Saturday, December 27, 2008

Vanishing Species - The Himalayan Brown Bear

An Article by Mohan Pai
The Himalayan Brown Bear
(Ursus arctos isabellinus)

The Himalayan Brown Bear is believed to be a possible source of the legend of the Yeti.

Brown Bears are the second largest species of bear, only the polar bear is larger. They have a body length between 2 and 3 m (6.5 - 9.75 ft), a tail length between 5 and 20 cms (2 - 8 inches) and they weigh between 100 and 1,000 kg (220 - 2,200 lbs). Males can be up to 50% larger than females. The worldwide population of the Brown Bear is estimated at about 2,00,000.

The Himalayan Brown Bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) is a subspecies of the Brown Bear. Himalayan Brown Bears are usually sandy or reddish-brown in color. They are located in the foothills of the Himalaya and northern Pakistan and do not extend past Dachigam and Kashmir. The actual population of the bears is unknown due to their rarity but is estimated at around 20-28 in the Deosai National Park. The Himalayan Brown Bear and the Himalayan Red Bear (the Dzu-Teh) are also believed to be the source of the legend of the Yeti.Himalayan Brown Bears are smaller than the Alaskan species. Males range from 1.5m up to 2.2m (4ft 11in - 7ft 3in) long, while females are 1.37m to 1.83m (4ft 6 in - 6ft) long.

Brown bears feed on insects, small crustaceans, alpine bulbs and roots of plants, shoots of young grasses, domestic goats, sheep, and voles. Brown bears feed actively from 1-2 hours before sunrise and again for several hours in the late afternoon and evening. They are nocturnal, and their sense of smell is acutely developed and believed to be their principal means of finding food. Adult bears normally go into hibernation (dormancy) at the end of October and emerge around the following March or April. They excavate their own hibernating lair or den under a large boulder or between the roots of a stunted tree, or they may utilise a natural cavern. Hibernation appears to be intermittent, with the animal occasionally waking up and becoming active. Mating occurs in the spring and early summer, and the females give birth to cubs, generally two in number. The cubs are are blind at birth and weigh no more than one pound at birth. They are covered with short, silky, rather dark brown hair. Born in January, the cubs stay in the lair with their mother until she first emerges from hibernation in late April, and will remain with their mother for two to three years. Females are believed to breed first at the age of five years during their winter hibernation. The gestation period is from 180-250 days. The life-span of this species is about 45 years.

Distribution and Status:

The Himalayan brown bear is generally restricted to alpine meadow and sub-alpine scrub zones above the tree-line in the northern mountain regions of India having Dachigam and Kashmir as its limits. The brown bear is uncommon in India and is considered rare. According to Dr. A.J.T. Singh, (Wildlife Institute of India, letter to Servheen,1988,) the brown bear was sighted just twice during a 9 month Snow Leopard survey in the Jammu and Kashmir States. Hence status of population is unknown. International trade in these bears, or their parts, is banned under CITES ( Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and by the Wildlife Protection Act in India.

About the Ecoregion (Western Himalayan subalpine conifer forests)

There are not a lot of mammal species found in this ecoregion, but of those that are here, many are threatened or endangered. These species include the southern serow (Naemorhedus sumatraensis), the Brown Bear(Urses arctos), Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), and markhor (Capra falconeri). The ecoregion’s bird fauna consists of 285 species, of which 9 are endemic to the ecoregion, including the Himalayan quail (Ophrysia superciliosa), orange bullfinch (Pyrrhula aurantiaca), and Kashmir nuthatch (Sitta cashmirensis). Other species such as pheasants, and tragopans e.g., Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha), western tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus), and Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus) are characteristic of these subalpine western Himalayan forests and have low disturbance thresholds. The Himalayan griffon (Gyps himalayensis), a large bird of prey that soars high above the mountains in these alpine regions and embodies the sense of space in the high Himalayas, can be another focal species.

Cause for Concern

Although the ecoregion is less populated than some of the other Himalayan ecoregions, (especially those in the lower elevations), more than 70% of the natural habitat has been cleared or degraded. Nevertheless, this ecoregion contains some of the least disturbed forests in the western Himalayas. The 11 protected areas cover 2,400 km2, or about 6% of the ecoregion. The steep slopes of some of the high mountains have been deforested for intensive cultivation, although the practice of terracing has greatly reduced erosion. Large-scale collection of the morel mushroom (Morchella esculenta) from this ecoregion by the local people for export coincides with the breeding season of several pheasants and high altitude mammals. Collection of wood by the local people for their own use and for sale to tourist trekkers and mountaineering parties is also a substantial threat, especially as the high altitude forests are very slow to regenerate.

More about the Brown Bear

The brown bear is the most widespread bear species. They can be found over most of Europe, North America, and northern Asia. The most stable populations of brown bear are found in North America and Russia. In North America, they are found mainly in the northwestern regions of Alaska, Canada and a few scattered populations in the northwestern United States. Their range does not go as far south as it once did, and brown bears are no longer found south of the Mexican border. Only four populations of brown bear remain in central and western Europe: in the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain, the Pyrenees Mountain Range, the Alps, and the Abruzzo Mountains of Italy. Some populations exist in Scandanavia and in the Catharpan and Balkan mountains. In Asia, the bear population is declining rapidly to to extensive hunting for their body parts. However, there is still a large population in the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Worldwide Population and Distribution

Brown bears used to be one of the most widespread land mammal, but their species is threatened. The current worldwide estimated population is 200,000 bears. The largest population is in Russia, with 120,000 bears. The United States has an estimated 32,500 bears (with 30,000 of those living in Alaska, and the remaining populations scattered in 5 separate populations in the lower 48 states in the north west). Canada has an estimated 21,750 bears. Brown bears are extinct in Mexico, with the last one spot in 1960. In Europe, there is an estimated 14,000 bears in ten fragmented populations. They are extinct in the British Isles. Brown bears are extremely rare in France and Spain, and threatened over much of central Europe. Outside of Russia, the bear population is largest in the Carpathian mountain area, with 4,500-5,000 bears.
Brown bears live in scattered populations in the northwestern United States in the states of Washington state, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The largest population is in Yellowstone, with about 600 bears, and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem of northwest Montana has a population of about 400-500 bears. The rest are sparsely scattered throughout the northwest in isolated populations.

The Species Ursus arctos includes the following subgroups:

Subspecies: Ursus arctos formicarius (Carpathian bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos arctos (European brown bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos gobiensis (Gobi bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos horribilis (grizzly bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos isabellinus (Himalayan brown bear) Subspecies: Ursus arctos yesoensis (Hokkaido brown bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos piscivorus (Kamchatka bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos middendorffi (Kodiak bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos marsicanus (Marsican bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos nelsoni (Mexican grizzly bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos beringianus (Siberian brown bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos syriacus (Syrian brown bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos pruinosusm (Tibetan blue bear)

Subspecies: Ursus arctos lasiotus (Ussuri brown bear)

Acknowledgements: Wildlife SOS, Wikipedia, WWF Report.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Vanishing Species - The Saurus Crane

An Article by Mohan Pai
The Saurus Crane
(Grus antigone)

World’s tallest flying bird, the Saurus cranes mate for life and is perhaps the best example of conjugal harmony and fidelity in nature.

Saurus cranes mate for life. The bond is so strong, these birds are a symbol of marital fidelity in many Asian cultures. As with many other crane species, the saurus crane performs a courtship dance mainly during the breeding season. They bow and curtsy, opening up their wings and throwing back their head as they utter their trumpeting call. The Saurus is the only resident crane in India.

The Saurus crane is a large, tall grey bird standing 1.5 to 1.75 m. with long bare red legs and naked red head and upper neck with a wing span of 2.4 m. Cranes are believed to have evolved during Cenozoic period (in the last 60 million years).


The Saurus pairs about cultivations and marshland. Distributed in Northern, Central and NE India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar. The Burmese sharpii is darker than Indian antigone.


Essentially a dweller of open well-watered plains. Normally seen in pairs, occasionally accompanies by one or two young. Said to pair for life, and conjugal devotion has one for the species popular reverence and protection resulting in tameness and lack of fear of man.

It attains flight by slow rhythmical wing strokes, neck outstretched in front, legs trailing behind; swifter than it appears and seldom high up in the air. It is the world’s tallest flying bird (nearly six feet tall).
It gives a loud, sonorous, far-reaching trumpeting sound uttered from ground as well as on wing.
During breeding season pairs indulge in ludicrous and spectacular dancing display, bowing mutually, prancing with outspread wings and leaping around each other.


Grain, shoots and other vegetable matter, insects, reptiles, etc.
NestingThe nest is a huge mass of reed and rush stems and straw, in the midst of a flooded paddy field or a marsh. Lays two pale greenish or pinkish white eggs, sometimes spotted and blotched with brown or purple. Both birds are vigilant in guarding the nest, boldly attacking dogs and cattle encroaching in its neighbourhood.
The young can swim before they walk and quickly learn to get their own food.

