When we look at human history from a grand evolutionary viewpoint — this narrative of how the Homo sapiens, unchallenged and unrivalled, came to establish its dominion over Earth — we learn what a world of difference half a chromosome can make. Our DNA makeup is 60% similar to that of a fruit fly, 75% to mice, 80% to cows, 90% to cats, and 98% (some half a chromosome away) to chimps. It’s true that you don’t need lessons in comparative genomics to establish how close humans are to chimps: just drive around Delhi and, amid all that honking and overtaking, you’ll make the zoological link in no time flat.
But it’s nonetheless humbling to retrace our animal roots and somewhat liberating to say — like the writer DH Lawrence tried to with every work, every utterance of his — that, yes, we too are nothing if not animals. That it’s really a fluke of nature that we’re here at all; and that our undeserved privileges of genetic superiority — our high mammalian hubris — doesn’t mean that we own the planet we live on.
We don’t and never did actually own the cities we’ve made our homes in. It’s worth remembering that these places were previously home to the multifarious species that we managed to drive out — out towards the suburban margins or worse, towards extinction. It’s likely that the human colonisation of Delhi, at the expense of a whole of range of fauna native to this region, is now reaching its acme. A city that was once considered the naturalist’s paradise now seems reduced to a sort of homogenised “sanctuary” that we humans have made as a refuge from the wilds. Delhi is a wildlife sanctuary built for the protection and conservation of man.
I recently came across the diplomat and ornithologist Malcolm MacDonald’s ode, in book form, to the Delhi of the 1950s and 1960s — a city, though caught in a huff of urbanisation, that was yet hospitable to nature. In Delhi, MacDonald writes in Birds in my Indian Garden, “one is never far from the unregenerate wild, the kingdom of the birds and beasts”. He goes on to talk not only of the many “bats, toads, frogs... butterflies, moths and insects” found near his home, but also about the distinctly identifiable jackal howls that he could hear each night.
I, personally, would take jackal howls over honking trucks or wailing ambulances any day. But there’s also something primal about this haunting melody — the howl as an antediluvian symbol of Delhi before its “fall”. In my conversation with Sharad Gaur, a Delhi-based naturalist and programme director at the Centre for Environment Education, I began by mentioning the jackals.
“Oh yes. At dusk, one could hear jackal calls in so many areas in this city. Especially around the Delhi Cantonment and the Ridge area,” Gaur said. “Surprisingly, we also had a good leopard population in Delhi, despite urbanisation. Between mid- to-late-’70s, the decline in the leopard population started. This was when RK Puram and Dhaula Kuan were first developed.”
Contiguity is the watchword in animal habitat conservation. And even for wildlife to thrive in urban spaces, especially larger mammals, you need a running stretch of forest land that cuts through the city. The problem with Delhi is that slapdash urban planning has broken that stretch. “Leopards,” Gaur said, “had a continuous habitat from here up to Manesar, but the forest belt is now broken. Only small pockets are left. So these days, the odd leopard comes out in places like the Chattarpur farms. There was, for instance, an incident there, when a leopard got spiked on a boundary fence.”
The Chattarpur incident that Gaur talked of — when a leopard got grievously injured after being impaled on a fence — was one of the several leopard rescue cases successfully pulled off by Wildlife SOS, an NGO headquartered in Delhi. But there was another, trickier and more challenging case that had come their way back in 2003.
The co-founder and chairman of Wildlife SOS, Kartick Satyanarayan, told me of the time when the rescue team got a call reporting a civet cat on the loose somewhere in Saket. “They told us it is a civet; we go there and find it is actually a leopard,” Satyanarayan said. “Many of us got injured in that rescue process. And the police ended up shooting the leopard — and unfortunately, they put a bullet in my leg also.”
Satyanarayan, clued up as he is like none other on the ground reality of urban wildlife, seemed like the right person to answer the question: is urban wildlife a contradiction in terms?
“This is the beautiful thing about wild animals: as a forested area becomes concretised, very often species begin to modify their own behaviour and adapt,” Satyanarayan said. “For example, snakes have now taken to hiding in sewers and gutters around Delhi.”
“This is the beautiful thing about wild animals,” he said. “As a forested area becomes concretised, very often species begin to modify their own behaviour and adapt. For example, snakes have now taken to hiding in sewers and gutters around Delhi. You find them in switchboards and electrical boxes. Mongooses: you’ll find them in the heart of Delhi, right next to Turkman Gate. There’s a thriving population of the grey mongoose here. It’s hard to believe how they have managed to survive in all that traffic.”
The stronghold for urban wildlife has shifted down under — insects, snakes and rodents at least continue to have their own complex and largely-untouched web of underground existence. All I can say to these species, as an able representative of the human race, is that we’re coming for you. In fact, with the Metro rail in place, we’re already halfway there with the mission to colonise the netherworld.
And what of the world above? The skies we’ve left to the birds, even though the birds themselves seem to be shunning the Delhi sky. The annual migrant bird population has dwindled across the prominent watering holes and bird sanctuaries here. So on my visit to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary recently, I was mindful of the fact that there may not be many birds around. As I drove through the straight stretch of road flanked with dense foliage, I sighted a black crow. A few decades from now, no one would be able to say that they sighted a black crow in Delhi. I looked for the domestic sparrow — the bird of my childhood — but I saw none. I asked the attendant at the gate if he had a list of birds sighted here. “Look,” he responded. “The thing is, there will be a list, when there are birds. Right now, you’re too early. Come around January.”
He was a middle-aged man called Lala Ram and he told me that he’s worked at the Okhla sanctuary for over a decade. “I used to live right here, the village next to the river. And the number of birds we saw!” he said. How many? I asked. Thousands? “Thousands?” he spat back at me. “Lakhs! Actually even now it is in lakhs, if you come in January, that is. But earlier it was many more lakhs.”
Lala Ram seemed like he was given to exaggeration. I had never heard of these many birds around Okhla, or even at the Sultanpur National Park for that matter. “Once, when I was young,” Lala Ram went on, “there was a leopard right here. And an old man from my village killed it using only a stick.” Lala Ram, I wanted to say to him, seriously now... “But then,” he was saying, “an Englishman had seen the old man killing the leopard. And so he shot the old man.”
Then Lala Ram simply walked away from me, no questions asked, as if no exchange had taken place between us. I want to say, following Lala Ram’s lead, that when I left the sanctuary, I saw a couple of jackals on the road, tails wagging and tongues out. But I’ll resist the urge, and put it on record that the animals I saw were just stray dogs.