Saturday, July 12, 2008

Vanishing Species - The Tiger

An Article by Mohan Pai

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
- William Blake

The Tiger is going ...
and it is a crying shame !

2,200 tigers lost in the last 7 years

India has lost 2,200 or more than 60 per cent of its tigers in the last seven years says the latest Tiger Census just released.
The report which did not take the tiger population from the Sunderbans (West Bengal) and Indravati ( Chhattisgarh) into account, has put the total number of tigers in the country at 1,411. The last tiger census carried out in 2001-02 had pegged the total count at 3,642.
Poaching appears to be the main cause for the big cats vanishing in large numbers. Habitat shrinkage and loss of forest cover are the other two factors responsible for the dwindling count in some areas.
Madhya Pradesh has witnesses a massive loss - from 710 animals in 2001-02 to 300 animals in the 2008 census. Orissa and Assam are the other two big losers where the count has plummeted from 173 to just 45 and from 354 to mere 70, respectively. Karnataka has lost 111 tigers and Andhra Pradesh 97.

The Project Tiger initiated way back in 1973, it now appears, has turned out to be an utter and dismal failure. Government’s apathy to the problem in recent years is also an indirect cause for the depletion of tiger population.
The population of tigers is now at a critically low level and the species is in imminent danger of extinction. In animal population, the tempo of decline accelerates after a gradual fall to a low level; once the local population of a species is much reduced its ability to recoup deteriorates progressively, and with the fall in numbers often the factors of depletion gain lethal potency.
There have been a number of crusaders fighting for the cause of the Tiger for several decades now and prominent among them are:
1. Billy Arjan Singh, India’s well-known conservationist who single-handedly carved out the Dudhwa National Park, a forest sanctuary near Nepalese border. He is known for having reared and returned a Tigress ‘Tara’ and two leopards to the wild. His book ‘Tiger Haven’ is a chronicle of his conservation efforts.
2. Fateh Singh Rathore, the uninihibited Rajput who cheerfully risked his life defending the jungles in his charge.
3. Valmik Thgapar, who began as Fateh’s desciple. Since 1976 he has worked with tigers documenting their natural history and campaigning for their preservation. He has written numerous books and article’s on tigers.
4. Ullas Karanth, India’s finest field biologist and the tiger’s most persistent and vocal advocate. He has written two books: ‘The Way of the Tiger’ and ‘A view from the Machan.
5. Bitu Sahagal, editor of Sanctuary Asia, has promoted the cause of Saving the Tiger, now for several decades.

The legendary crusader Billy Arjan Singh with Tara, his controversial pet tigress, at Dudhva.

Excerpts from Chapter 14 of my book “The Western Ghats” published in 2005

Project Tiger
It is believed that there were more than 40,000 tigers in India some 80 years ago. Habitat destruction, rampant poaching and hunting brought about a sharp decline in their numbers. The National census of tigers in 1972 recorded the existence of only 1827 animals.
Considering the alarming endangered status of this majestic animal, the Government of India with support of WWF launched a scheme to protect the tiger called “Project Tiger” with nine sanctuaries declared as tiger reserves.
More tiger reserves were added in due course of time and today there are 28 national parks/sanctuaries under Project Tiger.
The main objective of Project Tiger was: “To ensure maintenance of a viable population of tiger in India, and to preserve, for all time, areas of biological importance as a national heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people”.
The then Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, a strong supporter of the Project, and of conservation in general observed, “The tiger cannot be preserved in isolation. It is the apex of a large and complex biotope. Its habitat, threatened by human intrusion, forestry and cattle grazing, must first be made inviolate”.
Project Tiger is a holistic conservation programme. The tiger cannot be saved in isolation. Saving the tiger involves the maintenance of a viable population of its prey species - the herbivore animals. For the herbivores to survive it has to be ensured that the vegetation of the forests is rich and varied. Thus saving tiger means saving an entire ecosystem.

The project is administered jointly by the wildlife departments of both the states and the centre. Project tiger, initiated in 1973, is one of the most comprehensive conservation efforts ever launched. At the apex of a complete biota, the tiger can be saved, not in isolation, but by making its habitat sacrosanct. Populations of rhinoceros, elephant, swamp deer, gaur and several other species have been preserved in this way.

Excerpts from Chapter 13 of my book “The Western Ghats” published in 2005

Natural Extinction of Species

Despite, the seemingly complex and stable nature of ecosystems, a large number of animals which roamed the earth in early geological periods have become extinct. Extinction is a natural phenomena in the evolution of animals. Certain species disappear gradually as they are unable to withstand the competition from those that are better adapted. Sometimes a whole group of animals have become extinct as had happened with dinosaurs at the end of Cretaceous period, some 70 million years ago. Many mammals like mammoths and mastodons have also become extinct. Countless other forms of animals and plants have flourished and disappeared. We know about them from fossil records preserved in the crust of the earth. Extinction is irreversible. This has been part of the evolutionary process which has produced more advanced forms of life - a process that has occurred over a vast span of time over millions of years. The greatest contribution of Charles Darwin, who propounded the Theory of Evolution, in his logical explanation for evolutionary changes and appearance of new form of life - natural selection - the success of those organisms that are capable of adapting to the environment, to survive and reproduce.
Extinction of species has taken place over millions of years, long before the advent of man. Primitive man lived in harmony with nature and did not cause the extinction of animal species. However, the spread of civilization across the world and the progressive exploitation of Nature have had an adverse impact on wildlife. Hunting for animals, alteration of the environment, habitat destruction, pollution of the land, air and water, the human population explosion - all these have been responsible for the extinction of animal species in recent times. Since the 17th Century about 120 mammals and 150 birds have become extinct. The rate of extinction due to human interference has accelerated since the dawn of industrial age. In India, the Cheetah, the lesser one-horned rhinoceros, the pink- headed duck and the mountain quail have become extinct in the last one century. Many mammals and birds have become rare and endangered and many a natural range diminished in size with increasing deforestation, often confining the animals to small territories.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Vanishing Species - Asiatic Wild Ass

An Article by Mohan Pai



ASIATIC WILD ASS
(Equus hemionous khur)


Only about 2,000 Wild Asses are now surviving in India.

The Asiatic Wild Ass belongs to the family Equidae, and is a close relation of the Horse and the African Zebra. Within the subcontinent it is found only in the Little Rann of Kutch and probably only became extinct in Baluchistan within past forty years. It has a larger cousin, the Kiang, living on the high plateaus of Ladakh and Tibet. The Asiatic Wild Ass stands about 115 cm at the shoulder, therefore considerably taller than the domestic donkey. The male is larger and sturdier than the female. They live in mixed troops of 10 to 30 animals except for 2 or 3 months after the young are bornWhen the mares accompanied by the foals live apart and the stallions keep singly or in scattered twos and threes. Their typical habitat is the flat salt desert around Dhrangadhra and Jhinjuwada in the Little Rann of Kutch which gets inundated during the monsoon, leaving exposed little ‘islands’ or bets of slightly raised ground supporting scanty grasses which comprise the principal food of this animal. The Wild Ass is fleet of foot, being capable of attaining a maximum speed of 50 kmph over a considerable distance.

The Rann of Kutch, Gujarat is the only habitat for this endangered sub-species of the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus khur) and most of the population survives in the Wild Ass Sanctuary in Little Rann of Kutch.They are chestnut brown and white in colour with a dark stripe, made up of dark brown mane which runs along the animal’s back ending with its tufted tail. The area is a saline desert with extremely sparse cover of vegetation. In the past, the habitat supported a thriving population of wild asses. However, due to extensive changes in the land-use around the Rann of Kutch, there has been an increase in the conflict of interests between man and the wild ass. Epidemics of surra and South African Horse Sickness also considerably decimated their population in 1950s. Their total population had dropped to less than 1,000 animals in 1962.

The Wild ass is an endangered mammal, and is classified as such by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The current official population of this mammal is about 2000. This population is confined mostly to the Little Rann of Kutch, a unique salt desert-wetland ecosystem which also contains several other rare species.

