The UN Wildlife Day just flew past us. Did you notice? Perhaps not. In our hectic lives we hardly takes time to appreciate nature and wildlife around us. No, I am not just talking about the ones in the wild – the majestic, awe-inducing animals that send a frisson of fear down your spine, such as the famous Big Five of Africa (lion, l eopard, elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo).
Instead, take a closer look around. You will come across numerous lesser-known, seldom-noticed animals, birds, reptiles, and insects – the ones that are an intrinsic part of our surroundings. These creatures may never make it to calendar spreads or wildlife magazine covers, but they surely dart in and out of our lives, and make our landscape enchantingly rustic and uniquely Indian. So, let's take the offbeat route and get up close and personal with the 'Famous Five' of India.
The humble sparrow is so humble that it wasn't missed till it was gone. For many of us, childhood memories comprised sparrows flitting in and out of the very spaces we lived in – drawing rooms, bedrooms or verandahs. A few years ago, ornithologists noticed a decline in this avian population. People in urban sprawls realized the bird was gone only when it was, well, completely gone. Since then, several citizen initiatives have tried to map the decline of sparrows.
For many, sparrows or 'Goraya' is still the very meaning of the word chidiya. The good news is that the valiant sparrow can and will return if you give it what it needs: a shelter to nest in, shrubs and low bushes to find insects (to feed its young) and protection from predators. If you want the sparrow back in your garden, allow native bushes to grow and invest in a nest box, or make your own.
The tiny weaver bird is not intimidated by the size of the huge world, despite the fact that their population is dipping dangerously. The male weaver bird painstakingly makes dozens of surahi or urn-shaped nests from twigs that he collects. You may have seen these works of art hanging from trees.
Did you know that a male weaver makes many nests on a single tree to get the girl of his dreams? And after all the hard work, the female comes to check out the veritable apartment complex and chooses the tree and nest she likes the most! Craftsmanship, thy name is weaver bird.
The modest girgit, or garden lizard wears frills on his head and a perpetual scowl. You will find them in any garden with Indian (not foreign) shrubs and plants. The garden lizards look stony – you can catch them basking in the winter sun, seemingly unmoving – but it flicks its tail and is atop its prey even before you can blink. This animal is a powerful pest control agent, and its presence also means you are tending a truly Indian garden.
You may have seen these ferret-like creatures but not noticed them closely. Incredibly swift and found all over the country, the Indian mongoose was immortalised as one of the heroes in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book as the tenacious Rikki Tikki Tavi. It fought his enemy, the Nag on several occasions. In real life, mongoose show the same spirit, taking on snakes many times their size. You can say that the mongoose or nevala is quintessentially Indian. It is a tough survivor – a slumdog, getting by with minimum fuss and maximum fire in the belly.
This monkey with black face and a sleek silver coat is much maligned. It is blamed for the antics of its naughtier cousin, the rhesus monkey. But unlike the rhesus, langurs are quieter and possess a ballerina's grace. Their long tails let them climb the highest trees. You can see them near temples where they are fed, often seated in repose with their hands folded together. They can also be spotted in several national parks like Sariska and Rajaji. In fact, a visit to any forest or temple is incomplete without coming across troops of these solemn, closely-bonded animals.
So next time you meet any of these creatures, spare a moment and appreciate their beauty. The cheerfulness of sparrows, the artistic creations of weaver birds, the naughty-yet-funny frolic of langurs – these are small things in life to be thankful for. We can do our little bits for their conservation. Awareness and sensitivity towards wildlife around us will go a long way in protecting these species. We need them as much as they need us.