Nature, animals and genes

This is in no way a PhD thesis, nor am I a scholar. Call this rambling. This is about two outstanding videos I saw yesterday. One was 5 minutes long and the other 60. The first video, courtesy Nat Geo, was about a leopard, called Lakadima, and a baboon.

The hungry young leopard strikes out at the baboon and kills it. So what’s new? As it drags the dead baboon, something moves. The baboon was pregnant. This is unexpected. It delivers a baby as it dies. So what? The animal kingdom is full of rude realities. But within reality, there’s hope. Lakadima is unsure of how to react. It is evening time and evenings in forests are mirthful. There’s laughter and there are hyenas. Just when I thought a swift bite would end matters, Lakadima picks up the baby baboon and places it on top of a tree. What followed took my breath away. It is aggressive defense of the baboon by the leopard. The hyenas are driven away by her. She then proceeds to watch the baboon ceaselessly as though looking for repentance. And the baboon follows her wherever she goes. She is confused. She is a cub. An inquisitive one at that. But somewhere deep down, there is something more than five senses. She lays the baboon on top of a tree and begins to cuddle it. There was something maternal. My friend was saying, “It is nature’s way of saying, ‘I never leave anyone without giving them a second chance.’” Rudyard Kipling was whispering in my ears, “yours truly”. You ought to be dancing in your grave sir. The baboon and its surrogate mother lie down, exhausted, for a well deserved rest.
It was awe inspiring. Or so I thought.
It was 5.30Pm and out of boredom, before switching off the tv, unable to take dross in the name of reality shows, I changed channels to Nat Geo.
The program was King Cobras: A study of their secrets. I was suddenly wide awake.
King Cobra is called Ophiophagus hannah. Being ophiophagic, it eats other snakes and goes gaga over rat snakes. I’ll call it The King. 6m long and injecting 7ml of venom in a single bite, it can kill a fully grown elephant. However being the king, it’s also got an invisible sixth sense. It can control the amount of venom it releases. It can also bite without releasing venom. This would explain why only 4 people in India have died in the last 20 years due its bite. Venom is precious.
The set of investigators wanted to try something which had hitherto never been done. They wanted to radio tag two kings, a male and a female, follow them and study their behaviour in the wild. It’s obvious that snakes are not themselves when we are around. We ourselves are not. They would be able to observe, apart from many other things, how the sexes differ in their habitat.
But first, they need the Kings.
This is in the Western Ghats. Biologically, it’s one of the richest spots in the world. 100,000sq.km in area 100 years back, a meager 13,000 sq.km is all that is left due to deforestation today. That’s 87% of the area we’ve swallowed. It is a biodiversity hotspot, a one which is endangered. As we keep moving in, we intrude the animal kingdom. Let’s see how the King reacts.
The team of investigators gets a call from a village and they set out to meet the king. It’s a Queen. Ahem ahem. After a little coaxing, they capture her. They get a call from another village and there’s another King inside a burrow at the root of a tree. They try pulling the tree down. No luck. They dig the land carefully around the roots of the tree and as the land around the snake loosens, they pull it out. He is a King.
The team anesthetizes both the king and the queen and insert a radio transmitting tag between their vital organs. They stitch the incision and release the snakes into the wild. Two teams follow the king and the queen.
The king goes back to a human settlement. This is worrisome, they say. He’ll be killed soon. They recapture him and release back into the wild. He feasts on rat snakes, spewing venom in copious quantities and paralyzing the poor buggers. He swallows the snakes, his venom digesting them. Rat snakes are no mugs when it comes to a battle. 2.5m long, they are venomous. But hey, I’m sorry. You’re no match for the king.
Elsewhere, the queen is travelling slowly in the wild and feasting. She then performs an important deed all of us are born for. She mates. The queen is now carrying little princes.
The other King is back to a village where there’s ready food. Is there a pattern to his stupidity??? Humans attract rats. Rats attract rat snakes and rat snakes attract king cobras. He’ll be killed sooner than later. The team shifts him back to the wild. But this is not a permanent solution. Humans, in villages which were once forests, are driving animals further in. everything has a break point (Thalaivar Coppola). Something has to give in.
Elsewhere, the romantic and his queen are fine in the wild. But there is an intruder. Another King challenges the supremacy of this King. There will be a duel. But when Kings fight, there are rules.
No biting to spew venom.
No killing.
They must twist around each other and try to pin the opponent to the ground.
The loser leaves the territory and to the winner goes the spoils.
This is fantastic. The intruder and the ruler twist around one another. They are evenly matched. All of a sudden, the intruder pins the ruler to the ground and lands a venomless bite on the ruler’s head. The battle has been won fair and square. The loser leaves the territory and everything is the intruder’s. This includes the queen. He nears her. He starts coaxing and cajoling her. She refuses him. Female chastity??? He lands himself on her neck. No reply. It’s buzzer time for the king. His pride has been dented. He must act. He tries one last act of seduction. It was too late. It was a searing sight. Her neck was bleeding. He was launching himself upon her, his fangs deep inside her neck. It was murder!!! Murder is okay for him now that the battle is over. Psyche of all animals is the same. Man is a social animal. But she is a queen. She fights for life for a staggering 45 minutes, twisting and coiling, making life difficult for the bastard. But he is her physical superior. And King cobras are not immune to their own venom. She then completes the other important activity all of us are born for. The Queen is dead. He is a snake eater. He tries swallowing her. She is the same size as he is. He finds her too large for him. He spits her out with contempt and goes his way. Male chauvinism??? Cold blooded murder I say. He is poikilothermic after all. Has the sociopath broken a rule here??? I’m not a snake. I don’t know.
This is tragedy. The team does an autopsy and finds she was pregnant with 17 eggs in her womb. A funeral pyre is lit and the Queen is laid to rest. The female had travelled 5 km before its death. The male meanwhile had travelled a staggering 75 km.