Excerpts from the book “The Dance of the Saurus” by S. Theodore Baskaran:

“Winter in Western India and there is a nip in the air. The slanting rays of the early morning sun lift the mist slowly, revealing a brilliant carpet of yellow flowers in the mustard field. And at the edge of the expanse are two Saurus Cranes. Few other sights are so stirring to a birdwatcher as a pair of these cranes. They are always seen as twosome.

They bond for life and their marital devotion is legendary. In the world of birds , one that lasts just for breeding season, like the hornbill’s, and the other, that lasts for a lifetime like that of the Saurus. In Gujarat, one of the strongholds of these cranes, there is a touching custom. If a husband and wife are given to quarreling frequently, the elders persuade them to go and watch a pair of Saurus in the field, echoing the ritual spotting of the star Arundhathi in a marriage ceremony.
“... Due to rapidly expanding agriculture and human settlements, wetlands are disappearing fast and what is left is polluted with pesticides and industrial effluent. ... Increasingly, these cranes choose to nest in paddy fields, which are after all, temporary wetland. The farmer suffers heavy losses as bird takes a toll of paddy. So they try to prevent the Saurus nesting in their fields and each season quite a few pairs fail to breed. In the Kheda area, traditional breeding ground of the Saurus where you get the highest concentration of nesting pairs, every year there is a decline of fifteen per cent and that is an alarming rate indeed.”

References: The Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali, The Dance of the Saurus by S. Theodore Baskaran

Pic: Courtsey, E. J. Peiker

Friday, December 12, 2008

Vanishing Species - Indian Rock Python

An Article by Mohan Pai
Indian Pythons
Indian Rock Python
(Python molurus)
Rock Pythons are often being killed for their skin. In Keral and Tamil Nadu, the meat is eaten by locals for its supposedly medicinal value.
Kaa, the rock python of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book who rescues Mowgli from the Bandar log is the Indian Rock Python (Python molurus) and is a non-venomous snake, which kills its prey by constriction.
Adults grow to an average length of 4 m and weigh an average of 70 to 129+ pounds. Their relative girth exceeds that of all other snakes. The longest recorded specimen measured 5.85 m (19 ft 2 in) (Cooch-Behar, West Bengal). Their scales are smooth and generally glossy for a snake in good condition. They have a flattened head with large nostrils, directed upwards and situated high on the snout. Their eyes are small and the pupil vertical, with the iris apparently flecked with gold. Pythons have what are commonly called spurs; vestigial or rudimentary limbs situated on either side of the anal vent.The color pattern is whitish or yellowish with the blotched patterns varying from shades of yellow to dark brown. This varies with terrain and habitat. Specimens from the hill forests of Western Ghats and Assam are darker, while those from the Deccan Plateau and East Coast are usually lighter.
Found in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, southern Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, southern China, (Sichuan and Yunnan east to Fujian, Hainan, Hong Kong), Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Peninsula Malaysia and Indonesia (Java, Sumbawa, Sulawesi).
Conservation status
This species is classified as Lower Risk/Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Year assessed: 1996.These snakes have often been killed for their fine skin and are endangered. They are now partly protected by the Tamil Nadu Government. In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the meat is eaten by locals as the fat is purported to have medicinal value.
Occurs in a wide range of habitats, including grasslands, swamps, marshes, rocky foothills, woodlands, "open" jungle and river valleys. They depend on a permanent source of water. Sometimes they can be found in abandoned mammal burrows, hollow trees, dense water reeds and mangrove thickets.
Distributed in Sri Lanka and peninsular India up to Sind in the west and Bengal in the east. Python m. Bivittatus, another subspecies is found in eastern India up Orissa, Nepal, Indo-Chineses subregion.
Lethargic and slow moving even in its native habitat, they exhibit little timidity and rarely try to escape even when attacked. Locomotion is usually rectilinear, with the body moving in a straight line. They are very good swimmers and are quite at home in water. They can be wholly submerged in water for many minutes if necessary, but usually prefer to remain near the bank.
These snakes feed on mammals, birds and reptiles indiscriminately, but seem to prefer mammals. Roused to activity on sighting prey, the snake will advance with quivering tail and lunge with open mouth. Live prey is constricted and killed. One or two coils are used to hold it in a tight grip. The prey, unable to breathe, succumbs and is subsequently swallowed head first. After a heavy meal, they are disinclined to move. If forced to, hard parts of the meal may tear through the body. Therefore, if disturbed, some specimens will disgorge their meal in order to escape from potential predators. After a heavy meal, an individual may fast for weeks; the longest recorded duration being 2 years.So far there have been no authentic cases of a human being eaten by this species.
Oviparous, up to 100 eggs are laid, protected and incubated by the female. Towards this end, it has been shown that they are capable of raising their body temperature above the ambient level through muscular contractions. The hatchlings are 45-60 cm (18-24 in) in length and grow quickly.
Rreferences: J. C. Daniel - The book of Indian Reptiles and Amphibians, Wikipedia, Friends of Snakes Club.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Vanishing Species - Reticulated Python

Article by Mohan Pai

Indian Pythons
Reticulated Python
(Python reticulatus)

Pic: courtsey David Barker

Reticulated Python - the longest snake in the world can grow up to 33 ft.(9.9m.) in length.

The largest specimen of the reticulated python ever found in the wild was reported in 1912 from the island of Celebes (now known as Sulawesi) in Indonesia. This snake measured thirty-three feet.

The reticulated python gets its name from the distinctive color and pattern on its scales. According to Webster’s International Dictionary the word “reticulated” is an adjective defined as “having lines intercrossed, forming a network.” It is also known as the regal python.

Reticulated Python, the world’s longest snake is found throughout coastal Southeast Asia. Reticulated Python (Python Reticulatus) is the longest snake in the world, and among three Old World Pythons. It is relatively slender and characterized by an attractive pattern - diamond shaped outline highlighted by white spots with light brown background. They are native throughout coastal Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to Nicobar Island, east of Peninsular Malaysia, Vietnam and most of the islands of the Indonesia and Phillipines. In India this species is found in Eastern Assam and Nicobar island.
The reticulated python can be found in variety of habitats, including open woodlands, dense forest, rocky areas, lakes, rivers and swamps. This species is rarely found far away from fresh water. The snake can attain considerable bulk and size, some specimens exceeded weight over 980 pounds and 49 feet, making it the world’s longest snake. However, 10-20 feet is the average length of an adult.


It has been reported that the temperament of this species varies according to different geographical areas. For example, the reticulated python of the Lesser Sundas Islands of Indonesia and central Thailand are more docile and calm snakes in captivity, than in other areas, like the reticulated pythons of Sulawesi Islands of Indonesia are typically irritable and defensive.
These pythons normally resides in humid forest with temperatures ranging from 80-92F. Due to excessive dependence on water these snakes are often found besides small ponds and streams. They avoid daylight. Distinguishes its prey by there movement and their odour. They have heat sensing pits, that is, small rectangular openings in the scales on its lips which help them to sense the warmth of its prey.
Variations in Reticulated Python

The reticulated python incorporates numerous different colors with a complex geometric pattern. The back of the snake has many irregular diamond shapes which are surrounded by small marks with light centers. This species has wide variations due to hybridization in captivity. Two wild subspecies are Python reticulatus saputrai (Selayer retics) and Python reticulatus jampeanus (Jampea retics).
Current variations due to breeding in captive includes, super tiger, tiger, albino (dark lavender, lavender, white, and purple phase), genetic stripe, albino super tiger, albino tiger, golden child, sunfire (this morph may be soon renamed), ivory/white flame, calico, and several others. These snakes have the ability to transform its shades and intensity of the colors. Eye is normally of orange color.

The snake is carnivorous in its food habits. Due to large size the reticulated pythons have built-in capacity to devour large variety of preys. Warm blooded creatures like waterfowl, nesting birds and small to medium animals; also pigs, dogs, goats, large deer and occasionally human being are included in its diet. However, it depends on the size of the snake while eating the size of the prey.
In captive, hatchlings should be given rat pups and small mice, with their growth lager rats should be offered. Other to it, hatchlings should be fed in short intervals, that is, seven days could be ideal. One full diet for adult can be ample for 3-4 weeks. But, egg-laying female’s diet should be double to its normal amount.

Like all snakes, the female reticulated python lays eggs and wrap their powerful bodies around them for two or more months; this is known as brooding and it prevents the eggs from getting too cool or too warm. The female python alternatively contracts and relaxes her muscles and "shivers" to raise temperature of the eggs as well as her body.
The eggs are yellowish or white, shiny, soft and sticky which allows sticking together and prevents from drying out. The eggs measures are 10-13 cm (4-5 in) in length. Clutch size can be between 25-100 eggs, and once they hatched they are abandoned. Hatchlings are around 2 feet in length and may grow the same length per year, but in captivity they some time grow up to 6 feet.
The popularity of reticulated pythons has increased due the pet trade largely for skin, meat, and parts for folk medicine. Apart of it, due to easy feasibility of mutation in captivity it has added to attraction. This snake is extremely rewarding captive, but the owner should have previous experience of handling such a large pythons. This is necessary for both the animal and the keeper.

