Annoyed and slightly dejected was I as I dragged my feet back to the entrance of the Sanjay Van forest patch of the Delhi Ridge. Early morning that day my friend Amit and I visited the city forest hoping to spot the elusive golden jackal and capture the animal on our cameras. After reaching the location where I had encountered jackals in the past, we carefully looked for a spot from where we could observe the animal had it decided to show up. While I found an abandoned trench to hide in, Amit chose to perch several feet above the ground on a tree. We both had our cameras, except that when I switched on my camera, the LCD screen flashed a memory card error! While I did not react outwardly, I kept cursing myself for not having checked my equipment before coming to the forest. Amit’s camera was the saving grace.
We sat motionless for about an hour hoping to spot a jackal. We had no luck. And so, we decided to go to another location in the forest where also I had spotted jackals in the past. However, we decided not to adopt the wait-and-watch method, rather chose to scan the area on foot looking for a jackal denning site. We did manage to find some valuable clues but had no luck with finding an active den. By now the sun was beating down on us and so we decided to head back to where we had parked our vehicles. While on our way back, Amit spotted a pair of Nilgai that were resting in the shade of the trees just a few meters away from the main trail we were treading on. We stopped to watch the animals and click pictures.
While Amit was engrossed in clicking pictures of the two antelopes, a zooming bike suddenly came to a halt just as it went past the two of us. The rider claimed to be an official working in Sanjay Van and told us that photography was prohibited in the forest. We apologized for violating the rule and tried to convince him that we did not know that photography was prohibited (and honestly we did not). However, the man was extremely stubborn and not only asked us to stop clicking but insisted that we leave the forest premises immediately. Amit was asked to ride pillion with both our cameras and was escorted by the man right up to the gates of the forest. I walked back to the gate, quite upset and frustrated with the whole episode. However, my frustration did not last long.
Just as I was approaching the gate, I noticed some movement in the vegetation patch that was on my right. When I examined more closely, I saw the vague movement of a pair of jackals. I immediately crouched and moved to the side of the main trail to watch the animals, when just a few meters ahead of me, one of the jackals emerged from the vegetation patch. The animal was dashing to a feeding spot where a gentleman, I saw, had left some food just moments ago before exiting the forest on his two-wheeler. What made the situation so interesting was a dog that was sitting close to the feeding spot. I had previously witnessed a jackal chasing a juvenile dog out of the woods and was eager to see how things would unfold in this case. As the jackal rushed to grab the food, the dog seemed unaware of the jackal’s presence. However, within seconds, the dog spotted the jackal, started barking and sprang up to its feet. The dog charged at the jackal even as the jackal turned around and ran back into the woods after an unsuccessful attempt at grabbing a quick bite.
I waited and watched for several more minutes. During this time, the dog had moved out of the patch. Assuming the dog had managed to ward the jackal off, I also decided to move on. As I began to head back to the gate, to my surprise, I saw the same jackal – sitting on its haunches, front legs stretched forward – in the vegetation patch, patiently waiting. Clearly, the animal was aware of my presence and was perhaps waiting for me to leave. When I decided to pause a second time, I saw the animal retreating further into the vegetation patch. I decided to leave. When I exited the forest, I saw Amit sitting on a bench in the parking and told him about the incident. Since he had never seen a jackal in the city forest before, he was really curious to see the spot where I had witnessed the incident, and so we went back. A good 15 minutes had passed by now. Just as we approached the feeding spot, I got a glimpse of the jackal scanning the area before it disappeared into the woods. The food had been taken. We waited for a while hoping the animal would return, but it did not. I wondered if it was still watching us.
Through this incident, for the first time, I truly understood what it means to be an opportunist. Urban fauna is known to be opportunistic foragers and is well suited to the urban landscape owing to their plasticity in behaviour. As naturally available food sources are constricted, animals in the urban have adopted diets that consist of a unique combination of naturally occurring and human-generated foods. The incident also evoked several questions in my mind about the ethical and moral aspects of feeding. While humans have subsidized “domestic” dogs through the act of feeding, they have perhaps been largely ignorant of the threat they may be indirectly causing to the survival of native wild fauna in the urban landscape. Human-derived food subsidies may be responsible for the occurrence of dogs in high densities, and the consequent possibility of competitive exclusion of native canids such as jackals by dogs, especially when natural sources of prey are scarcely available, as is the case in most urban landscapes (Vanak & Gompper, 2009). Interestingly, India also happens to have the highest population of free-ranging dogs in the world (Home et al., 2017).
Amit and I have been discussing the role of dogs in society and nature, and we are hopeful that we will be able to deliberate over the issue in more detail in subsequent blogs.
P.S. The time-lapse was captured using my mobile camera. This time I surely had no excuse for violating the rule.