tusk gene getting passed on to the offspring is higher. But, severe poaching and big game hunting have affected the number of big tuskers available in the wild.

When this happens, females mate with males having smaller tusks and in turn pass on the small tusk gene to their offspring. If the female herself is tuskless, chances of having a tuskless offspring increase.

An example is the poaching of a big tusker in Africa, who had the largest recorded tusk in the world measuring 138 inches long and weighing 314 pounds (over 140 kg). Loss of big tuskers like this, thins out the herd, leaving behind only those males with short and thin tusks.

This is why today; the majority of elephants have smaller tusks. If poaching and big game hunting aren’t curbed soon, we may soon find that no big tuskers exist in the future.

  • Elephant calves have milk tusks

Just like baby humans with temporary milk teeth, baby elephants start out with temporary tusks at birth. These tusks remain for a year and are replaced by permanent ones which last the elephant’s lifetime.

An important thing to note is that both the male and female African elephants are born with tusks, although the ones on females are shorter than the ones on males. Surprisingly, in their Asian counterparts, about 50% of the females have short tusks called ‘tushes’, while only a handful of males have tusks.

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  • Elephant ivory costs $1500 and upwards on the black market

Hairpins, combs, needles, buttons, chopsticks, piano keys, billiards balls, door handles…the list of items that can be made using elephant ivory is endless. Ivory is also used to carve ornate art pieces, which are sold to the highest bidder on the black market. In Asia, elephant ivory is also powdered and used in traditional medicine as pain relievers and Viagra.

Ivory has always been a durable, investment-worthy commodity, fetching as high as $2,100 per kilo of raw ivory. But thankfully, with the Chinese (the largest ivory consumers in the world) banning ivory trade, there’s been a reduction in demand for ivory. Following China’s example, the United States is calling for a worldwide ban on ivory sales.

With the bans coming into effect, today a kilo of ivory costs just $500. 2018 is certainly turning out to be the Year of the Elephant

-NISHA PRAKASH

Dulcet Darlings: The Evolution of Birdsong

Hoots, caws and chirps…who hasn’t heard them? From fresh-spun melodies to clockwork calling, birds have enthralled us with their ability to spin brilliant ditties from out of nowhere. But how did these birdsongs evolve and where are they headed?

A songbird’s panpipes

Scientific expeditions to Cape Lamb in Antarctica lead to one of the most important discoveries in the field of ornithology. A fossil, named Vegavis iaai, was found in the harsh, cold environment. Upon closer examination, it was found to be a direct ancestor of the Anatidae family, to which belong today’s ducks, geese and swans.

But, while the fossil does shed light on avian evolution, the most inspiring discovery had nothing to do with ducks or geese. The Vegavis iaai remains to this day, the only bird fossil to have an intact vocal cord. The fossil’s voice box – the syrinx – is the oldest in collection. This discovery allows scientists to study a very obscure aspect of bird evolution – their song.

dino

The syrinx is the voice box found in birds. Just as with the human larynx, the syrinx’s primary function is the production of vocalizations. The discovery of the Vegavis iaai’s syrinx helps scientists understand how and why birdsong evolved in the first place.

Dinosaurs, which started out as sea creatures, evolved the ability to walk on land. Soon, this evolution went up a notch with their developing wings and having the ability to fly. A key finding of this research was how the syrinx (or anything resembling it) was non-existent in non-avian dinosaurs; proving that the development of a distinct voice box in avian dinosaurs was a much later development.

The development of the syrinx started a chain reaction in avian evolution. CT scans and 3D reconstruction of Vegavis iaai showed how soft tissue and neural development also evolved to accommodate the requirements of the syrinx. It’s been theorized that the evolution of the syrinx and the change in brain development led to the evolution of the birdsong.

Flying bird

Analysis of non-avian dinosaur fossils does not indicate the presence of a voice box or a vocal cord. Scientists believe that if dinosaurs did vocalize, they would do so with the help of the air sacs in their lungs or the crests on their head. The theory is that dinosaurs would fill the sacs with air and then force this air out to create sounds; a technique that is sure to have been an inconvenience to avian dinosaurs while in flight.

