Tag Archives: urban wildlife rescue

Stranger in the city

Caught up in the day’s usual hurry, the rescue calls pass by without much flare. I have even developed a standard script that helps me assess the real danger faced by both animal and human. More often than not, a snake would have wound up in the extreme corner of a garden, probably hunting down a rat; a more common location being in the gutter or drainage outside.

In such cases, we deem it unnecessary to progress with the ‘rescue’ as neither party is in need of expert intervention. The snake will move along just as it landed up there, unwittingly. In order to be able to filter out the real emergencies from false alarms, my first and immediate question is – where is the snake, inside or outside?

One afternoon I received a frantic call from a home in Vijayanagar. On asking my primary question, she reported that a multi-coloured snake was stuck upside down on her roof! Ignoring the obvious exaggeration regarding colour, I inferred that the only way this was possible was on a tiled roof or hut. However, when I asked her about this, she insisted that it was a concrete establishment, a garage where the family parked their vehicles.

What she was describing defied all logic, going against literally everything I knew about rescue and snakes from the past six years! This left me amazed, puzzled and no doubt, very curious. Assuming she had made a blaring error in judgement, I patiently questioned her once more on what type of animal she was seeing and whether it was a snake at all. This line of interrogation was met with a curt ultimatum – to stop wasting her time with questions and do my job, or she would call for help elsewhere.

That over-confident response was exactly the jolt I needed to spring into action. Rushing to the house, I found that it neighboured a mixture (chow-chow) factory that had been a habituated site for cobra rescue over the years. Still a bit unsure of what to expect, however, I entered the house with slight hesitation only to take in the incredible sight of a magnificent, 2 feet long ornate flying snake, upside down on the garage roof; her apparently ‘unbelievable’ report was true to each word.

Astonished to see this specimen – at least 400 kilometers away from home – in the middle of chaotic Bangalore city, thoughts raced through my mind at an unprecedented speed.

Specimen post rescue, safely contained

Some background about the ornate flying snake will give you an insight to my confusion. Non-venomous in nature, this exquisitely coloured snake’s habitat ranges from rainforest, dry and mixed deciduous or coastal forest (none of which can be found in the city). It thrives in thick vegetation and prefers high branches, tree holes or crevices for roosting.

Being arboreal, the ornate flying snake is named after its own amazing ability to glide short distances as a method of escape. The snake is light in body weight, its anatomy designed to incorporate a parachute like belly that offers good resistance to mechanical shocks received on falling from a height. All this is well and good but here is where it gets truly interesting..

The ornate flying snake is widely distributed across the Western Ghats, also found in Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and the Seven Sisters. Being more common to east, than south India, you can now comprehend my surprise on encountering this flying snake in some random garage in the city. The extraordinary nature of the situation only reminded me that I had to collect myself and not rush through rescue protocol.

Knowing fully well that the ornate flying snake is lucrative in exotic pet trade, I had to tread ahead with caution. I began to carefully interrogate the lady who had called in the rescue, asking direct and indirect questions to somehow assess what kind of people lived here, were there other specimens on the premises, did I need to call for backup etc.

The media covered this story extensively
This story of the ‘Stranger in the City’ caught the media’s attention, they covered it extensively.

As she began to retrace her steps, she happened to mention that she had come into the garage to collect prasadam that her husband brought back from Kukke Subramanya. Having thoroughly navigated and herped the length and breadth of the Western Ghats, I was more than familiar with Kukke, Kumaraparvatha, associated trekking trails and the wildlife found there. It was at this point that the story unraveled.

Her husband had recently driven up to the pilgrim town of Kukke Subramanya. He parked the car by the riverside while there and the arboreal snake must have slithered; travelling 400 kilometers to Bangalore without even knowing it!

My extended love affair with the majestic Western Ghats had me visiting frequently on work. These trips, rescue and other interactions secured me a place in the good books of the Forest Department at Kukke. I called and set up a date; with all the arrangements made, I enjoyed my few days with this legendary serpent before having to release it back into its rainforest home.

Slender loris in superstition

In the legitimate business of black magic, two kinds of people employ the slender loris:

The first are a unique breed of quacks who walk around with a loris in a wooden box and claim to tell you your fortune by placing both silver and gold bracelets before the shy (and scared) creature to make it choose. If it picks the gold (which it almost always does and is probably trained to do) the person will have to buy the gold chain in thanks, or her/his luck will be cursed.

The second type of slender-loris-abusing-con-artists price themselves at a premium to be used selectively, only for revenge and curses – they call themselves witches. They tie a personal belonging from the ‘victim’ very tightly to the arm of the slender loris who is then released. The witch convinces the seeker of revenge that the loris, being in tremendous pain, will surely curse the owner of the object tied to its arm, ruin their life to a point where it kills them. Thousands of people thus seek out the slender loris as the highest form of revenge – inflicting the curse of death.