Very large reticulated pythons have often been kept in zoological parks around the world. Many of them refused food for periods of time and it was common practice for zookeepers to assist or force-feed them. One specimen at the Frankfurt Zoo refused food for 679 days. Another specimen at the Frankfurt Zoo in Germany measuring 24 feet ate a pig that weighed 120 pounds. The largest snake that ever lived in a zoo was a reticulated python named Colossus. She lived at the Pittsburgh Zoo in Pennsylvania. You can find her photograph in a book entitled “The Giant Snakes” by Clifford H. Pope. The author of this classic reptile book reported that she was 22 feet long when captured in Siam (now Thailand) in 1949. Eight years later she reached the length of 28 feet long. Her girth measured 37 inches and her weight was estimated to be more than 320 pounds. The largest reticulated python kept in England was “Cassius.” He was sent to the Knaresborough Zoo in Yorkshire in 1972 after being captured in Malaysia. In 1978 he measured 27 feet and weighed 240 pounds. A reticulated python from Sumatra named “Gina” was raised from a hatchling at the Bali Reptile Park. According the park’s director, she reached the length of 26 feet four inches in only nine years.

Attacks on HumansAttacks on humans are rare, but this species has been responsible for several human fatalities, in both the wild and captivity. They are among the few snakes that have been fairly reliably reported to eat people, although only 1–3 cases of the snake actually eating rather than just killing a human seem to have been verified:Two incidents, apparently in early 20th century Indonesia: On Salibabu, a 14-year-old boy was killed and supposedly eaten by a specimen 5.17 m (c.17 ft) in length. Another incident involved an adult woman reputedly eaten by a "large reticulated python", but few details are known.Franz Werner reports a case from Burma (or Myanmar) either occurring in the early 1910s or in 1927. A jeweller named Maung Chit Chine, who went hunting with his friends, was apparently eaten by a 6 m (20 ft) specimen after he sought shelter from a rainstorm on or under a tree. Supposedly, he was swallowed feet first, contrary to normal snake behavior but the easiest way for a snake to actually swallow a human.In 1932, Frank Buck wrote about a teenage boy who was eaten by a pet 25 ft reticulated python in the Philippines. According to Buck, the python had escaped and when it was found they could recognize a human child shape inside the snake, which later turned out to be the son of the snake's owner.According to Mark Auliya, the corpse of 32-year-old Mangyan Lantod Gumiliu was recovered from the belly of a 7 m (c.23 ft) Reticulated Python on Mindoro, probably in January, 1998. On October 23, 2008 a 25 year old Virginia Beach woman, Amanda Ruth Black, appears to have been killed by a 13-foot pet reticulated python. The apparent cause of death was asphyxiation. The snake was later found in the bedroom in an agitated state.

Considering the known maximum prey size, it is technically possible for a full-grown specimen to open its jaws wide enough to swallow a human child, teenager, or even a small adult, although the flaring shoulders of Homo sapiens would pose a major problem. The victim would almost certainly be dead by the time the snake started swallowing. At least in the 1998 incident, the victim was gathering food or wood in the forest when he happened upon the snake. In any case, it is unlikely that any but the largest specimens are able to kill, let alone eat, an adult human, except if the victim is caught unaware

Web references: Reptile, Wikipedia, Jayashree Pakhare

Bob Clark’s pet “Fluffy” Pic: courtsey Bob Clark

Friday, November 28, 2008

Vanishing Species - The Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros
(Rhinoceros unicornis)

A kilogram of Rhino horn was priced at $ 60,000 in the International market in 1994.
No wonder the species is facing extinction.

Rampant killing for superstitious & religious beliefs has driven this largest of all Asian rhinoceros to near extinction. The two-horned rhino (Didermocerus sumatrenis) became extinct in the hill tracts of Assam by the end of the nineteenth century.

When Mary Victoria Leiter Curzon, the wife of the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, visited Kaziranga in 1904 and having failed to see even a single rhinoceros, for which the area was renowned, she persuaded her husband to take urgent measures to protect the dwindling species which he did by initiating planning for a their protection. On 1 June 1905, the Kaziranga Proposed Reserve Forest was created with an area of 232 km2 (90 sq mi).Formerly extensively distributed in the Gangetic plain to day it is restricted to parts of Nepal (Chitwan), North West Bengal (Dooars) and Kaziranga in Assam. The world’s largest population of this animal is in Kaziranga National Park followed by Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary and a small population in Gorumara National Park in North Bengal. A few have been relocated in Dudhwa NP.

Lady Curzon

Many legends and beliefs are attached to the rhinoceros.
“In Europe, during the Middle Ages, its horn was generally believed to have peculiar medicinal virtues.
In Nepal the flesh and blood of the rhinoceros is considered highly acceptable to the manes. High caste Hindus and most Gurkhas offer libation of the animal’s blood after entering its disembowelled body. On ordinary Sraddha days the libation of water and milk is poured from a cup carved from its horn. The urine is considered antiseptic and is hung in a vessel at the principal door as a charm against ghosts, evil spirits, and diseases. These beliefs connected with the rhinoceros are prevalent in varying forms in Burma, Siam, and China. They set a great value upon the animal and provide the main reason for its persecution.” (S. H. Prater)

In the nineteenth and end early twentieth century, the Indian Rhinoceros was hunted relentlessly. Reports from the middle of the nineteenth century claim that some military officers in Assam individually shot more than 200 rhinos. In the early 1900s, colonial officials became concerned at the rhino's plummeting numbers. By 1908 in Kaziranga, one of the rhino's main ranges, the population had fallen to around 12 individuals. In 1910, all rhino hunting in India became prohibited.

Human interference is one of the major factors responsible for putting the life of One Horned Rhinos at risk. Grazing of livestocks inside the protected areas makes the animals vulnerable to several fatal diseases. Unabated poaching activities mainly for it’s horn is pushing this animal to the brink of extinction. The horn is used as a medicine and an aphrodisiac. Medicinal purposes are as a pain reliever and a fever suppressant. For centuries, Asians have believed that powdered rhino horn could cure everything from fevers and nose bleeds to measles, diphtheria, and food poisoning. Many also believe powdered rhino horn helps retain the vigor of youth and contributes to sexual stamina. However, there are no scientific studies that show that rhino horn is affective for any of these purposes. In addition to the horn, rhino hide; blood, urine, and dung also have economic value.Recent media reports from Kaziranga National Park on Great One Horned Rhino poaching are shocking and have put the government on tenterhooks. Given the present set of infrastructure that is available with the officials who stay on guard, they simply stand no match with sophisticated weapons the poachers carry. A drastic remedial step against the menace of poaching is something that has to be sorted out today or tomorrow may just be too late.

Taxonomy, Ecology and Behavior

In size it is equal to that of the white rhino in Africa. Not including the white rhino, it is the largest of all rhinos. Fully grown males are larger than females in the wild, weighing from 2200- 3000 kg (4,800 - 6,600 lb). Female Indian rhinos weigh about 1600 kg. The Indian Rhino is from 1.7 to 2 m tall (5.7 to 6.7 feet) and can be up to 4m (13 ft) long. The record-sized specimen of this rhino was approximately 3500 kg.The Great One-Horned Rhinoceros has a single horn; this is present in both males and females, but not on newborn young. The horn, like human fingernails, is pure keratin and starts to show after about 6 years. In most adults the horn reaches a length of about 25 centimeters, but have been recorded up to 57.2 centimeters in length. The nasal horn curves backwards from the nose. Its horn is naturally black. In captive animals, the horn is frequently worn down to a thick knob.

The great Indian rhinoceros is active throughout the day, although the middle of the day is spent wallowing and resting in the shade. Wallowing takes place in lakes, rivers, ponds, and puddles, and is especially frequent in the hot seasons to cool off. This activity is believed to be important with thermo-regulation and the control of flies. Drinking occurs almost every day, and mineral licks are visited regularly. Population densities vary from 0.4-4.85 animals per square kilometer depending on the habitat. Only the strongest males breed, and they have home ranges between 2-8 square kilometers in size. These home ranges are not true territories, and overlap each other. When disturbed, these rhinos generally flee, though they have been reported attacking, which they do with their head down. Smell is important in communication, with urine, feces, and glandular secretions carrying the messages. Rhinos have very poor eyesight, but their senses of smell and hearing are well developed.

A 1515 woodcut of One-horned rhinoceros by the famous German painter Albrecht Durer


The greater one-horned rhinoceros is commonly found only in South Asia and South East Asia. Historically, the rhinos were distributed in the floodplain and forest tracts in Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus river valley. Today, however, no more than 2,000 remain in the wild, with only two populations containing more than 100 rhinos: Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India (1,200) and Royal Chitwan National Park (CNP), Nepal (600).

Habitat & Feeding

Alluvial plain is the primary and preferred habitat. Adjacent swamp and forest areas are also used. Rhinoceros are herbivorous in nature. They feed on grass, fruit, leaves, branches, aquatic plants, and cultivated crops. Tall reedy grasses are preferred to short species. When eating aquatic plants, Rhinoceros submerge their entire heads and tear the plant up by the roots. Foraging occurs at night, in early morning, or late afternoon to avoid the heat of the day. Rhinoceros drinks daily and is fond of mineral licks.

