The Lizard that Lost its Way

     I waded through a waist-deep road-turned-river – its flow steady but turbulent – and touched dry ground just before the city came to a standstill. On the way I glanced at a Checkered Keelback, (Xenochrophis piscator) a water snake, peering out of a hole in the wall. While others became homeless, he was home. He is one of the secret residents of the concrete jungles disconnected from the lush greens of the forests. His domain is the many interconnected gutters that line the concrete trees – apartment buildings that replaced woods out of a man’s wish. And here he hunts, eats, and breeds in this man-made habitat. Today was his day, because the floods flushed out mice that reside in the deep and dark places of the underworld. But many lost their lives, and many lost their way, without knowing how to get back home.

In 2005 a torrential rain drenched and swept everything in its path– trees, cars, people and their houses, misplacing some far from their homes. There was chaos in the streets. Many were stranded and many still had to stay back in the offices, schools, and in makeshift shelters. But not many know that it was not only us who suffered. Animals, domestic and wild alike, were at a great loss too. One of those whose stories went untold was a lizard that lost its way – this is his story.

My friend and I sat by the window witnessing the hustle in the streets. A few meters ahead is a stretch of old eucalyptus trees with dense undergrowth growing at their feet. A fleeting glimpse of a rather unusual creature caught our eye. Whatever it was that passed through the thickets, it did not belong to this habitat. We decided to investigate this “alien” in the backyard.

Elsewhere, a manhunt ensued that would have it killed.

We cautiously raised a fallen branch to reveal a haggard, sandpaper-like stuff that did not move. With a curiosity of poking things from far, I felt, with a slender branch, a hide that was rough and thick. And it moved, but more terrifying was its hiss. With a puffed neck, the Indian Monitor (Varanus bengalensis) then dashed, to our relief, in the opposite direction and hid beneath the staircase – terrifying those who wouldn’t dare pass through the gates now.
The Common Indian Monitor, Varanus bengalensis is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Hunting and keeping it as a pet is illegal.
The word of a giant reptile nigh five feet in length on-the-loose spread like wildfire. People screamed and people whispered, for people were afraid. The Monitor was not welcome in this part of the world, so what if we encroached upon its many decades ago. And the people have quite a few reasons to fear it – valid or not – they don’t bother. But it was not only fear that warranted its death, there was something more.

The manhunt began two blocks away. Armed with sticks and stones, the men marched in to save the day. The lizard shall be dead by evening, they assured – if they found it, that is. All this while, the lizard hid in the dark corner of a storage unit under the staircase – invisible in the murky floodwaters, until later that evening when light faded, it left the hideout to escape into the adjoining apartment complex. And after it issued the pack of men, frenzied but not strong, for the lizard escaped into the darkness without a scratch, its tail sweeping across the receding waters.

By morning the floodwater had receded, leaving behind a layer of dirt and silt – and, tracks of the Monitor. We followed it until we came to a gathering. People stood in a circle, expecting a death-match that they thought to be entertaining. The stage was laid for the Monitor Lizard, hissing – not angry as much as annoyed, and tired; and a man grabbing onto a heavy chair to hit it with – proud but definitely scared. Fortunately, we talked him out of it, and instead tried to entrap it in a jute bag, but his reasoning struck us as a surprise. He believed the Lizard to be a bad omen. He believed it was venomous, and would kill if given a chance. And that one whip of its tail would turn anyone into a whole new gender. So the solution was to end the beast, not the superstition. We were dumbfounded, but then I thought: we may have access to science, that doesn’t mean we must change our beliefs, even if it is against reality. As we explained that they are mere superstitions, and that killing it is a felony, the man, losing his patience, backed off only because the Monitor sought shelter inside a car. The lizard would rest here until the crowd moved away, safely hidden from its enemies.

The stars did not shine that night. A maroon sky hung low over the city. Everyone forgot about the lizard-on-the-loose. He was safe, for now.