Though a large area of 4900 sq. km. of the Little Rann of Kutch had been declared a wildlife sanctuary, the study by researchers from the Wildlife Institute found that the Wild ass mostly uses the fringes of the vast desert area, including the fallow and wasteland which abounds in the adjacent villages. This is precisely the habitat where Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project (SSP) irrigation canals proposed to extend around the last habitat of the Wild Ass, will cause drastic land use and vegetational changes, including conversion into permanent cultivation, replacement of native vegetation which is favoured by the Wild ass into unpalatable weed, and waterlogging/salinisation. In addition, the existing Wild ass movement between the Little Rann of Kutch and the Great Rann (to its north), where a small population of the species exists, will be cut off, "causing genetic isolation". All these factors, says the study, "would have dire consequences for the long-term survival of the species".

The other main threat faced by the sanctuary is the illegal salt mining activity in the area. 25% of India's salt supply comes from mining in the area. The transportation of salt leads to noise and air pollution. Another major threat to the animals is due to the 217 km² firing range of the Indian army located within the sanctuary. Other threats faced by the sanctuary are poaching and proliferation of chemical factories in the region.

Pic: Courtesy: shunya.net

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Vanishing Species - Indian Pangolin

An Article by Mohan Pai

INDIAN PANGOLIN
Manis crassicaudata

The Scaly ant-eater.

The pangolin or scaly ant eaters are curious animals. Unlike other mammals the pangolin is characterised by the presence of large overlapping scales on the body which act like protective armour. These scales are considered as modifications of the hair or spines flattened into scales. The underside of the body has some coarse bristle-like hair which can be seen in-between the scales. Pangolins are nocturnal in habits, spending the day in their burrows, which are long tunnels ending into a large chamber. Burrows may be fairly deep (6 m) in loose soil. The entrance of the burrow is closed with earth when animal is inside. It walks slowly with the back well arched and sometimes stands up on its hind feet with the body inclined forward.
The food of pangolins consists of various kind of ants and termites. The termite mound is torn open by the powerful claws and the pangolin thrusts its long tongue, lubricated with saliva into the passages and withdraws it with white ants adhering to it.

Pangolins have no teeth. They are particularly attracted by the leaf nests of the big red ants. Pangolins can climb walls, they climb trees in search of tree ants. Pangolins roll into a ball for defence and exhibit enormous muscular power that defies any ordinary attempt to unroll them. Probably stronger carnivore can prey upon them. Habitat destruction and killing for so called medicinal purposes have considerably reduced the population of the pangolin.

The name Pangolin is derived from Malayan phrase ‘Pen Gulling’ meaning ‘rolling ball’, while the term Pholidota came from a Greek word meaning ‘scaled animals’. They are also known as Scaly Anteaters because of their food habits.

General Characteristics

Elongated tapering body, covered with large overlapping scales, except on snout, chin, sides of face, throat, belly and inner surface of limbs. Scales may be regarded as hair or rather as spines enormously enlarged and flattened. The movable scales with sharp posterior edges attached at the base to the thick skin from which they grow. The shape and topography of scales change with wear and tear. Colour varies from different shades of brown to yellow. White, brown or even black bristle like hair covering the scale less areas. Eyes small, with thick heavy eyelids. Limbs with five clawed digits, hind leg Longer and stouter than fore leg. Tail thick and tapering, tongue long, upto 25 cm. Skull oblong or conical, without teeth. Female with two mammae in the thoracic region.

Distribution

Indian Pangolin occurs sporadically throughout the plains and lower slopes of hills from south of the Himalaya to Kannyakumari, excepting the north-eastern region. It also occurs in Pakistan.SriLanka andprobably in Bangladesh. Indian Pangolin occupies different types of tropical forests, mainly moist, dry deciduous, wet to semi-evergreen, thorn as well as grassland. It is also recorded from degraded wasteland near human habitation. Chinese Pangolin mainly inhabits subtropical broad-leaved forests and tropical wet, semi-evergreen and moist forests. Both the species are nocturnal. During the day, pangolins are found curled in burrows with many sealed outlets of loose earth. Burrows are usually made under large boulders or rocks. The depth of the burrow varies, depending on the soil type, 1.5-1.8 m in rocky soil and 6 m or more in loose soil. Though terrestrial in habit, they are excellent climbers, using ‘caterpillar locomotion’, with the firm grip of forefeet on the tree. The tail provides auxiliary support. The pangolins are highly specialized in their feeding habits. They feed mainly on eggs, young ones and adults of termites and ants by digging the termite or ant nests. Before digging the termite or ant nests, they utilize their sense organs, smell rapidlyaround the area to select the most suitable spot to start with and feed rapidly by extending protrusible, long, thin, copiously lubricated tongue into the galleries of nests. Eggs are relished more than the adults. Pangolins are particularly attracted by the leaf nests of large red ants, which hold the swarms of adults and their eggs. A close correlation exists between the range of distribution of M. pentadactyla and the abundance of termite species, Coptotermes formosanus. In captivity, pangolins are fed with milk, meat and eggs. Due to absence of teeth, food is directly taken into the Stomach and grinded with the help of strong musculature and pebbles collected during feeding.

Pangolins are timid and inoffensive. For defence they tackle their head towards belly and curl up under the broad scaly tail so that all the vulnerable parts of the body are protected. Squirting of an aromatic liquid from the anal region has been reported as another method of defensive mechanism. Male and female are found to occupy the same burrow with the young, but very little is known about the breeding habits. Breeding season varies from January to March in Deccan plateau, with the rare records of births during the month of July.

Threats

The flesh of pangolins is relished by some tribal communities and scales and skins are found in trade. Hunting, during ‘Shikar Utsav’, on a particular day of the year in eastern states also poses a serious threat. Owing to uncommon appearance, unusual apathy of the common people towards pangolins is another threat. Rapid loss and deterioration of habitat, steady increase in the agrarian economy combined with improved irrigation and random use of pesticides appear to be the most serious threat resulting in decline of pangolin population in the country.

Status and Conservation Measures

Both the species of pangolins of India are listed as Lower risk threatened (Lrnt) by IUCN. As per Red Data Book of Indian Animals (Z.S.I 1994), M. crassicaudata is considered vulnerable and M. pentadactyla as insufficiently Known.

A Centre for excellence in Pangolin Research, Conservation and Monitoring studies has been set up at Ajmer in Rajasthan.

Pic 1 by: Pankaj Sharma


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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Vanishing Species - The Asian Elephant

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Asian Elephant
Elephas maximus

A magnificent beast and the largest land mammal, has a very special place in the Indian psyche.

India has been the main habitat of the Asian elephant. In spite of a drastic reduction in their numbers over the last century, India still has the highest population of the Asian wild elephants (about 25,000). The beast was tamed and domesticated and has been a part of the country’s religious, cultural, social scene for more than 5,000 years. The animal is inextricably linked with our history and lore. The seals of ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus valley(3000-2000 B.C.) depict figures of elephants.

One of the most venerated gods of the Hindu pantheon in India today is the elephant-headed Ganesha, the remover of all obstacles. Gajalaksmi, the elephant goddess is always shown with two elephants forming a triangular canopy with their trunks for goddess Lakshmi.

God Indra's eight-trunk elephant - Airavat

Vedic God Indra’s vehicle is an eight-trunk white elephant called Airavat. The Buddha himself is considered an incarnation of the sacred white elephant. There is a remarkable manuscript “Gajashastra” (Elephant lore) dated around sixth - fifth century B.C. giving the natural history of elephants. The Aryans who arrived in India around 1500 B.C. realised the value of the great beast and captured elephants in large numbers through kheddah operations (driving entire herds into stockade), the method of capture adopted even in our own times in Kakankote, Mysore until 1971 the year in which the last kheddah was held.
Elephants feature quite prominently in the Vedas as well as the two great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, where the elephant is used as a war engine.
When Alexander the Great invaded India in 323 B.C. He faced a formidable array of King Porus’s 200 war elephants and elephants continued to be prized possessions of kings for the next 2000 years.

