Sunday, August 30, 2009

Vanishing Species: Hanuman Langur

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
Hello friends,
Good morning. This sunday's article is about the Hanuman langur, a very bold and rowdy primate.
Hanuman langur is associated with Lord Hanuman of Ramayana and is revered by the Hindus, it is seldom molested and they have lost all fear of man. It's also known as the temple monkey. Considered as a single species earlier, 7 distinct subspecies are now recognised in India. Hanuman langur is widely distributed over the subcontinent.
Ms Sucheta Chatterjee (facebook) has provided link to a very lucid essay by Steven Weinberg:
Very best wishes,
Mohan Pai.
Hanuman Langur
One of the rowdiest primates, even the Indian Parliament is not out of bounds for them.
Hanuman Langur is believed to be one of the Old World monkeys, belonging to the Semnopithecus Genus. They comprise of 15 subspecies and are terrestrial in nature. Earlier, hanuman langurs were believed to comprise of a single species. However, now they are recognized as seven distinct species. Hanuman langur is also known by the name of Gray Langur, Entellus Langur and Common Indian Langur. Venerated by the Hindus and seldom molested, they have lost all fear of man.
This is the long-limbed, long-tailed, black-faced monkey, seen as much about towns and villages as in forests of India. Animals from the Himalayas are more heavily whiskered and coated, their pale almost white heads, standing out in sharp contrast to the darker colour of the body. The contrast is much less apparent in peninsular animals. Langurs living in the rain-swept hill regions of the Western Ghats are generally darker then those from the drier eastern zone.
Species list
Nepal Gray Langur, Semnopithecus schistaceus
Kashmir Gray Langur, Semnopithecus ajax
Terai Gray Langur, Semnopithecus hector
Northern Plains Gray Langur, Semnopithecus entellus
Black-footed Gray Langur, Semnopithecus hypoleucos
Southern Plains Gray Langur, Semnopithecus dussumieri
Tufted Gray Langur, Semnopithecus priam

In religion and mythology
Hindus revere the Hanuman langur as associated with Lord Hanuman, an ardent and loyal devotee of Shri Rama an incarnations of Lord Vishnu. An army of monkeys or the vanara sena under the leadership of Hanuman was instrumental in the defeat of Ravana by Lord Rama. Other notable vanaras who feature in the epic Ramayana are Sugriva , Vali and Angada.The Hanuman langur has a black face because according to the mythology, Hanuman burnt his hands and face while trying to rescue Sita. The langurs often live in and around Hindu temples, where they are fed by devotees. The Jakhu Hanuman temple in Shimla is a famous example. It is often referred to as the ‘monkey temple' because of the countless monkeys it houses.
Bold & rowdy
This is the one of the rowdiest relatives of mankind, at least in India. Hanuman langurs are experts at depriving you of your food. and those living near temples are particularly adept at this art. Not just temples, even the Indian Parliament is not out of bounds for them. For the past few years, the parliament has been losing a ‘few important files’, thanks to these simian creatures that react quite adversely if left unfed during the lunch hour. But when threatened, they retreat immediately.
Physical traits
The fur of the gray langur of India may be gray, dark brown or even golden in color. The face is black and the size varies from one subspecies to another. Male langurs grow to a length of 51 cm to 78 cm and weigh about 18 kg. The female langurs are smaller, with a length of 40 cm to 68 cm and weight of about 11 kg. The length of the tail is between 69 cm and 101 cm.
Common Indian langurs survive on a diet comprising of leaves, fruit, buds and flowers. The exact diet, however, changes from season to season. During winters, they survive on a diet of mature leaves. In summer season, they mainly survive on fruits. Insects, tree bark and gum also supplement their diet. Hanuman langurs can easily digest seeds with high levels of the toxins and can eat even soil and stones.
Natural habitat
Hanuman langurs are found inhabiting tropical, dry thorn scrub, pine and alpine forest as well as urban areas of the Indian subcontinent. They spent a major portion of their time on the ground, with the exception of their sleeping time. Presently, common langurs are found in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma.
Gray langur of India can usually be found living in large groups, dominated by a male langur. The membership of the group may be anywhere between 11 and 60. However, they hold the dominating position for a very short period only, which may stretch upto 18 months. Whenever a new male takes over the group, all the infants of the previous alpha male are killed. Entellus Langurs of India may form bachelor groups also.
Mating Behavior
Female langurs attain maturity at 3 to 4 years of age, while males achieve the same in 4 to 5 years. However, they start mating in the 6th or 7th year only. The gestation period is 190 to 210 days, after which a single infant is born. Only in very rare cases does a female langur give birth to two infants. Where there are a number of males in a group, only the high-ranking males can mate with any female. The other males get a chance to mate only if they manage to sneak by the high-ranking males.
The inveterate enemy of the Langur is the panther. The sight of one, or of a tiger that rouses suspicion produces the guttural alarm note which sends the whole troop bolting. Quite distinct is the joyous ’whoop’ emitted when bounding from tree to tree or otherwise contentedly occupied. An interesting relationship has been observed between herds of Chital deer and troops of the Northern Plains Gray Langur. Chital apparently benefit from the langur’s good eyesight and ability to post a lookout in a treetop, helping to raise the alarm when a predator approaches. For the langur’s part, the Chital's superior sense of smell would seem to assist in early predator warning, and it is common to see langurs foraging on the ground in the presence of Chital. The Chital also benefit from fruits dropped by the langurs from trees such as Terminalia bellerica. Alarm calls of either species can be indicative of the presence of a predator such as the Bengal Tiger.
Common Indian langur is listed in the lower risk category by the IUCN