Researchers theorize that the origin of flight was the trigger that led to the evolution of a voice box in birds. The new environment that avian dinosaurs inhabited necessitated the development of an organ which could help them communicate with each other easily.

Re-evolution of the syrinx?

Research conducted on Black-capped Chickadees found on the Hudson River in New York indicated a change in the frequency, pitch and tone of the birdsong. Scientists believed that this particular species of birds may be in the grips of evolution.

Chickadee bird

However, further research revealed that re-evolution of the syrinx wasn’t the case. In fact, researchers were alarmed by what they discovered. The area around the Hudson River is the recipient of harmful chemicals such as Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were found to be the cause of the shift in the Chickadee’s birdsong.

Toxins from the PCBs were found to adversely impact brain development in the birds. The area of the brain that was affected was the one that controlled the syrinx and other organs responsible for vocalization. This alteration in brain development led to the production of low quality and feeble vocalizations in Black-capped Chickadees.

It isn’t just PCB that’s poisonous to birds and their song. A whole host of chemicals such as Bisphenol A and DDT also affect brain development and vocalization in birds.

sparrow song

But, it would be unfair to assume that these chemicals only have a negative impact. Song sparrows, when affected by PCBs were found to produce more complex and more pleasant-sounding tunes than before. The same goes for Starlings.

Environmental disruptions and the evolution of avian vocalization

While pollution is one aspect of changing vocalization, another is the evolution of urban spaces. The birds of the past didn’t have to contend with things like traffic, changing temperature and pollution-driven changes in airflow and air currents.

Today’s birds are finding it increasingly hard to attract mates and communicate with fellow avian, due to disruptions from people, vehicles, pollution and temperature. Just as humans developed sound-proof rooms to better communicate with peers, birds are slowly evolving the tone, pitch and frequency of their birdsong to better communicate with each other.

starling bird

While the birdsong itself is undergoing changes, it is difficult to tell whether the syrinx will undergo any physical modifications or not. Only time will tell what will become of it. As for whether birds will be positively or negatively impacted by this forced evolution; scientists are yet to understand how things will shape up.

But researchers aren’t afraid. Birds have shown extraordinary resilience to forced change and evolution. Researchers believe that they will emerge victorious and melodious after this evolution as well.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

*Dinosaur- representative image only

What is Biological Ornamentation?

Animals display a wide variety of spectacular accessories. But, what are they and why did they evolve?

The Colour of Love

If you’ve seen any documentary on birds, you’ll definitely have seen a sequence involving the Birds of Paradise. Producers of bird documentaries may fail to include many winged beings in their film, but the one species they will never miss is the Birds of Paradise. Why? Their colourful plumage and brilliant displays of courtship are the answers.

Birds of Paradise, the males, in particular, have exceptionally colourful feathers and tails. They are curious little creatures who decorate their nests with the most eclectic of objects, from shiny pebbles to colourful mushrooms. Their unique courtship dance is an eye-catcher; especially so because it is only the males who indulge in them.

Bird of paradise

This brings us to the question – what do the females do? Female Birds of Paradise are quite the Plain Jane’s of the bird world. Neither do they have the beautiful plumage their counterparts do nor do they decorate nests or take part in the entertaining courtship ritual.

This isn’t true of only Birds of Paradise. In fact, there are many species where the male does the work and the female remains the spectator. Take peacocks for example. The peacock’s tail is one of the most spectacular in the animal kingdom. Whether roaming in tropical jungles or strutting about in a wildlife reserve, you can always spot a peacock displaying its ‘tail’ing glory with pride.

The peahen, on the other hand, is exceptionally drab. She does not have the magnificent tail feathers that her companion does and she has a more subdued personality. During mating season, you are more likely to spot a peacock strut to a peahen, than the other way around.

peacock-2479717_960_720

When compared to human mating rituals, where males and females play equal roles, the rituals of the animal kingdom leave the work to the men. It is the males which are more colourful than the females and it is the males who have the burden of sealing the deal.