There is a profusion of elephant images in the sculptures of all the ancient and famous temples of Khajurao, Ajanta Elora, Badami & Pattadakal, Belur/Halebid, Hampi, Tanjore and many other temples in the south.
Elephants, even today are maintained by a lot of Hindu temples, especially in the south. Gurvayur in Kerala maintains several temple elephants which are used in religious processions. The pageant of the caparisoned elephants in the world famous Mysore Dussera is an annual feature that still continues to attract large number of visitors from abroad.
Elephants were the prized possessions of the Indian kings throughout the history of India. They were an integral part of their pomp and pageantry. The Mauryan kingdom maintained a large elephant army of about 9,000 elephants. The passion of the Hindu kings for elephants was passed on to the Muslim rulers who maintained large elephant stables or pil-khanas. The Moguls captured a large number of elephants both for their armies and their sports hunt. Jehangir (1605-1627 AD) reputedly maintained a stock of 12,000 elephants in his army.

There is a profusion of elephant images in the sculptures of all the ancient and famous temples of Khajurao, Ajanta Elora, Badami & Pattadakal, Belur/Halebid, Hampi, Tanjore and many other temples in the south.
Elephants, even today are maintained by a lot of Hindu temples, especially in the south. Gurvayur in Kerala maintains several temple elephants which are used in religious processions. The pageant of the caparisoned elephants in the world famous Mysore Dussera is an annual feature that still continues to attract large number of visitors from abroad.
Elephants were the prized possessions of the Indian kings throughout the history of India. They were an integral part of their pomp and pageantry. The Mauryan kingdom maintained a large elephant army of about 9,000 elephants. The passion of the Hindu kings for elephants was passed on to the Muslim rulers who maintained large elephant stables or pil-khanas. The Moguls captured a large number of elephants both for their armies and their sports hunt. Jehangir (1605-1627 AD) reputedly maintained a stock of 12,000 elephants in his army.

THE DECIMATION

“There was a strange conjunction between wilderness and civilization in these elephants. One moment we saw them as living monuments to the past and symbols of the vanishing forests. The next they evoked visions of the pomp of kings and emperors, and of docile beasts of burden hauling logs out of forests, ironically assisting the destruction of their home. They seem lost between two worlds” -

George B. Schaller in the Foreword to Raman Sukumar’s book “Elephant Days & nights”.

The elephant has been around in India for a considerable amount of time, right from mid-Pliocene, for nearly four million years. Now, they face a precarious existence and a possible extinction in not too distant a future.

Demand for ivory, combined with habitat loss from human settlement, has led to a dramatic decline in elephant populations in the last few decades. In 1930, there were between 5 and 10 million African elephants. By 1979, there were 1.3 million. In 1989, when they were added to the international list of the most endangered species, there were about 600,000 remaining, less than one percent of their original number.Asian elephants were never as abundant as their African cousins, and today they are even more endangered than African elephants. At the turn of the century, there were an estimated 200,000 Asian elephants. Today there are probably no more than 35,000 to 40,000 left in the wild and Indian population is now around 25,000 animals.

By the end of the tenth century, the wild elephant had disappeared from most of the northern Indo-gangetic plains, the river valleys in the southern peninsula, and the coastal tract. The distribution of wild elephant seems to have remained largely unchanged at the end of the Mogul rule, until the middle of the nineteenth century. One population extended along the Himalayan foothills into the hills of the northeast, another large population roamed over the Western Ghats and tracts of the Eastern Ghats, while a third smaller population was confined to primarily Orissa and Bihar.
During the nineteenth century, the British penetrated the hill forests and began cultivating tea and coffee on a large scale. Capturing combined with the clearance of the elephant’s jungle for plantation became a powerful depletion force. They also helped decimate the wild elephant population in these tracts through their sport of hunting ‘big game’. The killing of elephant for sport had not been part of the Indian ethos. One British planter is reputed to have shot about 300 elephants, most of them cows and calves, in the Wyanad district of Kerala. Some of the Indian rules of the princely states in imitation of the colonial rulers, also began hunting elephants for sport. It is estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 elephants were captured or shot in India, largely in the northeast, during the period 1868 to 1980. This figure could be as high as 1,00,000 for Asia as a whole.
The country’s forests have shrunk by over 30% since independence in 1947. Dams have submerged river valleys in the forests , mines have stripped entire hill slopes bare and the burgeoning population has pushed further into the forests. The colonization of the terai moist forests along the Himalayan foothills has separated the elephant population of the northwest and the northeast. Poaching and killing of elephants by ivory hunters (In 1982 over a dozen elephants were shot in the Satyamangala division in Tamil Nadu) has been rampant and seems to continue unabated in spite of the government’s new ivory trade policy. In recent years, the man-animal conflict appears to be on the increase. The elephants raid fields and orchards doing a lot of damage to the crops, often turning violent. The reason for this conflict is very apparent. The fast reduction of their habitats and closing or blocking of their regular corridors has resulted into the elephant encroaching on human settlements that results into both man killing the animal and the animal attacking the man.

The Asian Elephant

Indian elephant, known with the scientific name of 'Elephas maximus indicus', is a subspecies of the Asian Elephant. It is mainly found in the Indian subcontinent, that to in the scrub forested areas. The other counties where Asian elephants are found include Bangladesh, Bhutan, Borneo, Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Sumatra, and Vietnam. Since Indian elephants are very huge and can trample all other creatures, they have no natural enemies. Even lions, hyenas, and tigers attack only the very young elephants and not adults.

Physical Traits

Asian elephants of the Indian subcontinent grow to a height of between 8 ft and 10 ft. Slightly smaller than the African elephant, they weigh as much as 7,000 to 11000 pounds. The feet of an Asian elephant are very large and broad, which enables it to balance its enormous weight quite easily. There are thick soles below the feet, which absorb shock and cushion legs, when the elephant walks and runs. Their length varies between 216 inches and 252 inches.
The huge and beautiful tusks of the Indian elephant only serve as the icing on the cake. These tusks are actually incisor teeth made up of ivory, which may grow up to 5 ft in length. The tusks are used by the elephants in digging for food, clearing debris, and carrying logs. The only other animal that has ivory tusks is the walrus.

Natural Habitat

Though Indian elephants are found everywhere, they prefer the scrub forests of India, with abundant food supply and shady areas. They do not stay at a particular place for more than a couple of days. One of the reasons for this is that their diet is very huge and they have to move to new areas to keep them supplied with food all the times. At times, you find Asian elephants roaming around in the Indian jungles. However, this is possible only if there is a there's a meadow or open space (with grass) around. They also prefer muddy areas in summers, where they can cool off during the hot daytime.

Diet

Asian Elephant is herbivorous and survives on bamboo, berries, mangoes, bananas, shrubs, tree foliage, wood, apples, wild rice and coconuts. Only half of the food eaten by elephants is used by their body. Therefore, it is necessary for them to eat 330 and 350 pounds of food every day. Their diet also consists of approximately 22 to 30 gallons of water per day.

Behavior

The groups (herds) of elephants are matriarchal i.e., a female elephant leads the herd. Males remain isolated and rarely form groups. They usually join the herd only when the mating season approaches. The members of a herd make use of a number of gestures and sounds while communicating with each other. Their sense of commitment towards the other members of the group is very strong. A female elephant protects her young one very fiercely. In her absence, this responsibility comes in the hands of the other females of the herd.

Mating Behavior

Male elephants fight to establish rights over a female herd. Indian elephants reach maturity by the age of twelve. The gestation period is between 630 and 660 days and the number of offspring is only one. The baby elephant is known as calf and usually weighs between 200 and 250 pounds.

Senses

Indian elephants are highly intelligent creatures and have acute senses of hearing and smell. They have large ears and can hear even those sounds that other animals do not. However, elephants have poor vision and their small eyes can see only up to 60 ft. Even though they are huge, elephants can easily balance their weight on two legs, especially while reaching the leaves of a tree. Even their sense of smell and sense of taste is very delicate.

