The Art Of Death
April 2006: He was afraid for the minute; but it is impossible for a mongoose to stay frightened for any length of time, and though Rikki-tikki had never met a live cobra before, his mother had fed him on dead ones, and he knew that all a grown mongoose’s business in life was to fight and eat snakes. Nag knew that too, and at the bottom of his cold heart, he was afraid. – Rudyard Kipling
Immortalised as Rikki-tikki-tavi in Kipling’s utterly delightful tale of an Indian grey mongoose Herpestes edwardsi, mongooses, seen here “doing what comes naturally,” are familiar to Indians because the furtive, yellow-grey, grizzled creatures thrive in the outskirts of our villages and cities. Belonging to the Herpestidae family, these incredible hunters have been reduced to a caricature of their true selves by the illegal and cruel ‘mongoose vs. snake’ fights that insensitive people seem to enjoy.
Gifted by evolution with the ability to scamper after rats and snakes in dark, underground burrows, mongooses prefer open fields and scrub habitats to deep forests and are caught in the crossfire of habitat destruction and the illegal wildlife trade.
Wildlife trade? What could a dead mongoose possibly be good for? In an act that is immediately callous and deceptive, children and artists of all descriptions have been turned into active partners in the death dance of Herpestes edwardsi through the simple expedient of using mongoose hair to tip paint brushes.
It’s dead easy to catch a mongoose. Bait a whole host of traps and return a day, week, or even a month later to pick up the animals that die a slow death by thirst and starvation. Just one raid in Uttar Pradesh by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) revealed enough hair to confirm the slaughter of thousands of mongooses. Madhu Bhatnagar, Sri Ram School, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, works with the WTI and together they led an incredibly successful kids’ boycott of mongoose hair paint brushes that has given these animals a fresh lease on life. We have no indication, however, that adult artists have followed suit to abjure their art of death.
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXVI No. 2, April 2006