The team follows another female King, or rather a Queen, who happens to have laid eggs. It’s monsoon and monsoon in the Western Ghats are legendary. Places have recorded 9m of rainfall over a single year. The Queen has a nest for its young ones… yes!!! A nest built by a King cobra. They are in fact the only species of snakes to build nests. But if the rain is too much, the eggs are likely to get washed away. But thankfully for her, rains are minimal. King cobras are extremely protective of their young ones. The Queen stands guard for the eggs which take 100 days to hatch. She goes without food all along. Finally the eggs hatch. She is a snake eater. It wouldn’t be long for her to gorge her little ones. Instinct drives her away. It was awe inspiring, again.
The little ones start to fend for themselves. It is a survival of the fittest. There is no parent figure for guidance. You survive or perish.
Or is it survival of the selfish gene??? I’m reminded of Richard Dawkins’s “The Selfish Gene.” Supposing there is a herd. One of its members spots a predator. Supposing it is selfless, it puts itself at danger by giving a warning signal to its herd. Supposing all selfless members are sacrificed this way. It’ll be the selfish ones that’ll remain. They multiply and their progeny will be selfish. What’ll remain down the line will be a selfish generation that’ll fight within itself. Survival of the fittest started between species and has ended as a fight within the species. Is that what is happening to man?
Mating is an invention of the gene. It is a way to keep itself immortal. We are mortals. Our genes are not. So is selfishness brought about by the gene??? Is that what drove the sociopath to kill the queen??? If the animal kingdom was a lousy Hindi film, Lakadima would’ve killed the sociopath king. Life is just desserts. But life is something more. It is reality and there is always hope in the form of Lakadima.
Nature is the best judge. She was judging Lakadima and the sociopath. Man calls himself a social animal. Nature is judging man.

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3 Comments

Filed under Marabanu and Science

3 responses to “Nature, animals and genes

  1. First time visitor here. Wonderful post.

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