Can A Just Urban Ecology Exist?

Image courtesy: Murthy Kantimahanti
Indian cities are home to many species - from deer to leopards and peacocks. But is the urban ecology a safe space for wildlife?

At the end of October, 2016, fireworks from Diwali celebrations combined with existing pollution choked the city of Delhi with smog. Flights from the city’s airport were delayed or cancelled, but nobody warned the city’s birds to be wary – a peacock flying into the city from a nearby forest crashed into a window and injured itself in the blind haze. Nearby in Gurgaon, dog owners found their pets wheezing and teary-eyed from the smoke.

There are many ways in which humans and animals come into conflict. We choke them out of their habitats, strike them with our cars, sterilize, shoot and set them on fire – all out of an unwillingness to co-exist peacefully. A graphic video from 2016 shows a leopard trapped in a cage, and set alight by villagers.

It’s a needless, shocking loss of life. Is it possible for humans and animals to co-exist peacefully at all?

The urban ecology

Monkeys, deer, kites, peacocks, leopards, snakes, anteaters, wild cats – these are just some of the species that can be found in cities in India. In Vishakapatnam, located smack between the Eastern Ghats and the Bay of Bengal, you might even find an endangered cat hunting fish.

The ‘Prionailurus viverrinus’ (known simply as fishing cat), with its webbed paws and slightly elongated nose, frequents coastal regions for their abundance of easy-to-catch fish, and is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s ‘Vulnerable’ list – meaning they’re at high risk of going extinct in the wild.

Fishing, cat, Vishakapatnam, endangered
Image courtesy Murthy Kantimahanti

Conservation biologist Murthy Kantimahanti first spotted the wild fishing cat in the city in 2012. Subsequently, research on the cat brought him into the international Fishing Cat Working Group – meeting fellow cat-lovers from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal to name a few. Among the fishing cat’s habitats, are now included the cities and surrounding regions of Vishakapatnam, Columbo and Chittagong.

The issue is that all cats, wildcats, prefer natural habitats. Even fishing cats predominantly inhabit wetlands. But we have also been recording them in dry forests, close to human habitations. It seems like the fishing cat is basically getting adapted to human presence and urbanization. You’re kind of pushing the species to adapt rather than promoting its conservation.

endangered, fishing, cat, roadkill, dead
Image courtesy Murthy Kantimahanti

It’s not just the fishing cat that’s been shafted by urbanization – Murthy has spent the last four years documenting the animals one finds as roadkill on Vishakapatnam’s highways. Once, he stumbled upon the carcass of an Indian Pangolin – otherwise known as the scaly anteater. It’s the most trafficked mammal on earth – hunted for its tails for use in Chinese medicine. In Vizag, it had become a victim of the fast moving and heedless traffic – along with other animals, like the fishing cat.

Living with leopards

Leopard, sitting, zoo
Image: 7MB

Increasing people-human conflicts have made urban ecology a fast emerging field of study. More than half of the world’s population live within these urban areas – and they’re by no means human-exclusive zones.

Mumbai is one of few metropolises in the world to have leopards in its midst (the other that comes to mind being Bangalore). These animals live on the city’s outskirts, popping out from the Sanjay Gandhi National Park – hunting stray dogs, and eating animal carcasses where they find them. They don’t necessarily dwell amidst the buildings, instead seeking out forested, bushy or rocky areas where they could hide from human sight.

Conflicts might seem inevitable – but they happen less often than one would think.In an article, leopard biologist Vidya Athreya argues that the leopard largely want to be left alone. With Mumbai residents frequently phoning up the forest department and calling for traps whenever a leopard is spotted, she’s published a set of guidelines for humans to better co-exist with leopards. In it, she cautions against unnecessary trapping of leopards unless they are injured or have attacked human beings.

There have been no attacks on humans in Mumbai since 2013. But every time an attack does happen, it bodes ill for the animal’s PR. An incident in a school in Bangalore that injured six made headlines – but for activists, it was an example of poor human reactions to a wild animal. Surrounding the leopard with human panic and media was no way to de-escalate the situation.

Everyday biodiversity

monkey, city, pet, urban,
Image: 7MB

India’s legendary biodiversity is increasingly a thing of the past, as biodiversity hotspots lose their forest cover. Cities shoulder much of the blame – as their boundaries grow constantly and without consideration for the ensuing natural displacement. What biodiversity exists has been dwindling over the years.

Andhra Pradesh plans to develop its new capital in the Vijaywada region, putting existing habitats of species like the fishing cat under threat. As India plans to build 100 ‘Smart Cities’ in the immediate future, the ecological impacts of such planning is an increasing worry for ecologists.

Harini Nagendra, in her book ‘Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future’, explored how our cities have changed from being a home to many species to being a home to a select few. Speaking to Madras Courier, she says:

Cities were very spatially differentiated. Bangalore East was very different from Bangalore West – photographically, ecologically and culturally. We forgot that difference. Now we look at cities as homogenous entities.

Over the years, the cultural uses for biodiversity narrowed.

Earlier, you had various uses for which different species were earmarked – domestic, fishing and spiritual. Now it’s mostly recreation. And when you preserve nature only for recreation, you’re not that vested in nature.

She’d like to see more linkages of green spaces in our cities – many small patches could replicate the effect of single large ones. As cities become earth’s new norm, the kind of ecosystems they support will determine the kind of life that can persist around us.

Learning to live in harmony will save lives – both human and animal. The question is whether we can really afford to write off the life that exists outside of the cities – even as we fail to take care of what lies within them.

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