PROJECT ELEPHANT

Realising the indiscriminate slaughter that was taking place, the British in 1873 in Madras enacted the first law to prevent the rampant slaughter of the herds. Six years later, British India as a whole followed suit. But the so called legal killing and poaching continued.
By eighties it was clear as a day light that unless the government comes forward and try and save the animal its future was doomed. The estimated population of elephants in India had dropped to 15,000-18000 animals in 1980s. The Government of India launched the Project Elephant in 1992 to help save the elephant.

The project was predicated on the need to focus conservation action on the Asian Elephant and its habitat, which currently face a number of threats. The main threats included: a) Reduction and fragmentation of habitat and consequent isolation of populations into small and genetically unviable units; b) Conflicts between wild elephants and human populations, leading to loss of human life and property and retaliatory killing of wild elephants; c) Poaching of elephants for ivory and, in some parts of the country, for meat; d) Elephant mortality due to other causes, such as from transmission lines, rail lines, highways etc., passing through the elephant habitat and other natural causes such as floods; e) Inadequate finance, infra-structure and human resources for proper implementation of management priorities at the field level. Project Elephant differs from other wildlife conservation projects such as Project Tiger in that it covers not only the protected areas (national parks and sanctuaries) but also other areas, which constitute the habitat of the wild elephants such as reserved and protected forests and other habitats. The projects covers an area of approximately 60,000 sq kms in 12 states, namely, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Under Project Elephant, 11 elephant reserves have been identified in the country.

Since the launch of the Project Elephant there are indications of the population faring better.

Some of the positive impacts of the project are :

a) The Mahananda sanctuary in West Bengal today retains elephants throughout the year as against about one month annually at the beginning of the project. b) Elephants displaced from Tamil Nadu in 1985-86 have been accommodated in the forests of Andhra Pradesh and restricted to the Kaundinya sanctuary. c) Human-elephant conflict in Madhya Pradesh resulting from displaced elephants from Bihar has been specifically mitigated. d) Wild elephants straying towards Calcutta in South-West Bengal have been controlled. e) There is a downward trend in the loss of human life from human-elephant conflict in the states of Karnataka, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The major areas of concern yet to be fully addressed under the project include : a) Inter-state co-ordination for succe-sful implementation of the project, particularly anti-poaching efforts. b) Rationalisation of human use of various habitats included within the elephant's range of distribution. c) Problems arising out of displaced and disoriented elephants, resulting from habitat fragmentation and their population growth. d) Genetic isolation of certain populations and imbalance in the sex ratio. e) Control of poaching and illegal trade. These are some of the major priorities, in addition to the on-going efforts which the project seeks to address in the coming years.

The elephant is considered a symbol of fertility, wealth and abundance. The status of the elephant is a good indicator of the health of the habitat. A habitat which is good for elephants is also good not only for its associate species like sambar, cheetal, kakar but also for predators such as panthers and tigers. The habitat will also have to be flora-rich to support animal biodiversity. When the forest is good for all these animals, the eco-system is in good condition, which means the water regime is right and so also the condition of the soil. Because the elephant requires a much larger home range than any other terrestrial animal, it is usually one of the forest species which has to suffer the consequences of habitat fragmentation and destruction. The historical and present day distribution of the elephant in the Indian sub-continent is in many ways a record of the progressive deterioration of the environment in the sub-continent.

References: Elephant Days & Nights by Raman Sukumar, India’s Wildlife History by Mahesh Rangarajan, Wikipedia.

Picture credit: Pic 1 by: V. Ramnarayana

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Vanishing Species - Hoolock Gibbon

An Article by Mohan Pai



Hoolock Gibbon
Hoolock hoolock

Hoolock Gibbon is the only ape to be found in India and is a rare, highly endangered species.

Hoolock gibbon also known as white-browed gibbon, is the most accomplished acrobat of all the apes. A round face with a distinctive white band in place of eyebrows, long arms and absence of tail are the distinguishing features of this ape. Its flexible shoulder joints permit greater freedom of arms movement. Its long hands fasten on to branches like hooks. It seizes the branch with one hand, then it swings forward to grasp the next branch with the other hand, and in this way covers m in a single swing, almost literally skimming through the forest canopy at amazing speed. The most common position is hanging and sometimes swinging to and fro, referred to as ‘the crucifixion pose’.
The gibbon’s arms are very long, allowing the fingertips to touch the ground when the animal stands. On the ground the hoolock has a very characteristic gait. Its nose-bridge is more prominent than that of other apes. The gibbon would look quite human if it were not for the fairly heavy brow ridges and the low, sloping forehead.

Hoolock gibbon inhabits all the 7 states of northeast India from 100 to 1,370 m, and the northern, north- east and northwest limit of its range is the river Brahmaputra (Dibang in Arunachal Pradesh) which acts as a physical barrier for its distribution. It inhabits primary evergreen and less seasonal parts of semi-evergreen rainforests and rarely semi-deciduous forests. Habitat loss jeopardizes its survival and it is hunted in its entire range.

Hoolocks are the second largest of the gibbons, after the Siamang. They reach a size of 60 to 90 cm and weigh 6 to 9 kg. The genders are about the same size, but they differ considerably in coloration: males are black colored with remarkable white brows, while females have a grey-brown fur, which is darker at the chest and neck. White rings around the eyes and around the mouth give their face a mask-like appearance.The range of the hoolock extend from Assam in North-East India, to Myanmar. Small populations (in each case few hundred animals) live also in the eastern Bangladesh and in southwest China. Like the other gibbons, they are diurnal and arboreal, going through the trees with their long arms. They live together in monogamous pairs and stake out a territory. Their calls serve to locate family members and ward off other gibbons from their territory. Their diet consists mainly of fruits, insects and leaves.Young hoolocks are born after a seven month gestation, with a milky white fur. After about six months their fur turns black. After 8 to 9 years they are fully mature and their coat reaches its final coloration. Their life expectancy in the wild is about 25 years.

In India and Bangladesh its range is strongly associated with the occurrence of contiguous canopy, broad-leaved, wet evergreen and semi-evergreen forests. The species is an important seed disperser; its diet includes mostly ripe fruits, with some flowers, leaves and shoots. Western hoolock gibbons face numerous threats in the wild, and are now entirely dependent on human action for their survival. The debilitating threats include habitat encroachment to accommodate ever-growing human populations and immigration, forest clearance for tea cultivation, the practice of jhuming (slash-and-burn cultivation), hunting for food and “medicine”, capture for trade, and the degradation and decline in quality of their forests that impacts fruiting trees, canopy cover and the viability of their home ranges. Isolated populations face the additional threats arising from the intrinsic effects of small populations. Some populations surviving in just a few remaining trees are subjected to harassment by locals and to lack of food, and are attacked by dogs while attempting to cross clearings between forest patches.

Mostly hunted for food, it is also hunted for other purposes such as ornamentation, taboo, religious ceremonies, traditional medicine, etc. without any restriction.It is listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. IUCN SSC–Red Data Red Book records this species in the ‘Data deficient’ category.

Pic 1:Female Hoolock gibbon. Pic by: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Pic 2: "The Crusifixion Pose" by Ritu Raj Konwar

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Vanishing Species - The Asiatic Lion

An Article by Mohan Pai





The Asiatic Lion

Panthera leo persica

Gir, the last bastion of an almost extinct species.

In 1901, the Nawab of Junagadh invited the then Viceroy Lord Curzon to Gir for a hunt. Lord Curzon backed off at the last moment when as if by providence a letter in a local newspaper criticised the damage a Viceroy's visit would cause to a species on the verge of extinction. Wisely, he requested the Nawb to protect the last surviving animals in his territory. The total Lion population was around 20 when the Nawab enforced a ban on hunting. This move resulted as the first conservation effort for the continuous well being of the Lions. After India got its independence from the British rule in 1947, the government had come to realise the importance and fragile nature of this last bastion of the Asiatic lion, and the Nawab’s Lion conservation policy was upheld. The Indian government then created the Gir National Park and Lion Sanctuary collectively known as Gir Protected Area covering over 1,000 sq-kms.The sanctuary area is made up of dry scrubland with hills, rivers, and teak forest. In addition to the lion population, the wildlife includes Leopards, Antelopes, Deer, Jackals, Hyenas, and Marsh Crocodiles Naturalists were assigned to study and take a census of the Gir’s lion population, which at that time was around 200 lions.