Where Males Strut and Females Observe

In most of the cases (with the exception of lions, zebras, penguins and a few other species) the males fertilize the egg and move on, leaving the female to incubate the eggs and deliver the offspring. If you consider this fact, you’ll notice how the female’s investment in incubation and birth is significantly higher than that of males.

Therefore, once a female is impregnated, chances are she won’t be looking for a new male. The female will lay her eggs or give birth (as the case may be), care for her offspring and once the offspring no longer needs her help, she moves on in search of a new mate.

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But, the males, on the other hand, are woven of a different cloth. Males are designed to quite literally “sow their wild oats far and wide”. At the end of the day, the objective of any animal is to continue the existence of its own bloodline. A female, due to her time commitment, will be unable to fulfill this requirement. A male can do wonders here.

Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution spoke of two important aspects – sexual selection and biological ornamentation. If a male intends to mate with as many females as possible, the first step is to attract the female’s attention.

Ornamentation serves to attract a number of mates and with it greater chances of mating. Biological ornaments act as indicators of a potential mate’s health and virility, allowing the females to judge whether the male has the genes needed to produce healthy offspring.

Stags with bigger antlers, lions with darker manes, Polyphemus moths with large & hairy antenna and sea slugs with fluorescent colouring are just a few examples of biological ornamentation used in sexual selection.

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Weapons of War

Not all biological ornamentation is meant for mating. Some animals take this a step further and turn these ornaments into armaments.

Take orb-weaver spiders for example. These little critters can weave webs of brilliant hues. The rainbow coloured web serves two purposes – a display of virility to the females and an enticing death trap to prey. Bees and other nectar collecting insects mistake these webs for flowers and approach them. Once they land on the webs, it’s almost impossible to escape.

orb-weaver-198303_960_720

Stag beetles are another example. With one of the largest mandibles of any beetles on earth, stag beetles use these ornaments not just as a weapon of seduction, but also as a weapon of war. When it comes to stag beetles, there is a well-known belief – the larger your mandibles, the more likely you’ll land the female.

Stag beetles reside on trees. When a male sees a female he likes, he climbs up to her with the intention of mating. But, in 9 out of 10 cases, he encounters a rival in his path. In a storybook attempt worthy of being captured in the pages of a classic, the male uses his gigantic ‘antler-like’ mandibles to literally ‘overthrow’ his opponent. The fight for the dark maiden’s mandibles is won only after one male successfully throws his opponent out of the tree.

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The Time of the Females

While the males are the recipients of biological ornamentation in most cases, there are certain species where the females are more ornamented or have better armaments.

Take the female seahorse for example. Seahorses are some of the only animals where the male incubates the eggs until hatching. Post-fertilization, the female transfers the eggs to the male and moves on in search of a new mate.

Male seahorses, unlike their other species counterparts, are drab and plain to look at. The females are infinitely more colourful and are much larger than the males. The purpose is obvious. Just like male Birds of Paradise, female seahorses need to look unique and attractive to grab the attention of males. This is a classic case of sexual role reversal in the animal kingdom, with the male preoccupied with rearing the young and the female looking to mate more often.

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When it comes to armaments, females can be equally deadly. Take the female angler fish for example. A glowing spine sticking out of the top of her head and large, distended and extremely sharp fang-like jaws, the female anglerfish is gigantic compared to the minuscule male. The spine doubles as a glowing death trap which attracts bioluminescent fish towards her. The male angler doesn’t have any such armaments to boast of.

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The female black widow spider is another example. Much larger than the male and extremely poisonous, the females have beautiful hourglass-shaped red markings on their abdomen which are highly attractive to suitors and prey alike; although in most cases, the suitors turn out to be prey themselves.

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An Evolutionary Gamble

It all started with a lack of fertile females. With fewer females available to mate with and more competitors than wanted, males had to stand out from the crowd in order to get noticed. As time passed, evolution took its toll.

The change in predatory conditions, problems with weather & pollution, destruction of habitat and the rise & decline in species population numbers all had an impact on the biological ornamentation of animals.

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Over the years, some ornaments have remained the same, while others have improved. Some armaments have become vestigial, while others have evolved. The fight for food and mates and the race for survival are the primary reasons for biological ornamentation.