The morning was darker, but it came. Another spell of rain filled the drying potholes. Men were already gathered around the car where the Monitor sought comfort. A different hunting party now probed the car with long sticks, and flushed the Monitor out. As soon as it stepped from under the bonnet, a man grabbed the Monitor by the neck, flung its tail round his shoulder, and carried it, unheeded to our cries. This man was a man-of-experience. He knew how to wrestle these lizards.

With the Monitor now numb with shock, it hung lifelessly from the man’s shoulder as he marched on. His mind was made up. When he reached the door to his house, we rebelled. That made him spew a few curses at those who’d stop him, and he swung the Monitor by the tip of its tail, as the lizard withdrew its legs and its eyes, expecting the bitter end. He swung it once round his head, and on the next he’d sever its skull on the tree that stood there, a blind witness. This man did not have any beliefs. All he knew, by experience, was how to kill the lizard, how to skin it, and how to cook it, besides how to extract the oil. And he failed. Soon voices were raised, and he had to let go of the tail. Instead of hitting head-first, the lizard grabbed onto the tree and scampered up, vanishing into dense foliage.

After a few long minutes, the lizard crawled back – head down, and just stood by the tree. He would not move. Had he given up? We hurried by it and cast a dark cloth over its eyes.Blackness. The ordeal was over. The Monitor was caught in the jute bag, and, for once, no hunter was on his tail. No one disturbed him now. The dark bag would provide him with the necessary space-of-mind. Animals die of stress, and this beast had had enough of his share. Unfortunately, no vet was available that day, nor would he eat or drink.

We released him to his ilk in the woodlands of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and came back home relieved, but there still are mysteries that abound this Monitor – was it a captive that escaped from the confines of his captors, or did he swim for over ten miles through the flood waters, and became lost in the city? These gentle beasts pose no harm to humans, and are a target for hunters-of-meat and pet-traders alike. Our Monitor was perhaps lucky, but he wouldn’t be able to share his tale with anyone. Is it the silence of these animals that forces man to exploit them? Perhaps it is. But their cries are heard by those who heed. The eyes of our Monitor did not express fear, nor stress. They were a stern witness, watching, but holding back everything. But that doesn’t matter anymore for this fellow. He dashed out of the sack, and vanished in the deep undergrowth of the protected forests, free at last to roam the woods.

On the Trail

It dances through the day, full of impressions and impulses, empty of thought or care. Something moving near it casts a shadow on its sight, and it darts away without knowing why, startled but not frightened. A rival passes and it dashes at him, powerless to hurt, but bursting with nervous energy which must find an outlet, and the two in mock combat mount up into the sky until they are lost to sight.
– EHA, The Naturalist on the Prowl

The month of February is drier than January but wetter than March, and much more bearable than the searing May. In the forests of the Sahyadri, rivers shrivel to a trickle or stagnate in small puddles. Streams burry into the ground and lakes shrink to their halves, and slowly they all expose their moistened shores and damp beds. These ecotones, lasting for over two months, serve as an important ecosystem for a myriad of life-forms. It is a place of a gathering for animals large and small, as they home in to relish this ephemeral reserve at their stipulated times.
The last pond
A walk  in the forests of the Sahyadris is refreshing at any time of the year . With leaves falling all around you, the silence of the forests is only broken by a singing bird. And as the leaves break from the last strand of cellulose holding onto the branch, they float soundlessly in the still air before spiraling down to the forest floor. The trees are taking no chances of losing precious water through transpiration. The clamour of insects has been silenced, save a lone cicada, or a butterfly, which are making the best out of the scant undergrowth. The forest may seem empty, but it is not. They all have converged into the last remaining waterholes.

There are birds that dive into the puddles early in the morning – Tickel’s Blue, Red-breasted and Paradise Flycatchers, Purple Sunbirds and Booted Warblers – to bathe in its cool waters. As the air warms, the birds fly into the canopy and catch insects or sip the sweet nectar of Bombax ceiba. But it is not only the birds that make the best out of it. There are also mammals that come in the cover of the darkness, unseen to the eye, forgetfully leaving behind their footprints in the soft banks. And then there are those of the other kind with three pairs of feet, and wings bejeweled with scales of myriad shades.