Gir Widllife Sanctaury is the last refuge of Asiatic lions in India and the lion population residing in the park is about 350. The protected area of Gir Sanctuary is about 560-square-mile (1,450-sq-kms). In India too, the Lions were spread across Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. History bears witness to the fact that this majestic animal is so deeply etched in our minds that King Ashoka depicted them on his rock pillars around 300 BC. Today India’s National Emblem is based on the Lions featured on Ashoka’s pillars.


The Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) is a subspecies of the lion which survives today only in India hence it is also known as the Indian lion. They ranged once from the Mediterranean to India, covering most of Southwest Asia where it is also known as the Persian lion.The current wild population consists of about 350 individuals restricted to the Gir Forest in the state of Gujarat, India.The historic distribution included the Caucasus to Yemen and from Macedonia in Greece to present-day India through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan through to the borders of Bangladesh.

Lions have gradually disappeared from many regions of the world as a result of habitat destruction and reckless hunting, as well as exploitation for the purpose of public amusement; in the days of the Roman Empire for instance, lions would be imported to entertain the masses by doing battle with either human gladiators or other animals. Eventually they became extinct throughout much of their former ranges. But unlike many of the populations of African lions that continue to thrive today, the formerly vast population of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) has now been confined to the Gir Forests. The Asiatic lion is exceptionally rare, and is in extreme danger of extinction. Our Asiatic lions are part of the breeding project of the European Endangered Species Program (EEP).

Asiatic Lions in Europe and Southwest Asia

Lions were once found in Europe. Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that lions were found in the Balkans. When King Xerxes of Persia advanced through Macedon in 480 BC, several of his baggage camels were killed by lions. Lions are believed to have died out within the borders of present-day Greece around AD 80-100.The European population is sometimes considered part of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) group, but others consider it a separate subspecies, the European lion (Panthera leo europaea) or a last remnant of the Cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea).Lions were found in the Caucasus until the 10th century. This was the northernmost population of lions and the only place in the former Soviet Union's territory that lions lived in historic times. These lions became extinct in Armenia around the year 100 and in Azerbaijan and southwest Russia during the 10th century. The region was also inhabited by the Caspian Tiger and the Persian leopard apart from Asiatic Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) introduced by Armenian princes for hunting. The last tiger was shot in 1932 near Prishib village in Talis, Azerba?an Republic. The principal reasons for the disappearance of these cats was their extermination as predators. The prey for large cats in the region included the wisent, elk, aurochs, tarpan, deer and other ungulates.

Lions remained widespread elsewhere until the mid-19th century when the advent of firearms led to its extinction over large areas. The last sighting of a live Asiatic Lion in Iran was in 1941 (between Shiraz and Jahrom, Fars province). In 1944, the corpse of a lioness was found on the banks of Karun river, Khuzestan province, Iran. There are no subsequent reliable reports from Iran. By the late 19th century the lion had disappeared from Turkey.

Physical Traits

Asiatic Lion is the second largest 'Big Cat' in the world, after the ferocious tiger. A fully-grown male tiger reaches a length of 1.7 m to 2.5 m (head and body), with its tail being somewhere around 70 to 105 cm long. The tail of an Indian Lion has a dark tuft of fur at the end. Its shoulder height is around 1 to 1.23 m and the animal weighs between 150 kg and 250 kg. A lioness is smaller in size as compared to the male and reaches a height of 80 to 107 cm. The length of the head and the body is 1.7 to 2.5 m, while the weight is 120 to 180 kg.
The males are orange-yellow to dark brown in color, while the females have a sandy or tawny color. Males also have a mane, which is usually dark in color, but is rarely seen to be of black color. This characteristic mane is absent in the females. The mane of an Asiatic Lion is also shorter than that of an African Lion. However, Indian Lions are much more bushy, with longer tufts of hair at the end of the tail as well as on the elbow joints, than their African cousins.

Behavior

Indian Lions are the only Big Cats that are seen living in large groups, known as 'prides'. A typical pride comprises of around 15 members, which includes related lionesses, their cubs and a few males. The number of males in a pride is usually around three and one of them dominates the rest of the group, including the other males. In a pride, it is the lionesses that do all the work, right from taking care of the cubs to hunting. The males only make the first claim on the game hunted by the female.
The lionesses as well as the cubs eat only the leftovers. Male lions establish their pride's territorial boundaries by roaring and scent marking and fiercely defend it. All the members of the pride are closely attached with one another. In fact, majority of the lionesses remain with a particular pride throughout their life. However, a male is expelled from the pride the moment it is 3 years old. The few male lions that do not join any group become a major threat to the ones with a pride. Asiatic lions usually hunt in groups and are rarely seen stalking a prey in isolation.

Mating Behavior

Male lions attain the age of maturity around 5 years of age, while the lionesses become mature after becoming 4 years old. There is no particular mating season of the Indian Lions. They can mate anytime during the entire year. The gestation period lasts for 100 to 119 days, after which 3 to 4 cubs are born.

Diet

Indian Lions are carnivorous and depend upon hunting for food. Their prey mainly comprises of Deer, Antelope, Wild Boar and Wild Buffalo. At times, lions have also been observed attacking young hippopotamus and elephants.
Geographical RangeAsiatic Lions are highly endangered species and have become extinct from all the countries of the world, except the Indian subcontinent. In India also, the animal is found only in the Gir forests of Gujarat.

Current Status

The last census on the Asiatic Lions was carried out in the year 2006. It revealed the population of the species to be somewhere around 359, including over 50 lions kept in captivity.

Trivia

Asiatic lions form prides (groups), in which all the work, including hunting, is done by the lionesses. The only work that males do is to make the first claim on the prey hunted by the females. Apart from that, they just laze around and do nothing.

Reintroduction

The Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project is an effort to save the last Asiatic lions from extinction in the wild. The last wild population in the Gir Forest region of the Indian state of Gujarat is under threat from epidemics, Natural disasters and Man-made disasters. The goal is to establish a second independent population of Asiatic Lions at the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. It is important to start a second population to bolster the population of Asiatic Lions, and to help develop and maintain genetic diversity enabling the subspecies to survive.Wildlife Institute of India researchers confirmed that the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary is the most promising location to re-establish a free ranging population of the Asiatic lions and certified it ready to receive it's first batch of translocated lions from Gir Wildlife Sanctuary where they are highly overpopulated. There are large scale deaths in the population annually because of ever increasing competition between the human and animal overcrowding. Asiatic lion prides require large territories but there is limited space at Gir wildlife sanctuary, which is boxed in on all sides by heavy human habitation.Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary was selected as the reintroduction site for critically endangered Asiatic lion because it is in the former range of the lions before it was hunted into extinction in about 1873. It was selected following stringent international criteria and internationally accepted requirements & guidelines developed by IUCN/SSC Reintroduction Specialist Group and IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group[5] which are followed before any reintroduction attempt anywhere in the world.Twenty four villages of the Sahariya tribe, which had lived in the remote core area set aside for the reintroduction of the Asiatic lions in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, agreed to move out.] They were rehabilitated by incurring an expense equal to millions of dollars under a Central Government of India sponsored scheme so that they can have access to basic amenities and infrastructure like roads, schools, hospitals, communal housing and security.They were also allocated housing and agricultural land at Village Agraa outside the sanctuary in order to create a safe home and an inviolate space for the translocated prides of critically endangered Indian lions.