Breeding occurs throughout the year. Only dominant bulls mate, and it is believed that they can assess the reproductive status of females through scent. Courtship may seem aggressive. Males chase females and sometimes fighting often ensues. After a gestation period of 480 days, one young is born weighing 70 kg. Weaning usually occurs in one year, although it may last up to 18 months. Females have young at intervals of about three years. One week before the next birth, the female will chase away her previous calf. Sexual maturity is reached at an age of 9 years for males, and 4 for females. The life-span is about 40 years.

Conservation Status and Threats

The great Indian rhinoceros is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) (1996). The main source of danger for this (and all) rhinos is the Oriental belief that its horn, among other parts, has medicinal or magical properties. The Indian rhinoceros was already considered a ‘vanishing race’ by the beginning of the 20th century, primarily due to the conversion of alluvial plain grassland to cultivated fields. Hunting, was also a factor in the decimation of the population. Despite protection measures, poaching remains a serious threat today due to the demand for rhino horn in Oriental medicine; in 1994 for example, a kilogram of rhino horn was worth approximately US $ 60,000.

Pic by Siva A. N.
References: The Book of Indian Animals by S. H. Prater, Wikipedia, Arunachal Front - 24/2/2008

Vanishing Species - The Red Panda

An article by Mohan Pai
The Red Panda
or Cat-Bear
(Ailurus fulgens)

The Red Panda is a “Teddy Bear” come to life.

The hills of Darjeeling are famous for a cute, cuddly and endearing animal-the Red Panda or Cat Bear. A small furry animal, the red Panda is almost as big as a reasonably sized domestic cat. It is chestnut red in colour, with its leg and underparts of a darker, almost blackish hue and has small white patches on the eyebrows and cheeks. Its pointed, cat-like ears and ringed markings on the tail give it a catlike appearance, the flat feet and bear-like paws have given it a bear like gait, and hence the epithet of cat-bear. However, it is neither a cat nor a bear.

The red panda has given scientists taxonomic fits. It has been classified as a relative of the giant panda, and also of the raccoon, with which it shares a ringed tail. Currently, red pandas are considered members of their own unique family—the Ailuridae.

The fur of red pandas is used to make hats and clothing by local people in China. The fur hat with its long, luxurious tail at the back looks beautiful and warm. In Yunnan Province, this type of hat is still desired by newlyweds, because it was regarded as a talisman for a happy marriage in the past.

Habitat and Distribution

Red Panda, live in temperate climates, in deciduous and coniferous forests, usually with an understorey of bamboo and hollow trees. This makes them a key species of these forests and indicators of forest health. They are found in the Himalayan region, in parts of Nepal, Bhutan, Mynammar and in the Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. Most of the red pandas of the world occur in China, whereas the majority of the Indian population occur in Arunachal Pradesh.

Unique Characteristics

The adorably cute red panda, also known as cat bear and lesser panda, is largely herbivore and an endangered species. Slightly larger than a domestic cat though their big, bushy tails add another 18 inches. They use their ringed tails as wraparound blankets in the chilly mountain heights. An adult red panda in the forest weighs around 4 kg. The lesser panda has retractile claws and, like the Giant Panda, it has a “false thumb” which is really an extension of the wrist bone. Thick fur on the soles offer protection from cold. The pelage is reddish – orange on the body with a long bushy tail. Their ears and areas around the eyes are white with black “tear drops” running from the eyes to the throat. These intricate white markings on the face of a red panda makes it most conspicuous.


The red pandas almost exclusively eats bamboo (mostly leaves, supplemented in the spring with bamboo shoots). It sometimes supplements its diet during the summer with fruit. It has also been reported occasionally to eat a wide variety of other items including berries, blossoms, fungi, seeds, acorns, eggs, young birds, small rodents, and insects.

These animals spend most of their lives in trees and even sleep aloft. When foraging, they are most active at night as well as in the gloaming hours of dusk and dawn.
They are shy and solitary except when mating. Females give birth in the spring and summer, typically to one to four young. Young red pandas remain in their nests for about 90 days, during which time their mother cares for them. (Males take little or no interest in their offspring.)

Conservation Challenges

Red pandas are declining over much of their range due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Forests are being cleared for timber extraction, agricultural development and livestock grazing even within national parks and wildlife reserves. This has resulted in the loss of nesting trees and the bamboo understorey on which the species feed. The red panda is also hunted for its pelt, which is used to make traditional hats and clothing in China. Moreover, they are also caught in the wild and kept as pets in certain parts of India and Nepal.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Vanishing Species - Common Palm Civet

An Article by Mohan Pai

Common Palm Civet
Paradoxurus hermaphroditus

Also called as the “Toddy Cat” for its fondness of toddy liquor.
The Common Palm Civet is also called the Toddy Cat. The name comes about because this creature is apparently fond of drinking from vessels put in palm trees to collect sap for making toddy or palm sugar. It is also known as the Asian Palm civet or ‘Musang’.
It is distributed from Kashmir, the Himalayas, and Assam southwards through the whole of the Peninsula, except in the desert zones of Sind and Punjab. Eastwards, Burma and the Indo-Chinese and Malay countries. This civet is more common and abundant in well-wooded regions. It lives much on trees, lying curled up by day among the branches or in a hole in the trunk. Near towns and villages large mango trees or palm trees are a favourite shelter. But it is a highly adaptive animal and can live in dense forests, agricultural lands and even in the heart of crowded cities, selecting a roof, an outhouse or drain as a place of hiding. Pineapple and coffee plantations are a favourite resort in the fruiting season.
Common Palm Civet Characteristics
The Common Palm Civet weighs around 3.2 kg (7 lb) and has a body length of 53cm (21 inches). The Common Palm has a tail length of 48cm (19 inches). It's long, stocky body is covered with coarse, shaggy hair that is usually a greyish colour.The Common Palm Civet has black markings on its feet, ears and muzzle. It also has three rows of black markings on its main body.The markings on it's face resemble a raccoon's. It's tail does not have rings, unlike similar palm civet species. The Common Palm Civet has sharp claws which allow it to climb trees and house gutters.
The Common Palm Civet is a nocturnal omnivore. Its primary food source is fruit such as chiku, mango and rambutan (a medium-sized tropical tree). It also has a fondness for palm flower sap which, when fermented, becomes 'toddy', a sweet liquor.The Common Palm Civet is also fond of coffee cherries. They eat the outer fruit and the coffee beans pass through their digestive tract. An expensive coffee called 'kopi luwak' is supposedly made from these coffee beans. Kopi luwak is said to have a gamy flavour and sells for more than $100 per pound.Common Palm Civets will eat reptiles, eggs and insects as well.
Common Palm Civets live in tropical forested habitats, parks and suburban gardens where mature fruit trees and fig trees grow and undisturbed vegetation.
Both male and female have scent glands underneath the tail that resemble testicles. It can spray a noxious secretion from these glands. The common palm civet is solitary, nocturnal and arboreal.
Common Palm Civets spend the day asleep in a tree hollow. Common Palm Civets are territorial.Common Palm Civets reproduce throughout the year although it has been recorded that kittens are most often seen from October to December. Kittens are born in a litter of 2 to 5 young. Palm civets become sexually mature at 11 to 12 months. In captivity the common palm civet can live up to 22 years. Young are born in tree hollows or in boulder crevices. During brief periods of mating and when the females have their young, the civets occupy resting trees together.
Common Palm Civets forage mainly at night. The likelihood of encountering predators during the day may have favoured nocturnal foraging behaviour. The activity period, from around 6pm in the evening to 4am in the morning, is influenced by daylight. Palm civets become active only after dark and retreat to rest sites just before dawn.When foraging in the same area, civets repeatedly use the same resting trees. Resting trees with vines and holes are preferred by the civets and are used for several consecutive days.
Interesting facts about the Common Palm Civet
In Sri Lanka, the palm civet is known as 'Uguduwa' by the Sinhala speaking community. In most parts of the island, the civets become a menace to the people due to fact that it litters in ceilings and attics of common households and then makes loud noises at night disturbing the sleep of the inhabitants of the house (noises are mostly due to their movements and fights).
Palm Civet Conservation Status
Common Palm Civets are classed as 'Least Concern'. It is plentiful in its natural range.
References: S. H. Prater ‘ The book of Indian Animals’, Wikipeddia.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Vanishing Species - The Indian Porcupine

An Article by Mohan Pai
The Indian Porcupine
Hystrix indica

A rodent with deadly quills that has turned many a tigers and leopards into man-eaters.

Many conservationists, most notably, Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson, have documented and noted that many tigers and leopards became man-eaters after having fought and been injured by porcupines, which indicates their ferocity and their lack of predators. One such example was the Leopard of Gummalapur, which when examined, was shown to have two porcupine quills lodged in its right forefoot.

