The buffalo soldier

A FORTNIGHT ago, a bunch of us were lucky enough to attend the elaborate, yet noisy, wildlife week celebrations at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), wherein Amitabh Bachchan took oath as Maharashtra State’s Tiger Ambassador, in the presence of the ministers of state for forests, environment and climate change. There were vehement mentions about planting 50,000 to a lakh trees to restore the ecological balance, although the species mentioned were a matter of laughter and concern for some of us. The gathering unanimously agreed that this year’s monsoons were a mirage, and the reality of climate change has dawned on a few intelligent and learned souls.

The cattle egret
The cattle egret

In the Isles of Mumbai, the dry season has technically begun, but Mumbaikars are barely showing any signs of concern, lounging sleepily in their cocoons. Most are still animatedly discussing the latest cricket scores and whether the films released last Friday will gross in the expected crores. As for me, I’m curious to observe the mechanisms nature will employ to combat this year’s drought-like conditions or whether there will be any realignment in the way we humans celebrate our Holi and Rang Panchami.

Globally, wildlife biologists and climate scientists have started to study reactions of local flora and fauna to the increasing ‘climate events’. Repeated floods in semi-arid regions like Rajasthan, Gujarat or Ladakh, cloud bursts in Uttarakhand, Kashmir, Himachal or Sub-Himalayan West Bengal, droughts in tropical rain-fed regions and increasing intensity of cyclones and tornadoes in coastal islands have become an undeniable reality. Sadly, few realise that in monsoon-dominated Peninsular India, many of our agro-based industries are going to be affected by this rainfall scarcity — primarily the farmers, fisherfolks, the dairy industry and even our tourism industry.

It is typical of biologists to study migratory, highly water dependent or evolutionarily ancient taxon groups such as odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) to figure out responses to climate change. But, it will be an eye-opener to track highly adaptable and fast expanding or colonising species such as Prosopis (Mesquite), Lantana, mosquitoes, rats, crows or pigeons, to understand how they are using these seemingly unfavourable conditions to their advantage. In my opinion, the best contender for this fast-spreading and colonising category among birds is the ubiquitous cattle egret.

Found across the tropics, sub-tropics and warm temperate zones, the cattle egret is the most widespread bird across the globe. In fact, they have flown across the Atlantic Ocean, colonised deep oceanic islands and taken over parts of North America, Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and France, in the last 50 years. Fiji and United Kingdom have seen their colonising onslaught as recently as 2008. Their commensalistic association with all forms of cattle and wider human farming are believed to be major causes of their expanded range. Though the global population of the cattle egret stands at over seven million individuals, and they classify as an invasive species in many parts of the world, their benign nature has prevented them from being declared a pest.

Cattle egrets are elegant white waders, found living around shallow wetlands and grasslands, following cows, buffaloes, horses, camels and goats, grabbing any disturbed invertebrate or even small vertebrate preys. Structurally, they are more similar to herons than other egrets and sometimes exploit habitats far away from water bodies. Occasionally in forests, cattle egrets are seen taking free rides on deer, gaur, wild buffaloes and rhinos, literally rushing to function as personal pest controllers for wild cattle.

Flocks of cattle egret create tree-top heronries, close to human localities, probably for protection, along with cormorants, other egret species, Ibis and storks. The lack of apex predators in adults and an occasional hunt of a chick has allowed cattle egrets to flourish and display their bright orange breeding colours across the globe. Sadly, in semi-urbanised landscapes, these birds are found scavenging in garbage dumps, especially near abattoirs and meat packing factories.

It will be a travesty that shrinking water bodies caused by droughts and extreme climate events, push these buffalo soldiers towards extinction and they lose the hunting grounds they have so rightfully colonised.

Write in to Anand at sproutsonline@gmail.com

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