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A jackal at a wooded patch in the Tollygunge Club. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
A jackal at a wooded patch in the Tollygunge Club. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Citizen jackal

Emaciated and passive, Kolkata's jackal population surrenders to forces of the ever-developing city

“Aaay, aaay, aaay." “Aaah, aaah, aaah." Standing near a wooded patch in the sprawling 100 acres of green at south Kolkata’s Tollygunge Club, naturalist Kushal Mookherjee, biscuits in hand, is trying to coax the wild. It is early morning. Golfers are practising their strokes as morning walkers weave their way around the 18-hole golf course. Outside, the city is waking up: horns, screeching tyres, amplified devotional music and the rumble of the Metro Rail.

We hide behind trees. Soon, the first of the shy and reclusive animals appears. The jackals at Tolly Club, bounded on all sides by the rushing city, are familiar with Mookherjee—he’s been feeding them every morning for the past few years. This one, an “alpha male", displays a nervous twitch and scampers away when Mookherjee bends down, but returns to hungrily chomp on the biscuits.

In the next few hours, Mookherjee feeds six jackals, including two with tails missing and one with a deep wound, possibly, he reasons, from a fight with the stray dogs at the club. He estimates the current jackal population at Tolly Club to be around 15, down from 45-odd almost a decade ago. “Since they can’t venture out, the fear is of inbreeding, which will lower their genetic variability and make them vulnerable to diseases. As a relict population, any small epidemic can wipe them out completely," says Mookherjee, the founder of Prakriti Samsad, a wildlife and nature conservation NGO.

In Kolkata, India’s third largest city and growing steadily every year, it is easy to commiserate with the plight of the jackals, walled-in within boundaries of clubs, vacant plots, the city’s airport, closed-down factories and research institutes.

“Kolkata, before the city came up, was marshy land. This was prime habitat for jackals, who fed on crabs, rodents, and mangoes, jackfruit and papaya from proliferating fruit trees. There was co-habitation with humans," says naturalist Arjan Basu Roy. “Now, humans find co-existence difficult between themselves, forget jackals. Also, this isn’t development if there are no trees and waterbodies. I think Tolly and the Royal Calcutta Golf Club’s (RCGC) jackal population will disappear in 20 years. Because of inbreeding, I doubt the cubs will have the vitality to reproduce."

These jackals had nowhere to flee when boundary walls were erected in what was historically considered their habitat. Their features are emaciated; their behaviour betrays constant fear of being attacked by stray dogs or humans; their territories are threatened; and their passivity is a symptom of surrender to forces from outside the natural order.

There is no confirmation of any urban jackal conservation initiative, and population figures vary. S. Kulandaivel, deputy conservator of forests, West Bengal, puts the number at over a hundred jackals within Kolkata and greater Kolkata’s municipal limits. A jackal trap instrument, set up by the forest department, has helped in relocating almost 100 jackals—especially from the airport area to the forest areas in Bankura and near the Sunderbans—over the course of almost 15 years. “The high pressure of city life also takes a toll. They are the city’s highest carnivores, but left largely without a prey base," says Kulandaivel.

One evening, I headed for the northern tip of Salt Lake, Kolkata’s posh, land-filled, eastern suburb and an area from where the choral howl of jackals would serve my childhood evenings with a primal reminder. The howls became intermittent, the choral intensity decreased and, a couple of decades back, they stopped altogether. In January, an article in The Statesman rekindled memories.

It was a moving account of a group of jackals “trapped" within a Salt Lake-based institute. The writer, Dinesh Kumar Srivastava, mentioned how the jackals unknowingly became captive after boundary walls came up in the late-1960s. Their food habits changed from feeding off what they killed to eating cooked leftovers from a canteen. Their nocturnal habits had became increasingly diurnal, a phenomenon also noticed among other city jackals. And there had been sightings of “dog-jackals", a product of mating between dogs and jackals, both belonging to the Canis genus, a possibility not ruled out by experts.

The director of the highly secured Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC), Srivastava also wrote about jackals witnessing British expansion and the invasion of Kolkata by Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah in 1756.

It’s likely that jackals were rampant in the region from even earlier. From his formidable home library, city historian Haripada Bhowmik brings out Jayanti Sen’s 1866-published book, Nandalal Sen Er Jibon Upakhyan (the life chronicle of a Bengali gentleman), set in the early-1700. Bhowmik narrates a passage that details a temple-shelter that Sen created for jackals near north Kolkata’s Sovabazar, where jackals fed on 50 different dishes every evening.