Today, we see so many spectacular ornaments and armaments on display; some of which were non-existent just a handful of years ago. Only time will tell what new biological ornamentation we will get to see in the future.

 

NISHA PRAKASH

The Display of the .275 Rigby and the Subversion of Corbett’s Vision

I’m currently in the midst of reading James Edward Corbett a.k.a Jim Corbett’s famous omnibus, which houses memorable accounts of his encounters with ferocious man-eaters in the Uttarakhand region.

The 1900s took on a nightmarish reality to the simple folk of the villages of Uttarakhand. The period between the early 1900s and the late 1930s saw thousands of innocent people fall victim to man-eating carnivores. The Government of Uttarakhand sanctioned expert marksman Jim Corbett with the task of ridding the villages of these ferocious beasts.

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While Corbett accepted the request, he did so on two conditions:

  1. He would not accept any monetary or non-monetary compensation or “trophy” for the kills
  2. He would not entertain any trophy hunter, expert or otherwise, to be present in the same area while he was hunting the man-eaters.

Over the span of 30 years, Corbett managed to successfully locate and kill 16 tigers and 19 leopards that were terrorizing the villages in and around the state of Uttarakhand. Single-handedly, Jim Corbett managed to save the locals from the mercy of dangerous predators while protecting these very animals from the hands of greedy trophy hunters.

A Large-hearted Gentleman with Boundless Courage

In his book, The Man-Eating Tigers of Kumaon, Corbett describes the tiger as “a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage”, whose natural prey isn’t humans. He goes on to say that the tiger (in fact, every animal that becomes a man-eater) is “compelled through stress of circumstances beyond its control to adopt a diet alien to it. The stress is, in nine cases out of ten, wounds, and in the tenth case, old age.”  His love for the striped  beasts is evident in his writing. It is clear that Corbett, who was a hunter and a marksman, turned away from trophy hunting and took up his hunting assignments only to help the poor and isolated villagers in the Uttarakhand region.

A Gift from the Government, a Lifelong Companion

The man-eater of Champawat was Corbett’s first assignment. The tigress had been driven out of Nepal by the Nepalese army after having killed over 200 people. Forced out of her established territory, the tigress arrived in Kumaon, where she added a whopping 234 more victims to her list. By the time Corbett arrived, she was already at her 235th.

tiger 2

Spending weeks in the freezing jungles of Kumaon, Corbett finally managed to kill the man-eater. By now, after a terrorizing rule of 4 years, the Champawat man-eater had added 346 people to her kills in Kumaon.

As a thank-you for ridding them of this menace, the Government of Uttarakhand gifted Corbett a beautiful, hand-crafted .275 Rigby rifle; one that would turn out to be his lifelong companion.

Near the end of his career, Jim Corbett established the Hailey National Park, which was renamed the Corbett National Park in 1957. A lover of animals, Corbett drafted rules that prohibited big game hunting in the region of Uttarakhand, as a result, saving the lives of countless animals. He reminded trophy hunters, animal conservationists and Government officials everywhere that big game hunting should only be taken up in extreme cases where lives are at stake.

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After setting up the National Park, Corbett hung-up his hunting rifle and took to a life of photography and writing. Today, the .275 Rigby rifle is a symbol of conservation.

 

The Rigby Brought to Life

Given the symbolism of Corbett’s rifle, it may come as a surprise to many when in 2015 at the 44th convention of the Safari Club International (one of the biggest hunting clubs in the USA), a replica made in memory of Corbett’s .275 Rigby rifle was showcased for five long days, where it served as the big-draw for trophy hunters and big game hunters. The weapon was advertised as one of the best hunting rifles in the world and was sold to an anonymous buyer for $250,000.

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John Rigby and Co., the manufacturers of the iconic rifle and one of the sponsors of the display at the convention, acquired the original weapon for an undisclosed sum. Corbett’s rifle was then taken on a world tour and displayed in various similar conventions. Finally, the weapon found its way home – to Corbett National Park. The rifle will remain in Chotti Haldwani village for the next 10 days.

