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