InbreedingThe wild population of more than 300 Asiatic Lions has been said to be derived from just 13 individuals, and thus was widely thought to be highly inbred. However, this low figure, quoted from 1910, may have been publicised to discourage lion hunting; census data from the time indicates the population was probably closer to 100.Many studies have reported that the inbred populations could be susceptible to diseases and their sperms were deformed leading to infertility. In earlier studies Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist, had suggested that "If you do a DNA fingerprint, Asiatic lions actually look like identical twins... because they descend from as few as a dozen individuals that was all left at the turn of the 20th century." This makes them especially vulnerable to diseases, and causes 70 to 80% of sperms to be deformed - a ratio that can lead to infertility when lions are further inbred in captivity.Indian scientists have since reported that the low genetic variability may have been a feature of the original population and not a result of the inbreeding. They also show that the variability in immunotypes is close to that of the tiger population and that there are no spermatazoal abnormalities in the current population of lions.[15]Recent information from the Central Zoo Authority of India (CZA) reports that "the Asiatic lions and Indian tigers are not as inbred as previously reported by S.J. O' Brien and do not suffer from inbreeding depression".Threats to the last wild population

Inbreeding

The wild population of more than 300 Asiatic Lions has been said to be derived from just 13 individuals, and thus was widely thought to be highly inbred. However, this low figure, quoted from 1910, may have been publicised to discourage lion hunting; census data from the time indicates the population was probably closer to 100.Many studies have reported that the inbred populations could be susceptible to diseases and their sperms were deformed leading to infertility. In earlier studies Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist, had suggested that "If you do a DNA fingerprint, Asiatic lions actually look like identical twins... because they descend from as few as a dozen individuals that was all left at the turn of the 20th century." This makes them especially vulnerable to diseases, and causes 70 to 80% of sperms to be deformed - a ratio that can lead to infertility when lions are further inbred in captivity.Indian scientists have since reported that the low genetic variability may have been a feature of the original population and not a result of the inbreeding. They also show that the variability in immunotypes is close to that of the tiger population and that there are no spermatazoal abnormalities in the current population of lions.[15]Recent information from the Central Zoo Authority of India (CZA) reports that "the Asiatic lions and Indian tigers are not as inbred as previously reported by S.J. O' Brien and do not suffer from inbreeding depression".

Threats to the last wild population

Although the Gir Forest is considered to be well-protected, there have been incidences of lions being poached, and claws regularly are found missing from their carcasses. Lions have also been poisoned for attacking livestock. Some of the other major threats include floods, fires and disease. In addition, with the lion population of the Gir Forest having reached about 350, the local population is increasingly strained by its relatively small environment, which is surrounded on all sides with areas inhabited by humans. Severe local overcrowding in Gir wildlife sanctuary has been causing very high annual death rate in the last critically endangered Asiatic lions leading to accelerated Genetic erosion in their already limited relict gene pool left surviving here. Asiatic lions's natural habitat of grasslands, scrub and thin forests closely resembles surrounding farmlands and orchards where being highly territorial excess lions are being pushed out on a regular basis hence several have migrated out of Gir into unprotected farmland and orchards, where they have come into severe conflict with humans.Over the decades hundreds of lions have died, drowned or broken bones by falling into the 20,000 open wells dug by farmers in and immediately around Gir Forest within an 8km radius. Open wells are now a documented threat to the Asiatic Lion population, though they remain legal. Non-governmental organisations seek to work with the farmers and educate them to construct drilled tube wells instead, which pose no threat to wildlife.Farmers on the periphery of the Gir National Park have been known to illegally use homemade electrical fences to protect their crops from raiding wild animals, specially from herds of Nilgai and connect high voltage overhead power lines directly to these fences. This has on several occasions led to the electrocution of lions and other wildlife.

The biggest threat faced by the Gir National Park is the presence of Maldharis. These communities are vegetarian and do not indulge in poaching because they are basically pasturalists, with an average of 50 cattle (mainly "Gir Cow") per family. So during grass-scarce seasons Maldharis, even from outside the sanctuary, bring their cattle into the park in the guise of selling them and take them away after the monsoon season. So eventually it has become grazing ground for a large number of cattle, not only of the Maldharis but also for those living in an area of say 100 km around the park. These people are legally entitled to live in the park but slowly the area around the nesses (small hamlets where Maldharis live) is becoming denuded of vegetation. The population of Maldharis, as well as their numbers of cattle, is increasing and some Maldharis have houses outside the forest but still keep their cattle inside the forest to get unlimited access to forage. One of the outcomes of this is that the natural population of the wild ungulates of the protected area, which forms the prey base, has suffered.

The famous original sandstone sculpted Lion Capital of Ashoka preserved at Sarnath Museum which was originally erected around 250 BCE atop an Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath. The angle from which this picture has been taken, minus the inverted bell-shaped lotus flower, has been adopted as the National Emblem of India showing the Horse on the left and the Bull on the right of the Ashoka Chakra in the circular base on which the four Indian / Asiatic lions are standing back to back. On the far side there is an Elephant and a Lion instead. The wheel "Ashoka Chakra" from its base has been placed onto the center of the National Flag of India. Found famously on numerous Flags and Coat of Arms all across Asia and Europe, the Asiatic Lions also stand firm on the National Emblem of India. Narasimha ("man-lion") (also spelt as Narasingh, Narasinga) is described as an incarnation (avatara) of Vishnu within the Puranic texts of Hinduism and is worshiped as "Lion God" thus Indian or Asiatic Lions which were commonly found throughout most of India in ancient times are considered sacred by all Hindus in India. Singh is an ancient Indian Vedic name meaning "Lion" (Asiatic Lion), dating back over 2000 years to ancient India. It was originally only used by Rajputs a Hindu Kshatriya or military caste in India since the 7th Century. After the birth of the Khalsa brotherhood in 1699, the Sikhs also adopted the name "Singh" due to the wishes of Guru Gobind Singh. Along with millions of Hindu Rajputs today, it is also used by up to 10 million Sikhs worldwideThe island nation of Singapore (Singapura) derives its name from the Malay words singa (lion) and pura (city), which in turn is from the Sanskrit siᚃha and pura. According to the Malay Annals, this name was given by a 14th century Sumatran Malay prince named Sang Nila Utama, who, on alighting the island after a thunderstorm, spotted an auspicious beast on shore that his chief minister identified as a lion (Asiatic Lion). Recent studies of Singapore indicate that lions have never lived there, and the beast seen by Sang Nila Utama was likely a tiger. The Asiatic lion makes repeated appearances in the Bible, most notably as having fought Samson in the Book of Judges. The Asiatic lion is the basis of the lion dances that form part of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, and of similar customs in other Asian countries.

Pic by Yogendra Shah

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Vanishing Species - Nilgiri Tahr

An Article by Mohan Pai


Nilgiri Tahr
(Nilgiritragus hylorcrius)


Uncontrolled hunting & poaching had brought the tahr to the point of extinction.

Nilgiri Tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) is an ungulate living in the ranges of Western ghat mountains of Kerala, most of them are seen in Eravikulam National Park. They are also found in small groups at Nilgiri hills, Siruveni Hills , Elival Mala, Nelliampathi Hills, Top Slip & Parambikulam, Eastern Slopes of Ananmala, Grass hills of Anamala, Swamaimala …etc. Nigiri Tahr is declared an endangered species in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Mammals with surviving number estimated just below 2000 animals. It is also called Nilgiri Ibex and ‘Varayadu’ in Malayalam and nicknamed the ‘cloud goat’because it is often seen moving in and out of mist, fog and cloud. They can climb steep rocks easily. Adult males are much larger and darker in color than females , weigh about 100 kilograms and measure 100 centimeters at shoulder high when fully grown up. Both males and females have horns which are bigger in males at about 40 centimeters. They move in small groups and prefer to graze in high grasslands of Rajamala and adjoining mountains.