Aitken, in his exceptional essay On the Prowl, made a very close analysis of a butterfly from the eyes of a wanderer. He saw through its eyes a world we cannot fathom: a simplest of the worlds – where a butterfly is for the world as much as the world is for a butterfly – small but whole.
As I lay by the bank of a drying stream looking into their eyes – they appeared cautious but not afraid. With their proboscis they were lapping the moisture, minerals and salts from the streambed, and fluttered around haphazardly, but not mindlessly. They’re not mindless. No organism that has a sense of time and direction is mindless. In Yeoor, these butterflies bask in the sun as the sun rises from behind the tall mountain in the east. As the clock hits 8 AM, their fluttering becomes apparent, and by the time the sun is one-third its way in the sky, they’re out and about feasting on flowers and chasing mates.
In February, they’re mostly devoted on extracting water, minerals and salts from damp sources; this behaviour is referred as mud-puddling. During this season, you will see butterflies in their hundreds – or maybe in their thousands – congregating and sipping away until the end of the day.

In India, they generally do so prior to the onset of monsoon, from the months of February to April, and in the foothills of the Himalayas or the rainforests of the south where water is plenty, they do so in May as well. In the drier regions, as in the deciduous ecosystems of the northern Western Ghats, they do so only in the period of February-March and during June.
Gaudy Baron
Yeoor Hills, and other corners of the forests abound the Sahyadri, hide little secret water reserves in the dry seasons. They have been serving as the last source of water for years, perhaps ages, and like the birds, butterflies know it well. How and when they realize that it is the time for mud-puddling, I can only wonder. It is obviously built into their genome, but do they remember the location and pass it into the genome of their offspring, or does every butterfly seek it in the vast reaches of the long ranges, I do not know. All I can do is marvel at these ingenious little creatures and their rather great adventures, ironically, having evolved into one of the most delicate, if not defenseless, of all the organisms on our planet.
The mud-puddling Blues and Danaines
Butterflies of all families mud-puddle: Papilionidae, Nymphalidae, Pieridae, Lycaenidae and Hesperiidae – the representative families in the Sahyadri, seek the cool, moist lips of the lakes and the rivers, setting them ablaze with their brilliant shades – whites, yellows and reds, and, often a flickering of the dazzling blue. Day-flying moths in the family Arctiidae and Geometridae make sure to visit these little havens as well. One of the most beautiful of the moths, the Dysphania, is a faerie of the woodlands.
Dysphania sp.
Fluttering her wings, she sails in the stillness of the forest air, soaring and plunging with ease. She settles along a stagnant pool and unfurls her long proboscis. Not all lepidopterans are so elegant in their flights, however. Some appear out of nowhere, in a blink, and disappear as soon as they arrive. Yet others linger on until the end of the day.
Large Oakblue
The most abundant of all the families at mud-puddling sites are the Blues (family Lycaenidae). It is only during this season that one may glimpse the sheer diversity of these azure little flutterers. From the exceptionally small Lineblues, to silver-studded Silverlines, sapphire-coloured Dark Ceruleans and Oakblues, and luminous Red Flash’s and Cornelians, they are a treat for sore eyes, and this season offers a great chance to observe them until next year.

Many of the Swallowtails (family Papilionidae), such as the Tailed Jays, Blue Bottles and Spot Swordtails, all flutter down for a sip, but they rarely ever sit in one place. Their hyperactivity keeps them from settling down; instead they flutter about, barely touching the ground with their feet. The Danaines in family Nymphalidae, such as Striped Tigers, Blue Tigers and Common Crows, and their mimics, the Danaid and Great Eggfly’s, are also drawn to this funfair.
Tiny Grass Blue
It is not always that you see them congregating in great numbers, or in such a diversity. Like the flocking of the migratory waterfowls and cranes, which takes place due to various climatic and geographic factors, the congregation of butterflies is one of the most complex and magnificent natural phenomena worth experiencing.