And Other

Eric Dinerstein
Dinerstein admits "an inordinate fondness for bats." It wasn't always thus; even though he was a naturalist, he found something unattractive about them, as many do. Too many movies about Transylvania, perhaps.

It wasn't until a tropical biology course with the "charismatic lecturer" Frank Bonaccorso that he fell in love with his newly important field-work:

    My real change of heart must be attributed to the sheer delight of coming face to face with a cast of unforgettable creatures. We captured charming Honduran white bats with clown-like yellow ears and leaf noses that, within minutes, lay tamed in our hands, chewing contentedly on pieces of banana. I fed sugar water from an eyedropper to docile, long-tongued, nectar-feeding bats, the hummingbirds of the night.

Fortunately for the reader, Dinerstein is not just a batman.

His studies in the wild have taken him to Tibet to seek the fabled Snow Leopard (made famous by Peter Matthiessen's book), to Kathmandu (with its torrential rains) to perform a tiger census, and the Galapagos to see and hear and study "endemic" birds, mammals and terrestrial plants,

A tiger census involves seeking out the animal's prey by what they call "turd biology." "A turdologist in Nepal," Dinerstein reports, "must be able to distinguish the discrete clusters of small round droppings of hog deer, the more elongate pellets of spotted deer, the wider cylinders of the sambar, the even larger offerings of swamp doe, the vitamin-shaped tablets of hares, and the bonbons of wild boar." He concludes,

    If measuring tiger tracks was astoundingly dull, crawling on hands and knees to pick up turds was a close second.

In his introduction, Dinerstein promises not to be too discouraging on the subject of the creatures and plants of the wild and their present state of preservation. But as the book progresses, the asides that make the reading of this such a delight begin to fade, turn more hectic and troubled, especially as he encounters the old bugaboos --- ecological blindness, over-population and the wiping out whole species of plant and animal life.

His most troubled report comes from New Caledonia. Forty percent of the world nickel is mined there by means of strip mining, "and not merely coincidentally it is home to some of the worst soil erosion in the world." Then there are our own Western Plains, where "Varmit Societies" still "make a sport out of blasting prairie dogs to smithereens. Every year, gun-toting enthusiasts migrate to the northern Great Plains and pay to shoot them for the fun of it --- sometimes even on public land."

    As monumentally barbaric as that sounds, consider that one arm of the U. S. government, the Department of Agriculture, is still poisoning prairie dogs at the behest of ranchers, even though another agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, has for several years considered listing prairie dog species as still endangered.

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Despite many examples of such human idiocy, Tigerland is awash with gentle humor and is a stewpot of contrasting ideas. Such as finding a "blackbuck" in Nepal, feeding in a field of Cannabis sativus. Or listening to iguanas in the Galapagos, who "broke into a chorus of Sssnit! Sssnit!whenever we stopped to watch them." (He explains that since they are marine iguanas, they are expelling excessive salt by sneezing it out).

He tells us that male hippos are not only destructive of vegetation but something else more critical: "Hippos may resemble oversized rubber toys, but each year they cause the death of more Africans than lions, elephants, crocodiles, and black mambas combined."

It is the author's words about geckos that won this particular reviewer's heart. I live not far from the equator and as I am writing this at the wasteland we call my desk, a pinkish, black-eyed gecko --- Hemidactylus frenatus --- stands frozen, absurdly glued to the wall at a 90-degree angle, perpendicular to the floor. He is poised for supper, next to the place my desk light shines on the whitewashed wall. It is his hunting ground.

As my windows are open to the night, there are vast numbers of flapping things that visit, usually without invitation. They often seem to want to explore my ears or my nose, which irritates me no end. But then, in a few minutes, they will advance on the naked lightbulb. Gecko will not move, not a twitch, until they are well within nipping distance.

Then my own personal tiny dinosaur will flick forward and back in a mini-second, filled with what Pete Seeger called "the bug wiggling and jiggling and tiggling inside of you."

Later, the creature will perch upside-down on the ceiling, just above the ceiling fan. Every hour or so, he will mutter a surprisingly loud rasping noise that one famous writer mistakenly named "the call of the Kissy-kissy Bird," thinking perhaps that Don Gecko had wings.

Dinerstein reveals that he too is addicted to geckos:

    I should mention that I am a practiced gecko listener. On too many lonely nights in Nepal when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, it sometimes seemed like the only other vertebrates speaking to me were hungry geckos coming to eat the moths attracted to my kerosene reading lamp. "Geck-o! Geck-o!" they would call as if touting their arrival. Years later, when traveling across Southeast Asia, I loved to listen to the loud "To-kay!" calls of the giant purple-spotted geckos, known also as the tokay gecko. In a sparsely furnished rest house in Ujung Kulon National Park on the western tip of Java --- one of the last two refuges of the Javan rhino --- I once spent a night in a room where the only objet d'art was a large portrait of President Suharto. A tokay gecko had taken shelter behind it, and all night I felt like Suharto was trying to keep me awake with his gecko imitations.

--- Carlos Amantea
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