Physical characteristics

Male: A fully grown male Nilgiri tahr stands about 100 cm at the shoulder and weighs about 100 kg (Schaller, 1971). The overall coloring is a deep chocolate brown. This is particularly dark almost black on the front of the fore- and hind legs, the shoulder, the side of the abdomen, side of the face and the front of the muzzle. This contrasts sharply with the white facial stripe which drops from the forehead towards the corners of the mouth just anterior to the eyes, the white carpal patches on the front and outside of the forelegs, and the silvery saddle. The side of the neck where it meets the shoulder is also sometimes lightened as is the flank posterior to the saddle, and an area around the eye. Long black hairs form a mane and mid-dorsal stripe. The horns (in both sexes) curve uniformly back, and have twist. The outside and inside curves are constant. The tips diverge slightly due to the plane of the horn being divergent from the body axis posteriorly, and tilted slightly so as to converge dorsally. This means that the tips continue to diverge the more the horns grow. The inside surface is nearly flat, and the back and outside are rounded. There is a distinct rib where the inside and front of the horns meet and the horn surface covered with numerous fine crenulations amidst the more slightly more evident annual rings. The horns of males are heavier and longer than those of the females reaching a maximum length of about 40 cm.Female: Female Nilgiri tahr are shorter and slighter than their male counterparts. In contrast to the striking pelage of the male, the female is almost uniformly gray. The carpal patch is black against this light background. The facial markings are present, but only faintly, and the area around the eye and the cheek below it are brown. The mane and mid-dorsal stripe are also present, but much less conspicuous. The horns are slimmer and shorter, reaching a maximum length of about 26 cm.

Habitat

The Nilgiri Tahr's domains are the hills of Southern India, ranging from the Nilgiri to the Anamalais and thence southwards along the Western Ghats. The Nilgiri tahr prefers open terrain, cliffs and grass-covered hills, a habitat largely confined to altitudes from 1200 to 2600 m. Their habitat extended far and wide all along these hills in the past, but hunting and habitat destruction have decimated them to such an extent that they now exist only in a few isolated sites - the Nilgiri hills, the high ranges in Central Kerala and the Anamalai hills about 100 Kms to the South and some pockets in the Southern tip of the peninsula. The ancestors of the tahr are supposed to have originated in the later stages of Pleistocene period, which ended 10,000 years ago. Forests covered much of the plateau in the past, with grasslands only in boggy hollows and on steep slopes. Annual fires during the dry seasons in January and February and grazing by domestic buffalo belonging to the original inhabitants, pushed back the forests slowly until only patches of it remained when the first Europeans looking for areas to plant tea reached these areas in the early years of the 19th century.

ON THE BRINK

According to reports, the Tahr appears to have roamed at will in vast herds all over the grassy uplands of the higher plateau of the Nilgiris. By the closing years of the 19th century, uncontrolled hunting and poaching had however, reduced the tahr to such an extent that their numbers probably did not exceed a hundred. But survive they did - on the perilous western edge of the plateau, an area remote from human habitation where the huge cliffs and inclement weather naturally protected them. Some 1500-2000 Nilgiri Tahrs now survive.
The Nilgiri Tahr is a grazer needing a constant supply of food. They enjoy the grasslands that hug the rocky cliffs above 1200 metres. But they also prefer the sholas which they share with, elephant, gaur, sambar and barking deer. For most of the year they live in segregrated groups. Adult males live in bachelor herds and the females and young in separate groups. Only during the breeding season (June-September) do the two groups mix. The gestation period is six months. If a female’s offspring dies, she quickly conceives again. And probably it is this ability that has played a vital part in the survival of this species.

Pic by Dhaval Momaya

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Vanishing Species - Leopard


An Article by Mohan Pai
The Indian Leopard
Panthera pardus fusca

One of the most efficient and cunning predators whose survival is now as precarious as that of the tiger.

The leopard without doubt is the most immaculate of all cats. … Just as beautiful as dexterous, just as powerful as agile, just as intelligent as cunning, just as daring as sly, he represents the predator on the highest level.

Indian leopard is one of the 8-9 valid leopard subspecies found throughout the world. Known by the scientific name of Panthera pardus, it is the fourth largest of the four 'big cats' of the Panthera genus. At the same time, leopards are also the fifth largest of all cat species. The name 'Leopard' has been derived from a combination of two Greek and Latin words leo and pard, 'leo' meaning lion and 'pard' meaning panther. This name was given to the animal since it was initially believed to be crossbreed of a lion and a panther.

The leopard is one of the most maligned animals, chiefly by sport killers who have suffered from, and resented, his almost uncanny capacity for effective retaliation when wounded. Thus it is often claimed that they are unpredictable and treacherous. However such behaviour of incidents where man is attacked only reflect the leopard’s exceptional capacity for survival. The black panther Bagheera in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book appears to be a noble soul who offers one fat bull he had killed to save little Mowgli’s life.

The largest leopard recorded is 9 ft 1in. in length shot by the Maharaja of Nepal. They are considerably slimmer than the tiger, with an average weight of 120-150 lb, and a 250-lb animal could be considered the maximum. There entire body is one of integrated suppleness and weight for weight no animal can hold a candle to its abilities. Their arboreal capacity is phenomenal and they are as much at home in trees, which they use for caching prey out of reach of other predators and they have the capacity to haul almost double their body-weight up a perpendicular trunk. There is a growing evidence that the leopard’s future survival is as precarious as that of the tiger and throughout its range it is becoming increasingly rare.

Physical Traits

These cats have an elongate and muscular body. Their paws are broad and their ears are short. In tropical regions their coats tend to be shorter and sleeker, whereas in colder climates their fur is longer and denser. The coloration varies from the color of straw to grayish to even chestnut. The backs of the ears are black except for a spot either located centrally or near the tips. These appear to other animals as eyes. The throat, chest, belly, and the insides of the limbs are white. The rest of the head, throat, chest, and limbs all have small black spots. The belly has larger black spots, almost like blotches. Region and habitat have an affect on the appearance of leopard. As far as the length of the Indian leopard is concerned, it may be anywhere between one meters and two meters. Their average weight hovers somewhere around 30 kg and 70 kg (65 lbs to 155 lbs). Leopards have an elongated body and muscular body and their head is larger in proportion to their body. The coat of a leopard is covered with rosettes and they can climb trees with effortless ease. The cubs of a leopard have longer and thicker fur than the adults and even their pelage is grayer.

Behavior

Indian leopards are nocturnal creatures and are considered to be one of the most surreptitious animals. They can easily make themselves undetected, even while living proximate to human settlements. Leopards are very good swimmers, but lead a solitary life. Occasionally, one can find them roaming in a group of 3 to 4 animals. They have an acute sense of hearing, along with sharp eyesight.

Diet

Leopards are carnivores and eat almost every animal, ranging from monkeys to reptiles to fish. In fact, it is believed that they hunt from amongst 90 species of animals. Injured, sickly or struggling leopards, with a shortage of prey, may even hunt humans.

Mating Behavior

The mating season of leopards depends upon the areas they inhabit. For example, the leopards of India mate throughout the year while those in Siberia mate from January to February. Their estrous cycle lasts about 46 days and the female usually remains in heat for 6-7 days. They give birth to 2-3 cubs at a time, out of which 1 or 2 survive in most of the cases. Three months after being born, the cubs start joining their mother in hunts and live with her for the next 18 to 24 months.

Natural Habitat

Till some centuries back, leopards used to roam around in almost all parts of Africa and southern Asia. However, today, their habitat has been reduced to Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia Minor, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, China, Siberia, much of mainland South-East Asia and the islands of Java and Sri Lanka.

Current Status and Threats

The worldwide population of leopards is considered to be around 50,000. Nevertheless, the population of the 'Big Cat' has been decreasing at quite a rapid pace in all the countries, including India. The major reasons for this are their large-scale poaching as well as destruction of their natural habitat by humans. The subspecies that have been declared as endangered are Amur, Anatolian, Barbary, North Chinese and South Arabian Leopards.

The Indian leopard is one of the most successful members of Indian big cats. The animal is distributed throughout the subcontinent, including in the border nations of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and southern China. Habitat varies from dry deciduous forests, desert ecosystems, tropical rainforests, northern coniferous forests, to near human habitation.ThreatsDespite being the most widespread cat, the Indian leopard has faced several types of threats. The animal shares its habitat with other predators, which include Asiatic lions, Bengal tigers, bears, wolves, hyenas, and wild dogs. These animals may kill leopard cubs if given a chance. In addition, lions and tigers may even attack a full-grown leopard. Apart from its natural enemies, the leopard's main threat is people. They were also hunted for their prized furs. For years, it has been threatened, due to loss of habitat and poaching. In some parts of India, the animal thrives alongside human populations. There, it may find domestic livestock to make for easy prey, resulting in a man-leopard conflict. These conflicts have increased in recent years due to population growth among humans and, in some areas, leopards. To avoid such problems, India's Forest Departments regularly set up traps in potential conflict areas. After capturing the animal, they release it in an appropriate habitat, away from human development.

