I was awakened by the mild but discernible honk of a vehicle and soon realized that the bus that I was travelling in had come to a halt. I looked out of the glass window from my reclining seat but could only see a dense growth of vegetation shimmering from the faint reflections of the bus’s headlights. Pressing a button, I was gently catapulted into the seats default position. As I looked ahead into the bus’s windscreen, I was taken aback (not by my seat, of course) by the sight of an elephant lolling on the highway. Trunk slightly moving, legs firmly put, the elephant, which looked like a juvenile, seemed quite relaxed. It was only after cajoling the pachyderm with repeated honks that the bus driver managed to get the animal to move. Slowly but steadily the animal started to stroll off the road as I watched it slip into the thickets. The wheels of the bus started to roll, and with that also began my life’s first night safari.
In the next hour or so I sighted several animals including the elusive Indian Bison or Gaur, Spotted Deer or Chital and the Wild Boar that were all foraging on the side of the meandering highway. It was only after reaching my destination – Ooty – at daybreak that I was told that the bus had passed through the Mudumalia-Bandipur wildlife corridor of the Nilgiri Hills. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have witnessed at such close quarters and in the thick of the night some of the wild fauna of the Western Ghats in their natural habitat. In 2009, the same year that I had travelled through the Mudumalia-Bandipur wildlife corridor, the Karnataka Government imposed a ban on night traffic from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Although I remember the experience very vividly, even after nearly a decade, I never thought that I will one day write about it. But what got me to share my experience in the first place is my very recent engagement with the discipline of Animal Geography. I had recently attended a conference session on Urban Animals where I presented my on-going work on mesopredators in the Delhi Ridge. A major part of my talk focused on the nocturnal nature of wild fauna, and I argued that one of the primary factors which deem wild fauna invisible in the city is their nocturnal habit. After my talk, during the Q&A session, I was asked by one gentleman to talk a little more on the nocturnal city or the city of the night. While I must admit that my answer did not do justice to what was asked of me, I began to seriously ponder on the nocturnal city and what it means to human and non-human creatures. Although my thoughts are muddled, I have decided to write them down, and hence this blog post.
For human beings, ‘darkness’ (and here I’m referring to the darkness of night) could mean different things. Darkness is a time when we return to the safety and comfort of our homes; it is a time when we “unwind” and “switch off” from the outside world. For many people, darkness evokes a sense of fear – a fear of the unknown. In most cities, night time is generally considered to be extremely ‘unsafe’ and ‘dangerous’ because we associate the night with crime. Interestingly, the night is also associated with certain non-human creatures. The howling wolf, the screeching owl and the vampire bat are all associated with the darkness of the night. In many parts of India, the howl of a golden jackal at night is considered to be a bad omen. Being a scavenger, Hindus associate the jackal with the goddess of death and destruction, Kali. 2 What I am trying to suggest here is that for us humans, the night is an ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘dangerous’ world that exists separately from the sunlit world that we are so familiar with.
For non-human animals, especially wild species, darkness may mean something very different. Nocturnality or being active at night is an innate characteristic that is engrained in the biology of these species. Their ability to navigate in darkness either by means of night vision or echolocation is proof of their adaptation to nightlife. Nocturnality may also develop in several species as a mechanism to avoid contact with human beings, especially in areas of high human density. Whatever be the reason, it is a fact that wild animals are extremely active at night and go about most of their business in darkness. What this then means is that these animals labour and co-labour through the night to produce what we know as nature. Barua (2019) talks about ecological labour as “an eco-social reproduction necessary for the regeneration and renewal of ecosystems.” While we humans are diurnal creatures who play a very significant and ‘visible’ role in shaping nature, the role of animals as co-participants in shaping nature cannot be dismissed as insignificant just because they are nocturnal and ‘invisible’ to us.
Although humans disregard or even demonise some animals, especially because of their nocturnal habits, we must also realize that these animals are not human constructs that are shaped by human biases. Each species has a specific and significant role to play in the ecosystem, and tagging them as ‘deadly’, ‘dangerous’, ‘undesirable’, and ‘out-of-place’ is only going to cause more harm to the same nature that we are trying so fiercely to protect. Most people living in Delhi may never have seen a jackal or a porcupine in the city, but are we aware that the forested areas of one of the most densely populated cities in the world are home to a plethora of wild creatures? 4 Our recognition of the nightlife of animals and the nocturnal city will lead us to a very different understanding of not just the night but also of the city.