Unique Disposition of Urban Wildlife

Ajay Immanuel Gonji

Urban Landscapes and Wildlife

Urban landscapes are unique in that they represent one of the most managed and domesticated landscapes on the planet (Kareiva et al., 2007) that have been modified to fulfil not just our needs but also our wants. However, interestingly, Urban landscapes, by their very nature, also offer distinct advantages to animals in the form of roads and lighting to facilitate navigation, warmer and more sheltered climatic conditions, safe spaces for nesting and burrowing, and access to a range of foraging habitats (Franklin, 2017). In addition, cities have a surplus of food resources in the form of anthropogenic waste. For instance, Fox (2013) estimated that 30–50 per cent of all food produced for humans remains unconsumed, a major proportion of which is available to other species in cities and their waste disposal sites (Franklin, 2017). Cities, by definition, have no space for wild animals (Buller, 2013), but conducive living conditions for animals are often an unintended consequence of urbanisation.

Blair (2001) coined the term ‘urban adapters’ to refer to species that have managed to successfully survive in the city. These species have been able to benefit from new opportunities and new niches that have opened up as a result of human beings and their various activities. These species have managed to adapt to the generally fragmented nature of urban landscapes by modifying their behaviour, social ecology, and diet (Bateman & Fleming, 2012). In short, urban landscapes are valuable for several species (Červinka et al., 2014; Ditchkoff et al., 2006; Kinzig et al., 2005) and have resulted in several species making the city their home.

In-between Status of Urban Wildlife

Donaldson & Kymlicka (2011) talk about the domestic/wild dichotomy where human beings have a tendency to put animals into two boxes: domesticated animals who have been bred to be part of human society; and wild animals who belong elsewhere. However, by boxing animals into either of the two categories, we ignore the vast numbers of wild animals who live alongside us, in the city. For instance, in the Delhi Ridge, there are animals like porcupines, civets, nilgai, and jackals which are non-domesticated species that have adapted to life in our highly domesticated landscapes. Donaldson & Kymlicka (2011) refer to these animals as ‘liminals’ to indicate their in-between status, where they are neither completely wild nor completely domestic; being neither a part of our society nor external to it. These animals are seen as ‘lesser parts of nature’ (Buller, 2013; Woolfson, 2013), especially when held against the charisma of more distant wilderness animals, or the companionship of our pets and domestic animals. In other words,  liminal animals are often rendered invisible and/or ‘out-of-place’ in our everyday worldview.

Survival in The Midst of Hostility

If life for wild animals in the city is fraught with hostility, indifference, or even domination by humans, how then are they managing to continue to survive and thrive in the urban landscape? One answer to this question is provided by Palmer (2003) who talks about two possible strategies used by wild animals, particularly scavengers, to resist human domination and control: (i) where they live transgressively, in a partly dependent, yet hostile relationship with humans, and (ii) where they live in a dependent but often mutually beneficial relationship with humans. For the sake of this article, I wish to dwell a little more on the first category of animals. This is also because my study species –  golden jackal (Canis aureus) – can possibly be seen as an animal that lives transgressively in the urban landscape of Delhi.

From several visits to the Central Ridge and Sanjay Van forest patches of the Delhi Ridge, I have observed how golden jackals are opportunistic scavengers that are able to take advantage of anthropogenic food that is provided to dogs, cows and monkeys. While dogs, cows and monkeys have been observed obtaining food directly from the hands of people, jackals will only chance upon food that is left abandoned. Jackals have also been seen approaching and stealing from a food or water source, often fearfully, a fact apparent from the body posture and behaviour of the animal. By exhibiting such behaviour, is it possible that Jackals are seen as transgressors by people who provide food that is intended for dogs, cows and monkeys?

A pair of golden jackals accessing anthropogenic food near the Central Ridge.

On the other hand, studies in Sanjay Van, Delhi also revealed continuous activity by golden jackals throughout the night. There have also been unconfirmed reports of jackals raiding garbage dumps at night. These instances along with observations in the wild support the generalized view that jackals are nocturnal in areas where they live in close proximity to human beings (Patil & Jhala, 2008). While nocturnality is a natural phenomenon for many non-human species, human beings relate to night and darkness very differently. Bryan Palmer, for instance, conceives darkness as a time for transgression, the ‘‘time for daylight’s dispossessed—the deviant, the dissident, the different’’ (Palmer, 2000). The night may offer persecuted minorities, marginal groups and the lower orders escape from their domineering masters, and enable them to achieve ‘‘freedom from both labour and social scrutiny’’ (Ekirch, 2005). By experiencing a certain shared precarity with marginalised humans (Narayanan & Bindumadhav, 2019), and by existing as liminals in the city, is it then possible that wild animals like the golden jackal are using the cover of the night to access the city without direct conflict and suppression by humans? Is living transgressively, in a partly dependent, yet hostile relationship with humans one of the adaptation strategies of species such as jackals?

Understanding the answer to the above questions and understanding the knowledge of non-human animals, the different means by which they navigate the urban life (Barua & Sinha, 2019), and the labour of animals in constructing a particular space or ecosystem requires detailed studies on their behaviour.


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