When Worlds Collide #5: Close Encounters of a Wild Kind

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 4 March 2012

HELP! I’m under siege – from creatures only a few centimetres long.

Every nesting season, my home and office – both in Colombo’s densely built suburb of Nugegoda – are invaded by squirrels. Lots of them. They are not looking for food or asking for donations. They are answering the most primeval call of Nature: to multiply.

Evidently, we now occupy what was their roaming and nesting grounds for centuries. So they reclaim it, precariously building nests inside our wardrobes, window grills and elsewhere.

We’ve tried various tricks to scare them away — including hanging old CDs and mirror pieces, and laying wire mesh. Yet the determined little fellows keep coming.

One particularly fearless one turns up just outside my window, looks at me straight in the eye – and keeps removing fibre from my jute curtain. He reminds me of Scrat, that indefatigable saber-toothed squirrel in the Ice Age movies. (The one obsessed with acorns, always putting his life in danger to get – or defend – them…)

Some creatures who share our spaces are harmless, or even beneficial. A couple of iguanas (thalagoyas) who make their home in my neighbour’s ceiling mind their own business and keep rodents at bay. They multiply regularly, but their number seems constant. Do some end up on a dining table?

Not all animal parents are so discerning. We’ve been warding off a pair of small swift-like birds trying to build a nest inside the hub of a ceiling fan! They must be desperate to take such risks.

These are not isolated incidents. Many of my city dweller friends have had similar experiences. Human-wildlife encounters are not confined to rural areas. To the observant, there is plenty of life teeming in their backyards.

When larger animals come calling, they create panic – and hit headlines. In recent months, crocodiles have been popping up in our urban and semi-urban areas. Some were captured and released to far away marshes or sanctuaries. Others died from grisly forms of ‘mob justice’.

All this reminds me of Mahatma Gandhi’s words, uttered decades ago: “Wildlife is decreasing in the jungles, but it is increasing in the towns”

Crocodiles get more press than iguanas, monkeys and other species who wander into our gardens. But they all share the plight: running out of space.

Overcrowding is a common on islands. As human population density goes, Sri Lanka’s national average (310 persons per sq km) isn’t that high: we occupy No 44 in global density rankings that are topped by China’s Macau, Monaco and Singapore.

But our 20 million people share the island of 65,610 sq km with hundreds of animal species. Sri Lanka’s biodiversity is one of the highest for an island of its size. A good number of these are found nowhere else in the world.

Biodiversity is everywhere – not only in dense forests or legally protected areas (which cover about 13% of the total land area). As our numbers grow and with more of us living in cities and towns, we will have more encounters with some wild animals in our own habitats.

If we care for Nature, we’ve got to find ways of co-existing with them, even if they can appear to be a nuisance at times.

Take monkeys, for example. For over 25 years, primatologist Dr Jinie Dela has been following monkey-human relationships in urban and rural areas of the western lowlands of Sri Lanka. In particular, she has studied the western purple-faced langur (S. vetulus nestor), currently recognized as one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates, in home gardens and rubber plantations in Panadura and Piliyandala.

Jinie found that the biggest threat to monkeys in such areas is the loss of canopy cover due to felling of trees in home gardens. This means they can’t hop from tree-top to tree-top, the usual mode of monkey travel to find food. This is serious because there is very little natural forest cover left for these monkeys to live in.

About half to three quarters of people she surveyed in 1987 at her two main sites considered Langurs as pests because they ate crops or damaged tiled roofs. Despite this, however, less than 10% of affected people wanted monkeys destroyed; even fewer were willing to do so themselves.

Instead, most people just harassed or chased monkeys away. Live capture of monkeys was rare, at least at her two main study sites. Hunting varied in intensity, but was not common.

“Ensuring the survival of S. vetulus nestor requires addressing the major challenges of establishing linkages between isolated forest fragments in its range and maintaining adequate canopy cover and food trees in their main forest and modified habitats without further delay,” Jinie wrote in a 2011 paper published in the Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka. Read Abstract

We need more research on such interactions, not all of them violent or even dramatic. Our green activists must wake up to urban wildlife realities. Much is happening outside the protected areas they are so obsessed with.

Although I enjoy the tranquillity of the wilderness, I’m not a wildlife fan. (When you’ve seen one elephant or leopard, you’ve seen them all, thank you.) I watch life going wild in the human jungle. And I worry about how we treat the creatures whose spaces and niches we have encroached.

Just ask the squirrels in my neighbourhood.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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