Man-eating Leopards

Although most leopards will tend to avoid humans, people are occasionally targeted as prey. Most healthy leopards prefer wild prey to humans, but cats who are injured, sickly or struggling with a shortage of regular prey often turn to hunting people and may become habituated to it. In the most extreme cases, both in India, a leopard dubbed "the Leopard of Rudraprayag" is claimed to have killed over 125 people and the infamous leopard called "Panar Leopard" killed over 400 after being injured by a poacher and thus being made unable to hunt normal prey. The "Leopard of Rudraprayag" and the "Panar Leopard" were both killed by the famed hunter Jim Corbett. Man-eating leopards are considered bold by feline standards and commonly enter human settlements for prey, more so than their lion and tiger counterparts. Kenneth Anderson, who had first hand experience with many man-eating leopards, described them as far more threatening than tigers;

“Although examples of such animals are comparatively rare, when they do occur they depict the panther [leopard] as an engine of destruction quite equal to his far larger cousin, the tiger. Because of his smaller size he can conceal himself in places impossible to a tiger, his need for water is far less, and in veritable demoniac cunning and daring, coupled with the uncanny sense of self preservation and stealthy disappearance when danger threatens, he has no equal...”—Nine Man-Eaters and One Rogue, Chapter II The Spotted Devil of Gummalapur

However because they can subsist on small prey and are less dependent on large prey, leopards are less likely to turn to man-eating than either lions or tigers. However, leopards might be attracted to human settlements by livestock or pets, especially domestic dogs.

Black leopards
A melanistic morph of the leopard occurs particularly in mountainous areas and rain forests. The black color is heritable and caused by only one recessive gene locus. In some regions, for example on the Malayan Peninsula, up to half of all leopards are black. This may be a beneficial mutation that helps them survive in their rainforest habitat. In Africa, black leopards seem to be most common in the Ethiopian Highlands. While they are commonly called black panthers, the term is not applied exclusively to leopards, as it also applies to melanistic jaguars. Black leopards are less successful on the African plains because their coloration makes them stand out. While known as panthers, there are no known cases of melanistic cougars.

Pic of the Leopard by Dinesh Kumble

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Vanishing Species - The Great Pied Hornbill

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Great Pied Hornbill
(Buceros bicornis)

Another of our big bird on its way to extinction

Hornbills attract naturalists the world over on account of their large size, bizarre bill, projecting casque, colourful beaks, feathers, and peculiar breeding habits. Most of the hornbill species nest in cavities of old trees. The breeding pairs usually exhibit high nest site fidelity as they tend to use the same nest site every year. After selecting a suitable nest hole, the female goes in and incarcerates herself by sealing the entrance leaving a narrow slit, through which she, and later her chicks, receive food from the male.

The Great Hornbill, Buceros bicornis also known asThe Great Pied Hornbill, is the largest member of the hornbill family. Great Hornbill is distributed in the forests of India, the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, Indonesia. Their impressive size and colour have helped make them a part of local tribal cultures and rituals. The Great Hornbill is long-lived with a life-span approaching 50 years in captivity.The Great Hornbill is a large bird, nearly four feet tall with a 60-inch wingspan, tail feathers reaching 36 inches and a weight of approximately six pounds. The most prominent feature of the hornbill is the bright yellow and black casque on top of its massive bill. The casque is hollow and serves no known purpose (“tame” hornbills are known to enjoy having them scratched) although they are believed to be the result of sexual selection. Male hornbills have been known to indulge in aerial casque butting flights. Females are smaller than males and have blue instead of red eyes. The male spreads the preen gland secretion which is yellow onto the primaries to give them the bright yellow colour.

The largest of the nine hornbill species found on the Indian subcontinent, the Great Pied hornbill also has one of the widest ranges, living everywhere from sea level to heights of nearly 5,000 feet.The Great Pied hornbill can have wingspans of nearly five feet, with tails that can measure three feet. It is an incredibly beautiful bird as well, covered in black plumage, with a yellow bill that curves downward. Most distinctively, the hornbill's head is topped with an ivory formation, also known as a casque. The Great Pied hornbill's diet consists mostly of fruit, which it collects inside its beak during feedings. A male hornbill will collect as much food as it can, swallow it, and then return to its mate, and regurgitate the meal into her mouth. The wing beat of a Great Pied hornbill can be heard more than a half mile away.

The Malabar Pied Hornbill occurs more frequently and abundantly in the northern part of the Western Ghats, with a key conservation area being the Amboli-Madei-Mollem-Dandeli region spanning three states. The strongholds of Great Pied Hornbill populations appear to be localised at a few sites in the southern half of the Western Ghats (e.g., Anamalai hills).

In India, nine species of hornbills occur, of which four species have been recorded in the Western Ghats. They are the Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornius), Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus), Malabar Grey Hornbill and Common Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris). The Malabar Grey Hornbill is endemic to the southern portion of the Western Ghats. In Nilgiris and the adjoining hill areas, the hornbills are known by various names by the different groups of indigenous people. The Great Pied Hornbill is known as Ongil by Kurumbas, Haradaya by Kattunayakkas, Peraanthi by Irulas. In the adjoining state of Kerala, where Great Pied Hornbill is the state bird, it is known as Malamuzhakki and Pondan Vezhambal . All the hornbill species are known by a common name aanthi by Irulas. Intensive bird surveys in Nilgiris and the adjoining Coimbatore district covering seven localities indicate the presence of all four hornbill species here. While Malabar Pied Hornbill and Common Grey Hornbill were sighted in only one locality, the Great Pied Hornbill was sighted in three localities and Malabar Grey Hornbill in two localities. Studies conducted by other ornithologists in the southern part of Western Ghats indicate that these birds are also sighted frequently in Anamalai hills, Mundanthurai-Kalakad hills, Silent Valley, Parambikulam, Periyar Tiger Reserve and in the forests of North Kanara districts.Trends indicate that the pied hornbills are threatened with local extirpation.

The largest among these four species is the Great Pied Hornbill which is most vulnerable to local extinction in the Western Ghats. This species requires large stretches of evergreen forests. Being large birds, they have to find a sufficiently large sized nest hole in order to house the female and chicks during the long breeding cycle that extends to more than 100 days. Also the slightest disturbance at the nest site can result in the male refusing to feed the nest inmates, thus threatening the survival of the female and chicks. The levels of disturbance are on the increase due to increasing deforestation activities. According to Raghupathy Kannan, who conducted a study on the Great Pied Hornbill in Anamalai hills, poaching of the female and chicks during the breeding season is an immediate threat to these birds

In human culturesLocal tribes further threaten the Great Indian Hornbills with their desire for its various parts. The blood of chicks is said to have a soothing effect on departed souls and before marriage, tribesmen use their feathers for head-dresses, and their skulls are often worn as decorations. Conservation programmes have attempted to provide tribes with feathers from captive hornbills and ceramic casques to substitute natural ones.

A Great Hornbill by the name of William is the symbol of the Bombay Natural History Society. Sir Norman Kinnear described William as follows: “Every visitor to the Society's room in Appollo Street will remember the great Indian Hornbill, better known as the "office canary" which lived in a cage behind Millard's chair in Phipson & Co.'s office for 26 years and died in 1920. It is said its death was caused by swallowing a piece of wire, but in the past "William" had swallowed a lighted cigar without ill effects and I for my part think that the loss of his old friend was the principal cause.”

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For some of my articles visit:
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For some key chapters from my book "The Western Ghats", please log on to:
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For detailed blog (6 Chapters from my book) on Mahadayi/Mandovi River Valley, please log on to:
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