Pic Courtesy: Animal Diversity Web

References: S. H. Prater The book of Indian Animals), Wikipedia, Animal Diversity Web,

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Vanishing Species - Chinkara - Indian gazelle

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
Hello friends,
Good morning. I am writing about the vanishing species after a gap of a month. Last three articles were on biodiversity (You may please read my blogs, in case you have missed them).This week's species is the Chinkara gazelle, a slender and graceful deer. Their population is mostly confined to north western and central parts of India. The threats for its existence are the common threats: indiscriminate hunting and habitat loss. They could be spotted in Bandhavgarh and Ranthambore National Parks.
I am grateful to Mr. Vinay Somani of Karmayog who has just sent the link to "State of Environment: India 2009" recently released by MOeF. It is important for every one of us to look at the report, especially Chapter 3 on Climate Change. The picture for India, I am afraid, is very, very grim! The Ministry of Environment and Forests recently released thecomprehensive report on the state of India's environment, 2009.
This is the online report
Cross-posted: karmayog
Very best wishes,
Mohan Pai
Indian gazelle
(Gazella bennettii)
A small gazelle of slender, graceful build.
The Chinkara (Gazella bennettii) or Indian Gazelle is a species of gazelle found in south Asia. It lives in grasslands and desert areas in India, Bangladesh and parts of Iran and Pakistan. It is also known as the Indian Gazelle (Gazella gazella bennetti). A small, gazelle of slender graceful build it stands at 65 centimetres and weighs about 23 kilograms. There is the usual white streak down each side of the face, so chararacteristic of all gazelles and a dusky patch above the nose. Its summer coat is a reddish-buff colour, with smooth, glossy fur. In winter the white belly and throat fur is in greater contrast. The sides of the face have dark chestnut stripes from the corner of the eye to the muzzle, bordered by white stripes. The horns of the male appear almost straight when seen from the front; in profile they take lightly S-shaped curve with 15 to 25 rings and average 25-30 centimetres. Hornless females are not uncommon.It is a shy animal and avoids human habitation. It can go without water for long periods and can get sufficient fluids from plants and dew. Although most individuals are seen alone, they can sometimes be spotted in groups of up to four animals.Certain researchers consider the decline in the Chinkara population as the reason behind the extinction of the Asiatic Cheetah in India. Its population is on the decline due to it being hunted for game.
Distribution :
Chinkar are less gregarious than Blackbuck and live in smaller herds. The average size of group is 3 but occasionally herds of up to 25 animals are seen. .Chinkara is widely distributed in India. It is mostly found in Rajasthan, north western and central parts of India. They could also be spotted in the Bandhavgarh and Ranthambore National Park.
Weaning: At about two months. Sexual Maturity: At two years of age. Life span: Unknown. Gestation Period: About five to five and a half months. Young per Birth: Generally 1, but twins have been reported quite frequently. The rut appears to occur in two seasons, one lasting from the end of monsoon up to early October and again in the late Spring from March to the end of April. The births occur mainly in April.Social Behavior: In its wide roaming habits, tendency to keep to small groups of two to three individuals and its general alertness, the Chinkara is very similar to the Goitered Gazelle. The Chinkara is almost wholly nocturnal in foraging activity, though they will emerge to start feeding before sunset.Diet: The food consists of grass, of various leaves, crops, and fruits such as pumpkins and melons and can go without water for days.
Range covers much of western and central India, extending through Pakistan, south-western Afghanistan into north-central Iran. The Thar Desert of western India remains a stronghold. Distribution in Pakistan has been greatly reduced by overhunting and although still widespread, populations are scattered (Habibi 2001b). In Iran, distribution is also scattered extending to Kavir NP in Tehran Province (Hemami and Groves 2001)
Range map of Indian gazelle (IUCN)
Numbers in India have been estimated at more than 100,000 with 80,000 in the Tahr Desert (Rahmani 2001). Numbers in Pakistan have declined due to overhunting, but no current estimate is available (Habibi 2001b). Current status in Afghanistan is unknown but they are also believed to be very rare (Habibi 2001a). Around 1300 were estimated for Iran (Hemami and Groves 2001). Population Trend: Stable
Habitat and Ecology:
Inhabits arid areas, including sand deserts, flat plains and hills, dry scrub and light forest. Ranges to 1,500 m in Pakistan (Habibi 2001b). They are facultative drinkers, and so can live in very arid areas. They sometimes raid fields cultivated with rape seed and sorghum in desert regions (Habibi 2001b). Systems: Terrestrial
Major Threat(s):
Indiscriminate hunting has adversely affected gazelles in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan (hunted for meat and to a lesser degree for trophies). Habitat loss through overgrazing, conversion to agriculture and industrial development is also a factor.
Trouble for film stars
Aamir was accused of filming a Chinkara deer, a Schedule I animal under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, for commercial purposes without taking due permission, during the shooting of the movie Laagan, for which most of the shooting was held in Kutch in 2000.
The Bollywood actor Salman Khan was also accused of the alleged killing of chinkara gazelles in Kutch in 1998.
References: S. H. Prater “ The Book of Indian Animals, Wikipedia, IUCN Red List
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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Bird Migration