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Unfortunately, in reality, the tightly tied armband cuts into the loris’ frail hand, stops blood circulation and the only thing that ends up dead or severely injured is the loris.

Other myths clouding awareness about the slender loris exist. In Tumkur, the unique orange glint by which you can recognise its eyes at night was taken for a ghost, wreaking havoc in surrounding villages. This was actually the locals’ first sighting / interaction with this primate about whom very little is known.

Read more about the loris here: Urban Wildlife: Slender Loris

Featured image: BBMP Forest Cell

The changing urban ecosystem

Despite the major advance in science and natural studies, humans are yet to comprehend the full range of impact they have on the environment. Human action are merely the first domino to fall and bring down along with it complex and intricate natural life cycles that have existed for billions of years.

Bangalore: A study of the rescue records from the last 25 years shows an explosion in the population of cobras, Russell’s vipers and rat snakes while non-venomous snakes such as green keelback, olive keelback (pictured below) are disappearing. Why?

The primary reason for this is our inefficient waste management system.

Scientifically speaking, snakes such as the cobra, Russell’s viper and rat snake have adapted well to the urban environment. The main reason for this is because of the endless supply of rodents hosted by the surplus garbage in the city. With most of our trash going straight into the gutter, the rodent population increases only to feed these expert rodent hunters better.

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Plump, well-fed cobra rescued from Bangalore city limits
The non venomous species on the other hand depend on amphibians (frogs, skinks, lizards, geckos) whose survival in turn depends on a healthy ecosystem which we no longer provide (due to degradation of resources, conflict in their allocation, climate change, urbanisation and many other factors).

Unchecked urbanisation is the reason why our co-inhabitants are dying out; the fact that we have eliminated so many species of snake from the checklist of Bangalore in such a short span of time is devastating.

From our archives: take a look at these non-venomous snakes that seem to be disappearing from the urban landscape:

Juvenile green keelback (Macropisthodon plumbicolor)
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Yellow collared wolf snake (Lycodon flavicollis) feeding on gecko
Olive keelback (Atretium schistosum)
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Dumeril’s black headed snake (Sibynophis subpunctatus)

List of non-venomous snakes whose numbers we have noted to be on the decline (going by total rescue calls received for each specimen since 2010):

Olive keelback

Green keelback

Buff striped keelback

Vine snake

Common sand boa

Banded racer

Kukris

Bronzebacks

Common wolf snake

Barred wolf snake

Manja: The Invisible Killer

Kites, crows, barn, spotted and mottle wood owls are among Bangalore city’s most important bird species.

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Every day they are taken by a silent and invisible killer – manja.

Manja is an abrasive thread that found its use in competitive kite flying in the beginning and later extending to kite flying in general. Essentially, a mixture of gum and crushed glass smeared on kite string is manipulated by kite flyers to cut a rival kite’s string; and vice versa. The winners kits fly high as the losers kites flutters down. Spools of cut manja settle on tree branches and become deadly traps for birds on a daily basis.

As the manja is barely visible amidst thick green canopy, birds perch where they please and before they know it, are tangled up by the death string. In an attempt to escape, they wiggle so much that their wings, legs and neck break in multiple places. If they don’t die from these injuries, dehydration puts the final nail in the coffin.

Further, accidents in which birds die due to manja puts at risk rescuers too.. why?

  1. There is no safety equipment for tree climbing. Volunteers work on trust and good faith to rescue birds from varying and sometimes dangerous heights.
  2. Manja cuts through human skin and flesh too, injuring rescuers in their attempts

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The problem by itself is a fairly common one that occurs nation-wide; Bangalore loses at least two birds a week.

Painting a gruesome tale: squirrel poaching

The Indian palm squirrel is adored across the country. From feeding them nuts as children to nursing injured baby squirrels, these cuddly rodents form a familiar part of the urban ecosystem. Common to all Indian cities, especially in the south, squirrels are seen everywhere, but little is known of their plight.

Squirrels are hunted, killed and their tails sold to the paintbrush industry. They are easy prey for old poachers who no longer possess the will nor energy to go after animals that require specialised skill to trap.

Today, towards the outskirts of Bangalore, you might have noticed local people setting up small nets in mango and other fruit orchards. These nets are for catching these timid and harmless squirrels. Easily lured by nuts and food, poachers use calls to draw them near and when caught, their tails are immediately chopped off. Certain local tribes do consume the meat but most often, the body is simply discarded.

As part of urban wildlife rescue and seizures, squirrel poaching has been observed to be rampant in and around Sarjapur Road, Whitefield, Varthur and in the Kolar District (to name a few local sites).

Record shot of poachers' belongings: net traps and dead squirrels
Record shot of poachers’ belongings: net traps, bait, squirrels killed after capture

Role in Urban Ecosystem:

Squirrels are rodents, not scavengers. Their main role being pollination, seed dispersal and a significant place in the food chain, serving as important prey for carnivorous birds and mammals.