The Indian Porcupine or Indian Crested Porcupine (Hystrix indica) is a member of the Old World porcupines. It is quite an adaptable rodent, found throughout southern Asia and the Middle East. It is tolerant of several different habitats: mountains, tropical and subtropical grasslands, scrublands, and forests. This is a large rodent, growing more that three feet long and weighs 32 pounds.It is covered in multiple layers of quills. The longest quills grow from its shoulders to about a third of the animal's length. Its tail is covered in short, hollow quills that can rattle when threatened. It has broad feet and long claws for digging. When attacked, the Indian porcupine raises its quills and rattles the hollow quills on its tail. If the predator persists past these threats, the porcupine launches a backwards assault, hoping to stab its attacker with its quills. It does this so effectively that most brushes between predators and the Indian porcupine end in death or severe injury. Popular belief that the porcupine shoots its quills is not true.

Geographic Range
The Indian porcupine is found throughout southeast and central Asia and in parts of the Middle East, including such countries as India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Indian porcupine is highly adaptable to multiple environments. Although they usually favor rocky hill sides, the species can also be found in tropical and temperate scrublands, grasslands, and forests. They are also found throughout the Himalayan mountains, reaching up to elevations of 2400 meters.
Physical Description
The Indian porcupine's head and body measure 70-90 centimeters (cm) in length, with the tail adding an additional 8-10 cm. Its hair is highly modified to form multiple layers of spines.
Beneath the longer, thinner spines lies a layer of shorter and thicker ones. Each quill is brown or black in color, with alternating bands of white. Spines vary in length, with the neck and shoulder quills being the longest, measuring 15 to 30 cm. The tail is covered with shorter spines that appear white in color. Among these, are longer, hollow, rattling quills that are used to alarm potential predators. The feet and hands are broad, with long claws that are used for burrowing.
Brood size varies, ranging from2 to 4 offspring per year. Young are born with their eyes open, and the body is covered by short soft quills. The Indian porcupine is usually monogamous, with both parents being found in the burrow with their offspring throughout the year.
When irritated or alarmed, the Indian porcupine raises its quills and rattles the hollow spines on its tail. If the disturbance continues, the species launches a backward attack and clashes its rear against the offending animal. This action drives the spines deep into the enemy, often leading to severe injury or death. The majority of the damage is done by the short quills that are hidden beneath the longer, thinner spines on the tail and back. Quite often, these quills become dislodged and remain in the victim.Indian porcupines are nocturnal, with the species seeking shelter in caves, between rocks, or in its burrow during the day. The burrow is usually self-constructed, with a long entrance tunnel, multiple exits and a large inner chamber. Gnawed bones and most of the excavated dirt are usually left at the entrance.
Food Habits
The main food source for the Indian porcupine is vegetable material of all kinds, including fruits, grains, and roots . They have also been known to chew on bones, in search of minerals (such as calcium) that help their spines grow. The species utilizes both natural plants and agricultural crops as food sources.The Indian porcupine uses crop plants extensively as a food resource, thus leading to a significant loss for agriculture. In addition, the species can be extremely destructive to gardens and landscaping, as they burrow through or consume the resources in these areas.
Porcupines are hunted in many countries for their meat, which is considered a delicacy, and for their quills, which many cultures use for decoration and religious symbols. Because of their fondness for human-grown crops, they are also hunted as a pest species. Often infested with fleas and ticks, porcupines sometimes carry serious bacterial infections.

References: Wikipedia, Animal Diversity Web.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Vanishing Species - The Blackbuck

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Blackbuck
Antelope cervicapra

Vehicle of the Moon-god (Chandrama) it is one of the most graceful and the fastest of the Indian antelopes.
The Indian Blackbuck Antelope is the sole representative in India of the genus Antilope. Its striking colour and its beautiful spiralled horns, which may reach the shoulder height of the animal, give it an elegance hardly equalled by any antelope. This exclusively Indian animal is perhaps the most beautiful of all its kind. Races in India include: cervicapra, rupicapra, rajputanae and centralis.
The fastest of the Indian antelopes, they move off in a series of amazing leaps and bounds when threatened and then break into a lightening run. Blackbuck, common name for an antelope, mainly of India but with other small populations in Pakistan and Nepal. The blackbuck has ringed horns that have a moderate spiral twist of three to four turns and are up to 70 cm (28 in) long.
Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) is the only representative of genus antelope found in India. It is one of the most graceful animals and used to be seen in thousands at the beginning of this century all throughout the plains of India except the Western coast. Due to extensive poaching and habitat loss, blackbuck populations have been reduced drastically. Now they can be seen in a a few protected areas like the Guindy National park and IIT campus at Chennai, Point Calimere and Vellanadu Sanctuaries in Tamil Nadu and Rollapadu (Andhra Pradesh), Velavadar (Gujarat) and Chilka (Orissa) other than few parts of Rajasthan, Hariyana, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
The adult male stands about 80 cm (about 32 in) at the shoulder and weighs 32 to 43 kg (71 to 95 lb). The body's upper parts are black; the underparts and a ring around the eyes are white. The female, light brown in colour is usually hornless. Males are dark brown. The males darken at maturity and the most dominant male in the herd has a black coat. White highlights the eyes, ears, chin, under parts, and rump. Even fawns have these markings. They are brown but turn tan after about a month. Grown males have ringed horns spiraling in a V at least 33 cm above the head. Record trophies exceed 50 cm.
Habitatat & Diet
Black Buck are found all over India except the northeast. You can find them in Panjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat and central India. It does not live in dense forest but in open plains. It is one of the fastest animals on earth and can out run any animal over long distances. Open plains, which allows it to move fast, are therefore needed to protect it from predators.
The black buck mainly feed in grasses. Pods, fruits, and flowers supplement are among the diets of black bucks. Few black bucks live longer than 12 years, and their maximum life span is about 16 years.

Pic by Rajashri Banerji

The social units of the blackbuck are female groups, mixed groups of both sexes, bachelor groups, and territorial males. Since territorial males monopolize prime grazing, female groups frequent their territories. Each territorial male commands about 3 to 40 acres. Territorialism facilitates breeding by giving the male a clear field for courtship. If a doe tolerates following, the "mating march" changes into circling, with the male in a "nose-up" display. The average interval between births is six months, with gestation comprising approximately five months. The single fawn can be born at any season. Initially, the fawn lies in the grass between nursing sessions. Then it gradually joins the mother's group. Between six months and one year old, increasing harassment from territorial males, plus the zest for sparring, sends young bucks to bachelor groups. Males mature sexually by eighteen months but take about 2½ years to reach physical maturity. Females can conceive as young as eight months, although most first-time mothers conceive at around seventeen months. Females mature physically by one year.

According to the Hindu mythology Blackbuck or Krishna Jinka is considered as the vehicle (vahana) of the Moon-god or Chandrama. As per Garuda Purana of Hindu mythology, Krishna Jinka bestows prosperity in the areas where they live.MiscellaneousThe blackbuck, known as Krishna Jinka in Telugu language, has been declared the state animal of Andhra Pradesh.

Species of Indian deer and antelope were brought to the United States, specifically Texas, during the early part of the 20th century for the purpose of hunting and breeding. Some of these included Blackbuck, Axis Deer, or Chital Deer as they are called in India, Barasingha, and Nilgai. These species, plus many others, can now be found on private hunting ranches and freely roaming the Hill Country and surroundings areas in Texas. Game ranch raised blackbucks are so thriving and plentiful that specimens were shipped from Texas to India in order to repopulate certain areas. In 2007, a blackbuck hunt in U.S.A. for a male trophy ranged in price from $750 - $2,500 USD depending on quality and outfitter.

Blackbuck Sanctuaries

Abohar wildlife sanctuary *Bandhavgarh National Park *Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary *Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar Chhapar, Churu, *Black Buck Santuary, Corbett National Park *Gir National Park *Guindy National Park *Kanha National Park *Maidenahalli Blackbuck Reserve, Tumkur District, Karnataka *Pilikula Biological Park, Mangalore, Karnataka *Ranthambhore National Park *Rehakuri Sanctuary, Ahmednagar District, Maharashtra *KrushnaMruga Abhayaranya, Ranebennur,Karnataka

Pic by Prakash Babu


The main threats to the species are*Poaching * Predation *Habitat destruction * Overgrazing * Diseases * Inbreeding The Blackbuck is hunted for its flesh and its skin. Although Indian law strictly prohibits the hunting of these endangered animals, there are still occasional incidents of poaching. The remaining populations are under threat from inbreeding. The natural habitat of the Blackbuck is being encroached upon by man's need for arable land and grazing ground for domesticated cattle. Exposure to domesticated cattle also renders the Blackbuck exposed to bovine diseases. Once large herds freely roamed in the plains of North India, where they thrive best, but no longer. During the eighteenth, nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, Blackbuck was the most hunted wild animal all over India. Until India's independence, many princely states used to hunt this antelope and the other local Indian gazelle, the Chinkara with specially trained pet Asiatic Cheetah. With their habitat of vast grasslands converted into farmlands due to human population explosion, the Asiatic Cheetahs are now sadly extinct in India. Fortunately the population of blackbucks is still stable with 50,000 native individuals, with an additional population introduced in Texas and Argentina.