An article by Mohan Pai
Mystery of Nature

The Arctic tern flies a phenomenal round trip of 34,000 km per year from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back !
The longest known migratory journey is performed twice a year by the Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) which from the Arctic winter travels south, right across the world to the Antarctic summer and back again - a distance of over 17,000 km each way.

Arctic tern
What is bird migration ?
Bird migration refers to the regular seasonal journeys undertaken by many species of birds. Bird movements include those made in response to changes in food availability, habitat or weather. These however are usually irregular or in only one direction and are termed variously as nomadism, invasions, dispersal or irruptions. Migration is marked by its annual seasonality. In contrast, birds that are non-migratory are said to be resident or sedentary.
Indian Migratory Birds
Indian subcontinent plays host to a number of migratory birds in summers as well as winters. It is estimated that over hundred species of migratory birds fly to India, either in search of feeding grounds or to escape the severe winter of their native habitat. This is because winds usually prevail at higher altitudes and at the same time, the cold temperature at these altitudes helps them in diffusing the body heat, which is generated by their flight muscles. The timing of the migration is usually a mixture of internal and external stimulus.
Migrating birds start on a journey when they feel that they have put on enough fat to provide them energy throughout the journey. Then, the tendency to aggregate into flocks is another determinant of the time of migration. Even after the flock, which has to fly together, has gathered, the birds keep on feeding till the weather conditions become favorable. Thus, apart from the internal clock of the birds and their flock, it is also the availability of food and the weather conditions that play a role in the determination of the time of migration.
Why birds migrate?
Food, water, protective cover, and a sheltered place to nest and breed are basic to a bird's survival. But the changing seasons can transform a comfortable environment into an unlivable one -- the food and water supply can dwindle or disappear, plant cover can vanish, and competition with other animals can increaseMost wild animals face the problem of occupying a habitat that is suitable for only a portion of the year. Fortunately, however, nature has provided methods for coping with the situation. One method, known as hibernation, involves entering a dormant state during the winter season. The other method, known as migration, involves escaping the area entirely. Because of the powers of flight, most birds adapt to seasonal changes in the environment by migrating. How they do it ? Some birds make the long journey in easy stages, stopping to rest on the way. Others fly great distances without pausing to rest and feed. Some fly by day, some both by day and by night, but most of them speed on their way through darkness after the sun has set. Birds usually travel in flocks. The V-shaped formation of cranes and geese attracts much attention as the bird's speed across the sky. Swallows, flycatchers, warblers, shore birds and water-birds being to gather in flocks- each with its own kind-and, after a great deal of excited fluttering, twittering and calling, they rise up into the air and away they go. Usually the male birds go first to their breeding grounds in bachelor parties and the female birds follow them in a few days!
Griffon Vulture
The movement of birds with the changing seasons was known from the earliest times, but people had strange ideas as to why the birds traveled, or where they went. To explain their absence from a place in a particular season, they said that the birds buried themselves in the mud and slept there throughout the winter! Later, detailed studies of migration started. Information was gained by directly observing the habits of birds, and also by ringing. Bird movements are also studied by creating artificial conditions and studying their effects on birds. Today, most of the information on migration has come from ringing young and adult birds. Ringing is done by capturing a bird and putting on to its leg a light band of metal or plastic. The band bears a number, date, identification mark, and the address to which the finder is requested to return the ring. The bird is then set free. The place where such a bird is shot captured or found dead gives clue to the direction and locality to which the bird has migrated.

