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Dead Baby and Mother

June 2007

Copyright © 1993-2011 Ganesh H. Shankar

December 2003 - From Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in India, early in the chilling morning we headed towards a place named Bund Bareta. Someone told us that there were Indian Skimmers at the dam site of Bund Bareta. With lots of hope of seeing and photographying Indian Skimmers we reached the dam site. Yes there were about 15 of them but they were very far off. For bird photography all I had then was a 300mmf4 AF-S lens and a TC14E. Whole of the morning I tried approaching them and made a few not-so-interesting images. In the evening I gave up on photographying birds and was looking for some other subjects. Then I found a group of langurs near the dam site.

I love photographying langurs so apporached the group to make some images. What I saw for next few minutes will remain in my memory for ever. I saw this unfortunate mother holding dead body of its baby! It was sitting on a brick wall (so I chose to not to include the bottom part in the frame). It moved around here and there keeping the dead baby on the wall and carried it with it when it moved.

I had tough time photographying this. I was emotionally very upset and secondly I wanted to make some images of this behaviour exhibited by some of the mammals. With lots of difficulty I made a few images of them. I kept my fingers crossed (no previews then) when I gave the slide for E6-processing. Thank God all of them turned out to be good with acurate exposure and sharpness.

The unusual calm expression in the face of the baby, sad looking mother, wrinkled nipples are fresh in my mind even after years and will remain so for years to come. My emotions compounded when I saw other feeding langurs with lively young babies in the group.

When I shared this image someone told me that people did research on this behaviour, these langurs don't have any emotions, it is just an instinct for them to carry the dead baby. I was further upset by such judgements. We don't even understand our own spouse well after living together for years how can a research study can conclude that this mother has no emotions for death of its baby ? I have seen them getting angry, don't they feel sad too ?

After this I tried to gather all the information available about this behaviour. Then I came across a famous study done by Sarah Blaffer Hardy on understanding why male Hanuman Langurs exhibit infanticide behaviour. You can read more about Sarah here. In her doctoral thesis, Sarah came up with a striking theory of need for the new male which takes over a group to pass his genes as quickly as possible by mating with as many famale langurs in the group as possible. If a langur female has a feeding baby then it takes time for it to ovulate - so kill the young ones fathered by the previous male so that it can mate with female langurs sooner. She observerd that a male langur may have about 2 years before another takes over the group. So time is very precious for the new leader to pass on his genes.

While this is an interesting behaviour exhibited by male langurs and the possible reason death of young babies in a group, my question still remains un-ansered.

When a young one dies or gets killed will the mother feel sad or not ? Do they have emotions or not ?

** I think they do **.

I tried reaching Sarah by leaving a message at her home address above to know her views ,but have not heard back from her (not sure whether she got my message, I don't have her E-mail address).

Sarah, if you happen to see this page ever, please drop me a mail - Thanks in advance.

If you have a view on this article please write to me.