Bishnoi Community

It is perhaps the extreme harshness of the environment that has made the local people of the Thar desert especially the Bishnois very conscious about wildlife conservation and maintenance of the area's ecological balance. Bishnoi communities are well known for the sacrifices they have made to protect nature and wildlife since their Guru Jambheshwarji Maharaj (popularly known as Jamboji ) launched this sect way back in 1542 AD. Born in 1508 AD, in Pipasar, a village near Jodhpur in Rajasthan, Jamboji was a man of great foresight. When he was just seven years old there was a severe drought in his village, during which he realised that mankind was heading towards a major catastrophe. Later, he preached twenty - nine principles from which the name Bishnoi (Bish-twenty and Noi -nine ) was derived. These principles preach various aspects of brotherhood, fighting social evils, reserving rights for women, wildlife preservation and kindness towards animals. Bishnois treat these principles as a religion and follow them with utmost devotion. Thanks to his teachings, the Bishnois who inhabit this area, have never allowed anyone to kill any living being or cut any green trees. So successful have their efforts at conservation been that the desert tract is covered with the trees like Khejri, Jal, Rohida, Aak, Ber, Kair etc. making it as the world's greenest desert. Also, the Blackbucks and even the normally shy and wary Chinkaras can be seen roaming freely and fearlessly in large numbers in the area. Unfortunately, very little record is available on the sacrifices made by the Bishnois to protect nature. In 1661 AD, two women namely Karma and Goura from a village called Ramasari in Jodhpur district sacrificed their lives to protect Khejri (prosopis cineraria) trees by clinging on to them. Khejri is a hardy tree, and known as the lifeline of the desert because of its multiple uses. However, Bishnois protect all trees and resist their destruction.

A major sacrifice recorded in the history of the Bishnois was in 1787 AD, when Maharaja Abhay Singh, the king of Jodhpur.The king sent his minister Girdhardas for fetching wood. The King's soldiers reached a village called Khejarli and started cutting Khejari trees near a house. The lady of the house Amrita devi came out and requested the soldiers not to cut trees. When her request fell on deaf ears, she and her three daughters clung to the trees and were killed by the soldiers. In all 363 persons ( 69 women and 294 men) laid their lives to save the trees. On hearing of this mass sacrifice, the Maharaja himself came in the village and promised the Bishnois that he would not cut the trees in future. Every year, in the month of September, a Shaheed Mela is held in the village Khejarli, to commemorate this great sacrifice. The Chipko movement started by Sunderlal Bahuguna in the Garhwal region was perhaps motivated by the above incidence.The Bishnois have, no doubt, played a major role in conserving the blackbucks in India. They present a classic example of man and animal living together in perfect harmony. Even today they share their crops with wild animals and the incidences of adopting an orphan blackbuck fawn by a Bishnoi woman and breast-feeding it along with her own child are not uncommon.

Like most wild animals, the Blackbuck is in principle protected in India by the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Its protected status has gained publicity through a widely reported court case in which one of India's leading film stars, Mr. Salman Khan, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for killing two black bucks and several endangered chinkaras. The arrest was prompted by intense protests from the Bishnoi ethnic group, which holds animals and trees sacred, and on whose land the hunting had taken place.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Vanishing Species - The Striped Hyena

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Striped Hyena
Hyaena hyaena

Scavenger by profession with a weird, laughing chatter.

A scavenger by profession the hyena seeks its food by scent. Sight plays little part in its search; hearing none at all. They are not hunters. They live chiefly on the carcasses of animals, more truly on what is left of a carcass after a tiger or panther has done with it and the vultures and jackals have eaten their fill. The hyena’s share is then mostly bones and coarse remains. The powerful jaws of the hyena and its large teeth are admirably adapted to bone crushing. These scavengers help clean up the ecosystem by removing dead and rotting carcasses.Striped hyenas usually weigh 30 to 35 kg, and like brown hyenas, stand roughly 70 cm tall at the shoulder. Also like brown hyenas, striped hyaenas are primarily scavengers of a wide array of vertebrate remains, supplemented by fruits, invertebrates, and occasionally garbage from human settlements. Striped hyenas also apparently hunt small vertebrates. Hyaena always forage solitarily, usually at night, but may lie up during the day in pairs or groups of up to four individuals, although such groups never contain more than one adult female . Stories about the hyenas robbing graves or stealing children are greatly exaggerated.

Striped hyena belongs to the Hyaenidae family and is scientifically known as Hyaena hyaena. Strongly related to the Brown hyena, it is basically a solitary creature. The average lifespan of striped hyenas hovers somewhere around 10 to 12 years in the wild. When kept in captivity, they can live longer also.
Physical Traits

The body coat of a striped hyena is covered with grayish-brown fur. Its legs, torso, head and back have black vertical stripes all over, while, muzzle and ears are totally black. There is also a medium sized mane on its neck, shoulders as well as the back. When threatened, a striped hyena erects the hair on its mane, making itself look 30-40 percent bigger than it actually is. This activity is also used in displays against other striped hyenas.
The underside of its neck is covered with a black throat patch. The legs are quite long and the tail is feathery, reaching the hocks. Striped hyena of India may grow to a length of 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.45m). It stands tall at a shoulder height of 2.2 to 2.5 feet (66 to 75cm). Striped hyenas weigh between 57 and 90 pounds (26 and 41 kg). The size of a male and a female striped hyena does not differ too much. Quite similar to a number of other hot climate animals, their ears also radiate heat.
Natural Habitat

Striped hyenas are found occupying the tropical savanna, grasslands, semi-deserts, scrub forests and woodlands. In the Indian subcontinent, they inhabit open country, seashores as well as forests. Their geographical range also stretches on from Morocco and Senegal to Tanzania, across Asia Minor, the Arabian Peninsula, all the way to Iran and Pakistan, apart from India. Striped hyenas are believed to have become extinct in Europe. However, they can be sporadically spotted in Anatolia and Turkey.

Striped Hyenas are mainly carnivores, but may eat fruit also. Their prey includes insects and small animals like mice, mammalian carrion, tortoise, porcupine and wild pigs. They may also hunt domestic animals, like goats, sheep, donkeys, and horses.

Striped hyenas are nomads by nature and move from one water hole to another. Still, they never venture more than 6 miles from their previous water hole. Hyenas are not gregarious creatures and live mostly in isolation. At times, one can find them congregating in small family groups. Striped hyenas of India can be frequently seen seizing and shaking each other by the neck in mock fighting rituals.
Mating BehaviorFemale striped hyenas attain maturity when they reach 2-3 years of age. Their estrous cycle lasts for 45 to 50 days and they can mate throughout the year. The gestation period is 88 to 92 days and the number of young ones may be anywhere from 1 to 5. The usual number of cubs is two and they start eating meat after 30 days.
Relationship with other predators

Striped hyenas of India are basically scavengers, which thrive on the kills of other predators. This habit of theirs results in a confrontation with the other predators. In India and the Middle East, the striped hyenas may, at times, enter into a conflict with the wolves also.


Striped hyenas are included in the list of 'Near Threatened' species. The exact population of the striped hyenas of India is not known.

Striped hyena faces no threat from natural predators, since it does not have one. Their main threat is from humans, with whom they constantly come into conflict. Striped hyenas may make human beings, mainly children, and livestock their target. This is the main reason why they are poisoned and trapped by people. Striped hyena of India is also poached since its parts are believed to have curative properties. Last but not the least, it is facing the threat of habitat destruction.
Reference: The Book of Indian Animals by S. H. Prater

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Vanishing Species - Sangai

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Sangai
Cervus eldi eldi

The Sangai, the brow-antlered deer is found only in Manipur and only 162 animals survive.

The Sangai was believed to be almost extinct by 1950. However, in 1953 six heads of the Sangai were found hovering at its natural habitat. Since then, the State Government has taken serious and positive measures for the protection of this rare and endangered species. The Sangai is also the state animal of Manipur and is projected as the social and cultural identity of the state..The Sangai lives in the marshy wetland in Keibul Lamjao National Park( 40 sq km). Its habitat is located in the southern parts of the Loktak Lake, which is the largest freshwater lake in Eastern India. It is also one of the seven Ramsar sites of international importance. The habitat of the Sangai is now a protected area. The Sangai Forum was formed to protect the Sangai and other wildlife like hog deer, wild boar, Indian otter, civet cat, box turtle, and migratory water birds who have their home in the National Park. Although banned by law, hunting of the Sangai and other wildlife continues. Then again people hunt the deer for its meat. The Loktak Hydroelectric Power Project too has become a threat to the Sangai habitat. A constant high water level is maintained in the lake and this has led to many changes, one of which is the rise in the water level in the Keibul Lamjao National Park during the rainy season. Manipur experiences heavy rains during the monsoon season. So, the Sangai's home is constantly threatened. What happens during the rainy season is that the deer seeks shelter in isolated dry patches in the National Park and poachers lie in wait for such opportunity. Many times the deer drown. One of the duties of the Sangai Forum volunteers is to keep a watch for signs of danger. They organise search parties to locate deer that are in trouble inside the park. They also keep a lookout for the poachers and organise awareness campaigns in villages, stressing on the importance of the Sangai and the need to save it. The villagers are requested to report to the nearest Sangai Forum unit if they have any news of the deer in danger. Forum volunteers also work with Forest officers and forest guards to protect the deer. In January 2003, Sangai Forum volunteers caught two poachers who had killed a Sangai. The poachers were handed over to the local Police Station and a criminal case was filed against them.