Kali, Kolkata’s defining goddess, has a jackal as her consort, and handed-down fables on Seyal Pandit, Seyal Raja, and Seyal’s wedding reiterate the animal’s religio-cultural connections with the city. Kolkata's busy railway hub, Sealdah, derived its name from seyal (jackal) and daha (waterbody). From Bhowmik’s library, the mid-19th century-published Kolikatar Puraton Kahini O Protha by Mahendranath Datta (Swami Vivekananda’s brother) offers a reason for the gradual desertion of Kolkata’s jackals: the sudden proliferation of stray dogs.

“Jackals were Kolkata’s original inhabitants. But against stray dogs, which moved in packs and instilled fear, jackals lost out," says Basu Roy. Jackals are part of the city’s natural heritage and indicate the health of its biodiversity, contends Bonani Kakkar, environmental activist. “Their home has been encroached on by the city, and we need to conserve them," she states.

After clearing multiple security checks, I reach Srivastava’s office at the VECC. A Sony television screen constantly beams CC-camera captured images from wired-up vaults and austere computerized arenas into the director’s room. In such a hyper-tech environment, it is difficult to imagine the existence of the wild. Yet, in a corner of the campus, Srivastava reiterates, and other employees attest, resides a small group of jackals.

“Science has to progress. Facilities need to come up. The trapped jackals are the collateral damage," Srivastava says. An amateur but passionate writer, Srivastava’s first short story, Roots, published in a special annual edition of The Statesman, revolved around the man-made destruction of a forest and its wildlife near his native village in Uttar Pradesh’s Pratapgarh district. The jackals at VECC remind him of the jackals howling in the forest from his childhood, later trapped and killed. “Development cannot happen without consideration for nature. There has to be balance," he says.

In 1994, a pregnant jackal was reportedly thrashed (some say it was killed) by a guard after former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu complained about the nightlong howling disturbing his sleep. Basu used to stay at Indira Bhavan in Salt Lake, opposite the vast Central Park (Banabitan), home to a large jackal population. These days, not a howl is heard at Banabitan, says forest department employee Dulal Sardar. “A few years back, a Metro Railway yard came up after clearing the forest where they lived," he says. Ironically, the Metro construction, with its accompanying ruckus, stands diagonally opposite Indira Bhavan.

Jackals often visit Sardar’s village home near Lauhati, a little beyond Rajarhat-New Town. Once an agricultural zone and prime jackal habitat, Rajarhat-New Town is now at the heart of Kolkata’s real estate boom, with scores of high-rise apartments. On two occasions, while returning home at night through New Town, Sardar saw jackals killed by vehicles speeding down the six-lane highway. “Unlike dogs, jackals react differently. In their confusion, they jump straight towards headlights," says Sardar.

On the way to New Town, there’s Salt Lake’s Kolkata Police Abasan—residential blocks for police employees—adjacent to a vacant plot of land where a group of jackals reportedly dwells. The plot has now been walled off; a sign board indicates the impending construction of a Bidhannagar Police Commissionerate building. A jackal was last sighted here in winter, says a staffer at Abasan.

The road through Action Area III of New Town is largely treeless and dusty from construction activity; there are dozens of still vacant matchbox-sized buildings. At Hatishala village, where New Town ends and countryside begins, Mirajul Mollah, a tea-stall owner, waves towards the rural darkness behind him: the jackals howl from there these days. It is late evening.

In the overcrowded Dum Dum area, a narrow lane leads to the closed-down Lord’s lozenge factory. Shut for decades and ownership rights currently under litigation, his main errand, says a guard, is to ensure that jackals don’t escape onto the busy streets outside. There is little else to do, he complains. He thinks there might well be over a dozen jackals, traditional residents before the factory came up.

Right at the other end of a large vegetation-covered pond within the factory premises, six jackals, including two cubs, are playing in the fading evening light. It is a heart-warming sight. They run around, scratch the ground and wallow in the mud. I hear a cub squeak playfully, the sound vying against the noise of the city—local trains, Metro rail, honking vehicles, rickshaw bells and loudspeakers.

The guard is nervous and wants me to leave. One of the jackals notices us. Immediately all of them dash and leap into the wild, overgrown shrubbery next to the pond. In their escape, I feel both hope and despair for Kolkata’s citizen jackals.

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