Bird Sanctuaries in India
Among the most famous bird sanctuaries in India are, the Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur, the Corbett National Park and the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary, part of Project Tiger. These sanctuaries offer wide variety of bird species.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park is one of India's pioneer wildlife conservation centers. Considered to be the best sites for bird watching in the world, the sanctuary annually hosts thousands of visitors who come to view the spectacular wildlife Spread over an area of 30 square km of marshy swamp, kadam forests, woodland and shallow lakes, the sanctuary offers habitat to both nesting indigenous birds as well as migratory water birds. An amazing number of more than 330 species of birds have been spotted and identified in the sanctuary. The Siberian Crane, the finest and rarest of migratory birds, are the cynosure this sanctuary and are regular visitors.Siberian Crane is believed to have existed in this world for over one million years. However it is of great concern that only 125 pairs of these pure white, crimson-billed cranes estimated to survive worldwide. Profusion of marine vegetation, frogs, fish, insects and mollusks, as well fine setting for migratory birds go a long way to make Keoladeo Ghana National Park an ideal place for pelicans, storks, herons, egrets and kingfishers. Breeding females stay in peaceful co-existence and it is of no surprise that one tree can have nests of different birds. The sanctuary is know to have been the best breeding ground for more than a thousand species of birds. Migratory birds start arriving in the month of October. They include a variety of Geese, Ducks, Raptors, Geese, Warblers and Waders.
Extending over an area of 800 sq km, the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the forest hills of the Aravalli ranges in the state of Rajasthan. It provides habitat to more than 200 species of birds including the Gray Hornbill, Crested Serpent Eagle, Black/Red Headed Bunting, Wryneck Woodpecker Babbler, White Breasted Kingfisher, Little Brown Dove, Small Minivet, Golden Oriole, Great Gray Shrike, Pale Harrier and Tailor Bird. An example of typical dry deciduous forest, the sanctuary remains lush and green during the monsoons and dry during the rest of the seasons.
Other place is the Pong Dam reservoir is 65 km Pathankot and 115 km from Dharamsala. Nestled in the sylvan surroundings of the Kangra valley, the sprawling Pong Dam wetland has emerged as a major habitat for migratory birds in the country as also an attraction for bird watchers. The most common bird species that have arrived and often visit this lake every year include ruddy-shell ducks (surkhab), bar-headed geese, mallards, coots, pochards and pintails besides rare red-necked grebe and gulls. These species come from as far as China, Siberia, Central Asia, Pakistan and Ladakh. According to a census, more than one lakh migratory birds visited the lake last year.
Apart from being home to the tiger, Corbett National Park is also noted for the bird watching. Considered to be one of the best bird watching sites in the world, the park is home to some 600 species of birds. This number exceeds the total number of bird species found in Europe and is about one fourth of the diversity found in India. A case in point is that out of the 69 species of raptors found in India, 49 can be seen in Corbett. Spreading out on an area of 520 sq km, the Corbett National Park is a hot destination for bird-watchers. Bird-watchers from across the world make a beeline to this park during winters when the bird diversity is at its zenith.

Painted Storks - Pic by Geeta Shankar

Threats and conservation

Human activities have threatened many migratory bird species. The distances involved in bird migration mean that they often cross political boundaries of countries and conservation measures require international cooperation. Several international treaties have been signed to protect migratory species including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 of the US and the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement.The concentration of birds during migration can put species at risk. Some spectacular migrants have already gone extinct, the most notable being the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Other significant areas include stop-over sites between the wintering and breeding territories. A capture-recapture study of passerine migrants with high fidelity for breeding and wintering sites did not show similar strict association with stop-over sites.Hunting along the migratory route can also take a heavy toll. The populations of Siberian Cranes that wintered in India declined due to hunting along the route, particularly in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Birds were last seen in their favourite wintering grounds in Keoladeo National Park in 2002.Structures such as power lines, wind farms and offshore oil-rigs have also been known to affect migratory birds. Habitat destruction by land use changes is however the biggest threat and shallow wetlands which are stopover and wintering sites for migratory birds are particularly threatened by draining and reclamation for human use.

Refereces: Salim Ali ‘The book of Indian Birds’, Wikipedia, Indian Wildlife.htm, HSBC’s Environment Forum


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