Oct
16
Posted on 16-10-2011
Filed Under (TRENDS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Continuing our 4-siblings&spouses family reunion in Africa, we reached Kapani safari camp outside Mfuwe, Northeast Zambia. Here I learnt of a certain ecological balance from the animal-jungle habitat we were immersed in. It’s night-time; a guard is escorting us to our cottage in the middle of the jungle. He waited to take us for dinner by the river deck. Shining his torchlight he casually showed us what looked like a big cow within 15 meters of our lodge. In reality it was a wild hippopotamus that had wandered into the camp and was grazing grass. I almost collapsed! Will we become the hippo’s dinner? The guard assured us hippos are vegetarian; if we don’t disturb them, they’ll never attack. That was tough to believe. My mind’s eye recalled Discovery channel where we’d watched, in the safety of home in India, animals enjoying each other as food. Was there much point in travelling to the southern hemisphere only to be eaten by them instead?

Our guide Lawrence mentioned that, on average, 2 fishermen die in the crocodile-hippo infested Luangwa river every year. He said white tourist guides with little practical knowledge or feel for the jungle come with books to guide others. He narrated a sordid tale of fatal bravado. A few years ago an American tourist group had a highly professional swimmer who wanted to absolutely cross this dangerous river. He’d out-swum man-eating sharks and other predators in different parts of the world’s waters, so what’s a slow-moving crocodile in comparison? Everyone in the forest camp forbade him, but the adventurer had to prove his point. During the hot mid-afternoon siesta, he slipped out alone. Of course a croc chewed him up in the river. In the ensuing chaos, a local forest guard went tracing the American’s footprints. Unfortunately, he too couldn’t wriggle out of the crocodile’s big jaws. This gruesome drama was happening just below a bridge from where another guard shot the culprit crocodile. Inside the crocodile’s stomach they found dismembered body pieces of both men. The American’s hand was intact and still wearing his watch. This is all his family received as testimony of his demise.

I was conversing with Andrew, another extremely knowledgeable local guide, about the jungle’s heart being so divergently different from the digital world we’d left behind. Andrew pointed to a pile of animal dung and asked, “Is it so different really? Look at the ‘poo’ of the civet animal. Perhaps the inventors of email, Facebook and dating or matrimony websites were inspired by it.” As I stared at him incredulously, he explained the animal kingdom’s communication methods. Every male civet marks his territory by leaving his droppings in several places in the forest. Every day he opens his Facebook account by visiting his marked places to check who has responded to his activities. It seems animals can find out from every ‘poo’ heap which animal the faeces belongs to, the age, sex and health condition of that animal, and at what preparatory stage of mating the female is in. If the female civet visiting the male civet’s ‘poo’ site is interested in dating him, she leaves her email address by doing her own job next to his. Then at regular intervals she leaves her ‘poo’ trail so that her chosen mate can find her in this vast jungle. In a day, if about five female civets have left messages indicating their interest, the male civet examines them all, then makes his life-plan. Of the five, one may be about to ovulate in 2 months, another in 2 days, a third may be much older than him, the fourth much younger but she has some illness, and the fifth about his age but with no indication of when the mating time will come. If he wants a family immediately, he’ll go for the second girl, if he wants to play around and be fancy free he’ll go for the fifth one. So who said human beings are superior inventors to animals?

When Lawrence heard about my fascination for Chitalele dance, he was so enthused that an Indian knew his culture that he immediately organised nearby village folk to perform. It was marvelous. Under acacia and ‘sausage’ trees, a dry riverbed as backdrop in this wintry afternoon, no microphones, no speakers, just six voices were singing with gospel harmony. Their astonishing voices had multiple chords synchronized with African percussion accompaniment. If you’d not seen this with your naked eyes you’d think the dancing was to pre-recorded playback songs. The fabulous Chitalele involves call-and-response songs, coordinated hand clapping and energetic legwork. They danced to local song-stories of elephants destroying crops, the tweets of myriad birds, interspersed with some humour using impromptu paper props of binoculars and cameras to caricature how white people go into the forest to watch animals and birds.

In the far distance behind the dancing we could see an elephant family bathing in the wet-spots of the dry riverbed, a hippopotamus foraging for food, a male deer whistling. Lawrence had explained that when the deer whistles thrice, he’s communicating his presence to females during mating time. If he whistles continuously, it means there’s danger, a predator is nearby, so everybody, just run! In the forest the next day, Lawrence suddenly stopped the safari jeep. He showed us the pug marks of a crocodile that had crossed this way the night before. The crocodile would have felt very hot and was going towards water. In-between the feet marks we could decipher the tail inscription. It seems the crocodile progresses slowly as he has to drag his very heavy tail, so he needs to rest every five minutes. I marveled at the language of the jungle, so different from our metro, urban or rural civilization. Here you can feel you’re in a world apart. What’s the balance or reconciliation between the two eco-systems, nature’s technology and digital technology?

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Financial Express link:http://www.financialexpress.com/news/jungly-facebook/860379/0

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