Present status:

It is reported that there are only around 162 Sangai deer left in Keibul Lamjao National Park.This last natural habitat of the deer - covering a total of 40.5 with a core zone area of 15, is peculiar by itself as it is mostly made up of the floating biomass locally known as Phumdi. The KLNP forms part of the southern portion of the greater Loktak lake, and so the park is within the water body area of the Loktak. It is for this reason that the park has often been termed as the 'only floating national park in the world'.
The Sangai faces a two-pronged danger to its life. Firstly, its habitat is steadily degenerating by reason of continuous inundation and flooding by high water caused as the result of artificial reservoir of the Loktak hydroelectric power project. Secondly, poachers are out there to trap and slay the deer at the slightest opportunity. In February 1998 poachers trapped two Sangai doe inside the KLNP, killing both female.
In 1983 the 103 Megawatt capacity Loktak hydroelectric power project was commissioned with the objective of ensuring rapid development in the State. One failure of the project has been that it has never been able to provide regular power supply to the villages in the Loktak lake periphery. And a very disturbing effect of the project has been its share of harm to the ecology and the environment of the Loktak, threatening the lake ecosystem, the humans and their lands, the wildlife, and all other life forms dependent on the lake for their living.
A maximum high water level of 168.5 meter above MSL is maintained in the Loktak Lake to feed the reservoir for the hydel project. At this level, much of the land on the periphery of the lake had been submerged under water, rendering huge loss of productive agricultural lands and localised fish culture farms. On the other hand, this high water level had wreaked havoc in the KLNP. The high water level, maintained continuously through the year, had disturbed the natural life cycle of the vegetation growth, the phumdi, upon which the Sangai thrives. The deer feed on several types of vegetation that grow on the phumdi. The vegetation also provides shelter to the deer and other wildlife in the park.
The life-cycle of the phumdi involves floating on the water surface during season of high water as in the monsoons. In the lean season, when the water level reduces, the biomass come into contact with the lake bed and they secure the required nutrient from there. When the rains come again and they become afloat, the biomass have enough 'food' - the nutrient - stored in their roots and their life continues. What is happening now, according to local scientists who are studying the phenomena, is that with continuous high water in the lake throughout the year much of this process of 'feeding' on the nutrient in the lake bed had discontinued. The result - the biomass are losing weight and getting thinner by the year. Around January last week in 1999, it was reported that a large chunk of the biomass in the northern part of KLNP had broken up into pieces and had drifted freely from the park area. This was a bad sign for the Sangai habitat.
Very recently this year, reports came in about local people cutting up the phumdi into sizeable pieces and then towing away these with dugout canoe for 'selling' to fish culture owners. This is another potential danger to the Sangai habitat. It meant humans are now aiding the process of annihilating the habitat area, supplementing to the rapid degeneration of the habitat.
The Sangai - a jewel in the crown for Manipur - is one of the most unfortunate animals living in the world today. Human activity - read development process - had caused extensive damage to its last natural habitat, threatening its very existence. Humans continue to hunt and slay the deer on the sly in spite of legislation (Manipur Wildlife Protection Rules 1974) and public outcry. There is no State sponsored conservation programme for securing the safety of the deer and its habitat. Manipur is poised to lose this animal wealth, forever, if timely help does not come now.

Second home for Sangai suggested

The Wildlife Institute of India sees a great threat to the lives of sangai populaiton at Keibul Lamjao National Park, says a Sangai Express report. This comes after a detailed study on the survival and prospect of propagating the endangered sangai at its natural habitat.WII has recommended to the Manipur government to look for a second sanctuary for the sangai.WII has been studying the lives of the Sangai and the biodiversity and physiography of the Keibul Lamjao National Park for the last few years. The institute also undertook head count of the Sangai now existing in Keibul Lamjao.In the event of outbreak of any epidemic or any contagious disease in its natural habitat, all the Sangai population may be wiped out as the rare species living in Keibul Lamjao belong to the same stock (in breeding), mentioned a report submitted by the Institute to the State Government, informed a reliable source.The report also recommended an alternative sanctuary where the endangered Sangai can be preserved and propagated. The Wildlife Institute of India is doing further studies into the lives and habitat of Sangai, informed the source.Following the report and the recommendation, the State Forest and Environment Department has started looking for sites where Sangai can be preserved in natural habitat.Earlier the Wetlands International South Asia had surveyed Loktak lake and the Keibul Lamjao National Park. During the survey, it was found that the area under phumdi coverage and also the thickness of phumdis (floating bio-mass) in Keibul Lamjao were decreasing. It also suggested for re-location of Sangai to a favourable alternative place.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Vanishing Species - Fishing Cat

An Article by Mohan Pai
Fishing Cat
Felis viverrina
Pic by Atin Dutt
A ferocious predator capable of killing even a leopard twice its size.
A medium sized wild cat of the wetlands of south and southeast Asia, the Fishing Cat is another unique example of the great abilities and diversities of the cat family. Found in a range extending from Indochina, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Java it inhabits mainly water bound areas including rivers, mangrove swamps, creeks and thickets up to a height of five thousand feet.
Somewhat similar to other wild cats of this size, the Fishing Cat has a broad head, short tail and sturdy built. Coat is marked by dark spots that may form stripes over spine. Ears are short and round while the nose is of a flattened appearance. Feet are somewhat webbed that enables the Fishing Cat to maintain a degree of traction on slippery muds, though it is now believed the webbing is not of any extraordinary extent. Claws are semi-retractable - again probably an adaptation for a greater hold on the surface. Size varies according to the distribution of the felid. The Indian Fishing Cat is bigger with length around four feet and weight approximately twenty five pounds, whereas the Indonesian cats, in the southeastern part of the cat's overall global range, are smaller with an average length of three feet and weight nearing twelve pounds.
The Fishing Cat is a hunter mostly of aquatic animals, specializing in fish, frogs, mollusks and snakes. It preys on any animal and birds that it can secure and has been known to kill calves and sheep, to carry off dogs and even children! At the same time it does not spare terrestrial prey including rodents, deer, goats, dogs and even small wild boars! The opportunistic cat has also been known to go after birds and kills of other predators. There is the record of a newly-caught male which killed a leopardess twice its size after breaking through the partition which separated their cages (S. H. Prater). Solitary cats, they come in unison for mating primarily. Pregnancy lasts around two months after which a litter of one to five kittens is born. They are weaned off after half an year at the most and gain independence after one year of age. Life-span is generally around ten to twelve years in captivity.
The fishing cat has a limited and discontinuous distribution in Asia. One major portion of its distribution is found in the Himalayan foothill region of India and Nepal. Also in India, the fishing cat is found in the valleys of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, along the upper part of the east coast and possibly in coastal areas of Kerala in southwest India, although it may have disappeared from this region. Recently a fishing cat was found dead 40 km southeast from Nagpur, in central India, an area outside its known range. There also may or may not be scattered populations in Sri Lanka. In Pakistan it is considered very rare and fast disappearing. It is mainly found along the lower reaches of the Indus River, although a few stragglers penetrate the northeast of the country along the Ravi and Sutlej Rivers.From the Indian subcontinent, the second major portion of the fishing cat's distribution ranges through Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand, to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. There are two records of fishing cats from Peninsular Malaysia, but the origin of these specimens is not clear. If it does occur in Peninsular Malaysia, it does so at an extremely low density. There is no record of the fishing cat from China, but it might be found in Guangxi Province or Yunnan Province near the border with Vietnam. The fishing cat is also found in Sumatra and Java, Indonesia. In Java, the fishing cat appears to be restricted to small numbers in isolated coastal wetlands: there were no records during recent surveys further inland than 15 km and it must be considered extremely rare.

Threats and Reasons for Decline:

Wetland destruction is the primary threat faced by the fishing cat. Causes of this destruction include human settlement, draining for agriculture, construction of aquaculture facilities, and wood-cutting In addition, clearance of coastal mangroves over the recent past has been rapid in tropical Asia. High use of pesticides in rice fields and fishponds results in adverse impacts, since the harmful chemical residues can enter aquatic food chains and affect top predators such as the fishing cat. Destructive fishing practices have also greatly reduced the fishing cat's main prey base. Finally, the fishing cat is hunted because it is considered edible and its skin is still valued by the fur trade.