Jim Corbett, in his regulations, has laid down strict restrictions regarding the usage and display of weaponry on the Park’s premises. While the organizers are terming the display as an attempt “to create an awareness for wildlife conservation and propagating the vision of Jim Corbett”, they are clearly disregarding the rules and beliefs of the Park’s founder.

The company also wants to work towards “the protection of hunters’ freedoms globally”. While their intentions are turning heads in India, in other parts of the world, their desire for hunters’ freedom is coming true.

At the 43rd Safari Club International convention, over 20,000 hunters reportedly applied for special rights to hunt 317 animals worldwide; an application that was granted. The group brought in $2.7 million from the auction of 317 kills.

On a normal day, the attendees of the convention are granted access to hunt from a pick of approximately 600 animals from across 32 countries. When special requests such as the 317 hunts are authorized, there is no room left for conservation.

hunter

Add to this the display of Corbett’s symbol of conservation as a badge for trophy hunting and you have people actively promoting big game hunting and trophy hunting in the name of a man who spent his life protecting these very creatures.

Events such as these actively encourage people to take up hunting as a sport and a profession. The killings of Cecil the lion and Harambe the gorilla are seen as harmless and helpful, even.

While organizers claim that these events help raise money for conservation of endangered species, it doesn’t hide the underlying barbarity. At the end of the day, one animal has to die for another to live.

Bullet

When mass-murder of animals is condoned by official institutions, it leaves all the work done by activists and conservationists like Jim Corbett undone.

Corbett created Chotti Haldwani, a village that is the model example of how man and beast can co-exist peacefully. He set up India’s very first tiger reserve and triggered the country’s culture of conservation. He wrote books that both inspired and educated millions about these stigmatized animals. It’s a shame that such a man’s name has been flung in the mud by the makers of the very rifle that saved countless lives, human and animal.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

Do Wildlife Documentaries Add Value to Conservation Efforts?

Sir David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II came to a close on December 11, 2016, after 6 breath-taking episodes that covered the majesty and beauty the world has to offer. While the show lived up to the expectations its iconic predecessor had set, some experts believe it failed to add any practical value to conservation efforts.

But, is this true?

All nature documentaries, irrespective of whether they are made by the National Geographic Society or the BBC have focused on both the trials and the triumphs of the species that call this planet home. It’s true that it’s absolutely exhilarating to get a glimpse into the lives of these creatures. But, we must ask ourselves whether these shows are encouraging us to actively work towards saving species from extinction or not.

giraffe

Recent research by the Centre for Biological Diversity has revealed that we are currently in the midst of the sixth wave of extinction; meaning, this is the sixth time we are in the grips of a potential mass extinction, in the last half-a-billion years. Habitat loss, the introduction of new species and global warming form the three primary causes for this plight.

Wildlife documentaries seldom show us this side of the picture. We are shown glorious sunrises and romantic sunsets, exciting chase sequences and heart-warming birth scenes – all without depicting the imminent danger of extinction.

It seems as though these shows are designed to capture only utopian moments, sequences that add beauty and which create unspoiled visions of a world that is not in the grips of extinction.

Considering all this, it seems as though these shows are only meant for visual pleasure and not for practical use. But, is that true? Have BBC and NGC stopped being relevant? Do they add any value to conservation efforts?

The complicated truth

The reality is, wildlife documentaries are involved in a precarious balancing act of sorts – juggling between entertainment and education on one hand and mute monitoring and vocal activity on the other. The truth is, without these shows being aired, we will for the large part remain unaware of the plight of threatened and endangered species. Many of the world’s preeminent researchers and conservationists were once children who were inspired to make a living out of conservation, because of these very shows.

The BBC, the National Geographic Society and every other science-based organization are creating avenues for us to better understand the flora and fauna that inhabit our world. While some hosts may openly voice their concerns about habitat loss and others may not, they certainly inspire us to stand in arms with those who are fighting the battle for conservation. At the end of the day, these documentaries provide us with the knowledge, the arsenal for the battle. What we choose to do with this ammunition is ultimately up to us.

 

-Nisha Prakash