The fishing cat is strongly associated with wetlands. It is typically found in swamps and marshy areas, oxbow lakes, reed beds, tidal creeks and mangrove areas. It has been recorded at elevations up to 1800 m (5900') in the Indian Himalayas, where it frequents dense vegetation near rivers and streams. Some studies show that the fishing cat's distribution seems highly correlated with vegetation cover and that most sightings of this cat are of animals sitting next to moving water. However, results of the only radio-tracking study up to 2003, in the terai grasslands of southern Nepal, indicated that the fishing cat spent most of its time in dense tall and short grasslands, sometimes well away from water.


The fishing cat is a nocturnal hunter. It is very much at home in the water. It is a strong swimmer, even in deep water, and it can swim long distances. The fishing cat has been observed to dive into water after fish, as well as to crouch on a rock or sandbank near the water and swat the fish out onto dry land with its paw. It has even been seen to catch waterfowl by swimming up to them while fully submerged and seizing their legs from underneath.Social Organization:The fishing cat appears to be a solitary hunter, but otherwise there is little information on its social organization or mating behavior in the wild.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Vanishing Species - Binturong

An Article by Mohan Pai

Arctictis Binturong

What's a Binturong?

A Binturong, or Bearcat, is a mammal of the order Carnivora, found in the southeastern parts of Asia, from far eastern India through southwestern China, Thailand, Laos,Burma, Viet Nam, Malaysia, and parts of Indonesia (Sumatra and Borneo). The westernmost island of the Philippines, Palawan, also has a few. They are plentiful nowhere, though not yet extremely endangered. But their habitat is constantly shrinking, and therefore so are their numbers. The word binturong is of Malaysian origin, but the animal is commonly called "bearcat" in English, never mind the fact that it is neither a bear nor a cat, but from an older lineage than either.

But what are they? They have one of the cutest faces in the animal kingdom, shaped like a sea lion's. They can hang by their tails like some monkeys. They walk flat-footed like a bear, not on tiptoe like dogs and cats. They can crawl around upside down in trees like a sloth, and come down headfirst like a squirrel, even though they weigh about 40 lbs. They live in the tropics, but their coat looks as long and thick as a grizzly's. They can balance on their hind legs and tail like a kangaroo. They have the typical carnivore teeth, but they love fruit above anything else. Its long fur serves more as a rain repellent than for warmth. It will eat meat with those teeth if it can catch some, but fruit is a lot easier for a tree animal.

They are highly endangered in parts of their range and threatened/ vulnerable in others due to habitat destruction and poaching for use as a delicacy and in medicine.

They are arboreal -- living in the dense forest canopy of the rain forest. Relatively slow-moving and inoffensive, binturongs are mainly nocturnal. They spend the day curled in branches and basking in the sun. Awkward on the ground they are skilled climbers and move through the canopy from branch to branch searching for food. They can also dive, swim and catch fish; and they kill small animals like ducks by jumping on them!
They range in size from 4 - 5 feet including the tail which is almost as long as the body. Weight is 30 - 40 pounds. Binturongs have thick, coarse, glossy black fur, white whiskers and black ear tufts. The prehensile tail is covered with very long thick fur. It is used as an extra hand, holding on to branches or hanging by it to reach food. A scent gland under the tail produces strong-smelling musk oil which is used to mark their territory. The scent resembles popcorn or warm corn bread. They can make loud howls, low grunts, and hisses and when happy, chuckling noises.
Binturongs are fruit eaters, especially of strangler figs in their native habitat. Eggs, young shoots, leaves, birds, rodents and other small animals may also be eaten. They function both as critical seed dispersers and pest controllers in their habitat!Reproduction is non-seasonal but usually peaks during January to March. Gestation is around 91 days; litter size can vary from 1 to 6 but 2 is typical. Although usually tame, they can be aggressive when cornered and bite. They can be easily domesticated and kept as pets. Lifespan in captivity is 20 + years.

Pic 1 by Tssilo Rau

Vanishing Species - Indian Giant Squirrel

An article by Mohan Pai

Indian Giant Squirrel
Ratufa indica

Largest of the arboreal squirrels, they are under sever threat in degraded forests.

The Indian giant squirrel, Ratufa indica, is a large-bodied diurnal, arboreal, and herbivorous squirrel found in South Asia. Also called the Malabar giant squirrel, the species is endemic to deciduous, mixed deciduous, and moist evergreen forests of peninsular India, reaching as far north as the Satpura hill range of Madhya Pradesh (approx. 22° N)The Sqirrel has a conspicuous bipartite (and sometimes tripartite) colouring pattern. The colours involved can be creamy-beige, buff, tan, rust, brown, or even a dark seal brown. The underparts and the front legs are usually cream coloured, the head can be brown or beige, however there is a distinctive white spot between the ears. Seven different geographical races, each distinctive in the colouration of its upper-parts, have been identified. Among these are the buff and tan Ratufa indica dealbata of the tropical moist deciduous forests of the Surat Dangs; the seal brown, tan, and beige (and darkest) Ratufa indica maxima of the tropical wet evergreen forest of Malabar; the dark brown, tan and beige (and largest), Ratufa indica bengalensis of the tropical semi-evergreen forests east of the Brahmagiri mountains in Coorg extending up to the Bay of Bengal coast of Orissa; and the rust and buff Ratufa indica centralis of the tropical dry deciduous forests of Central India. The Indian giant squirrel is an upper-canopy dwelling species, which rarely leaves the trees, and requires tall profusely branched trees for the construction of nests. It travels from tree to tree with jumps of up to 6 m (19.69 ft). When in danger, it often freezes or flattens itself against the tree trunk, instead of fleeing.

The size of their body comes to almost 3ft. with only the tail measuring up to 2ft. in length. The long bushy tail helps in balancing their body on the trees. They are deep brown in colour with buff-coloured underparts. Giant squirrels live only in forests. They keep to the branches of higher trees and rarely come to the ground. They move from tree to tree taking amazing leaps with limbs outspread, covering as much as 20 ft. in a single leap. They are active agile animals, mostly active during the early mornings and evenings. They are shy and wary, not easy to discover. Despite its brilliant colouring, the Indian Giant Squirrel is sooner heard than seen. Its loud rattling call, often repeated, usually reveals its presence. Any unusual sound or unfamiliar sight sets these squirrels calling in all directions. They share with monkeys the habit of scolding, barking and raising an alarm when any suspicious object is sighted. When frightened, these squirrels do not dash away; quite a common habit is to lie flattened against a branch or to slip behind a heavy bough or trunk. They feed on fruits, particularly the fruits of 'Terminalia' or 'Ain'.

The 2 feet long bushy tail helps it to balance while climbing trees. They have a deep brown, almost black, coat with buff-coloured under side. It produces an interesting whistling sound, which is often mistaken for a sound coming from an electronic equipment. Interestingly, it rarely leaves treetops, always travelling through trees by leaping a maximum length of 6.5 metres from one tree to another. Being a diurnal animal it is active during the daytime and rests at night. Mainly feeds on fruits and leaves. It lives alone or in couples. These animals build sphere shaped nests of twigs and leaves and keeps them positioned between tree branches. Due to hunting, loss of habitat and trade of parts, the Malabar Giant Squirrels are threatened to extinction. In Kerala, they are protected in the wildlife sanctuaries of Neyyar and Peppara in Thiruvananthapuram, Periyar Tiger Reserve in Idukki, Silent Valley National Park and Eravikulam National Park.

Commonly known as 'Shekru' in Maharashtra (Ratufa indica elphinstoni), the Indian giant squirrel is the State animal of Maharashtra. It inhabits the deciduous or mixed forests, and is abundant in the forests of the Western Ghats of Maharashtra and is protected in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary. Their population here is about 70 animalsThe giant squirrels in Maharashtra are reddish brown in colour, while the ones found in Madhya Pradesh and Kerala are brick-red and black, respectively. The giant squirrels in Maharashtra are reddish brown in colour, while the ones found in Madhya Pradesh and Kerala are brick-red and black, respectively.

Physical Description
Length: 254 to 457 mm; avg. 355.50 mm (10 to 17.99 in; avg. 14 in)The squirrel has dorsal coloration that varies from deep red to brown, the ventral fur is white. They have short, round ears, a broadened hand with an expanded inner paw for gripping, and large, powerful claws used for gripping tree bark and branches. Females can be distinguished from males by their three sets of mammae. Total body length varies from 254 to 457 mm and tail length is approximately the same as body length. These squirrels weigh approximately 1.5 to 2 kg

Gestation period: 28 to 35 days; avg. 31.50 daysLittle is known of mating behavior of the Giant Squirrels. Males actively compete for females during the breeding season and pairs may remain associated for longer periods of time.Reproductive behavior of the giant squirrel is poorly known. There is some evidence that breeding occurs throughout the year, or several times during the year. Litter size is usually 1 or 2 young, but may be as many as 3. They build eagle-sized nests in the branches of trees and raise the young there until they begin to emerge from the nest and gain independence.


Giant squirrels escape predation primarily by seeking refuge in the trees and through their agility and wariness. They are preyed upon by many medium and large-sized predators, such as cats, civet cats, raptors, and snakes.

Pics by Vivek Kale