Archive for March, 2009

Vanishing Species – The Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros

An article by Mohan Pai


The Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros
(Rhinoceros unicornis)

A kilogram of Rhino horn was priced at $ 60,000 in the International market in 1994.

No wonder the species is facing extinction.

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

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

Lady Curzon

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

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

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

Taxonomy, Ecology and Behavior

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

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

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


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

Habitat & Feeding

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

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

Conservation Status and Threats

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

Pic by Siva A. N.

References: The Book of Indian Animals by S. H. Prater, Wikipedia, Arunachal Front – 24/2/2008
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Biological Rhythms in Nature

An article by Mohan Pai


“God does not play dice with the Universe”- Albert Einstein


Biological Rhythms refers to periodic biological fluctuation in an organism that corresponds to, and is in response to, periodic environmental change. Examples of such change include cyclical variations in the relative position of the Earth to the Sun and to the Moon and in the immediate effects of such variations, e.g., day alternating with night, high tide alternating with low tide..The internal mechanism by which such a rhythmic phenomenon occurs and is maintained even in the absence of the apparent environmental stimulus is termed a biological clock. When an animal that functions according to such a clock is rapidly translocated to a geographic point where the environmental cycle is no longer synchronous with the animal’s cycle, the clock continues for a time to function synchronously with the original environmental cycle.

Humans similarly transported over great distances often experience fatigue and lowered efficiency for several days, a phenomenon known as “jet lag,” or jet syndrome.A rhythm with a 24-hour cycle is called a circadian (from Latin circa, “about”; di, “day”—i.e., “about a day”), solar day, diel, daily, diurnal, or nychthemeral rhythm. A lunar tidal rhythm—the regular ebb and flow of oceans and very large inland bodies of water—subjects seashore plants and animals to a rhythmic change; typically two high and two low tides occur each day (about 24.8 hours). Many species of shorebirds exhibit this rhythm by seeking food only when beaches are exposed at low tide.

Monthly rhythms, averaging approximately 29.5 days, are reflected in reproductive cycles of many marine plants and in those of many animals. Annual rhythms are reflected in the reproduction and growth of most terrestrial plants and animals in the temperate zones.Animal behaviourPeriodic change with the time of day, month and year is a most spectacular feature of the environment of the earth. The three major periods thus prevalent are those of the solar day (24 hours), lunar month (29 days) and the calendar year (365 days). Most living creatures have adapted themselves in many ways to this temporal order of their environment, giving rise to a variety of biological rhythms. Theses rhythms enable the plants and animals to carry out their various bodily functions at the most advantageous time of the day, month or year.The cold-blooded lizards must raise their body temperature that necessarily falls during the night by sunning themselves in the morning. The most appropriate time for hunting for prey for them is therefore late morning, when they can be warm and active. Crabs on the seashore must adapt their feeding times in accordance with tides which depend on the rotation of moon. Insectivorous birds must adjust their breeding seasons to correspond with the yearly period of maximum abundance of insects to satisfy the requirements of their fast-growing chicks, and so on.

Animals fall into two broad categories of day-active and night-active, depending on the time during which they actively seek food. On land insects have large membership in both these categories. Cold-blooded reptiles are constrained to be day active, and the primarily visual birds are also day-active. Amongst the ground dwelling mammals, both habits are quite common. While the flying mammals bats, are all active at night, taking advantage of the paucity of night active birds.Even within these categories, however, not all animals are equally active throughout the day or night. Their activity patterns vary, depending both on changes in the physical environment, as well as in response to the activity pattern of other animals in their habitat.

Dawn and dusk are periods of the most rapid change in light intensities, and most animal use these as cues to initiate or terminate their period of rest. Thus birds become active and bats go to rest at dawn, and the reverse occurs at dusk. If we look further, the Jungle Crow becomes active at lower light intensities than the Indian Myna, and the pipistrelle bats at higher light intensities than the Flying Foxes. Dawn and dusk are also the times at which the air is least turbulent, permitting sound to be carried farthest. That is why birds indulge in their most intense vocalization at these times, giving rise to dawn and dusk choruses; as do monkeys like the Hanuman Langur.Animals also adjust their periods of activity to minimize competition with other species. Thus various species of bees have peaks of flower-visiting activity at different times of the day, and different species of mosquitoes have peak blood-sucking at different times at night.

Such rhythms have greatly fascinated physiologists who have attempted to study them under experimental conditions. It has been shown that the rhythms are not merely imposed from outside, but persist even under totally unchanging conditions. Under these conditions, however, the period of rhythm is not precisely 24-hours, but nearly so, hence these rhythms are known as circadians (circa, about, dies, day). They are adjusted to the diurnal rhythm of light, temperature, etc. Through the external cues. It is now known that animals use social cues provided by other animals as well in adjusting their rhythms. Thus bats confined to deep part of the cave with no environmental cues of light or temperature can still synchronize their activity with the day-night regime by picking up their cues from the vocalization of the other bats in the cave.
Marine animals too exhibit a number of biological rhythms. The zooplankters migrate towards the surface at night and move down deeper during daytime. The animals on the shore adjust their periods of activity in relation to the tides. Furthermore, the tides change not only once or twice a day, but vary in their magnitude with the phase of the moon and the time of the year. Certain marine animals such as the famous Palolo worm of Fiji seem to synchronize their breeding with these tides. Thus the palolo worm swarms to reproduce every year 7 to 9 days after the full moon in November.At the other end from the palolo worm, the entire population of which breeds on just one day in the whole year, is an animal such as our Asiatic elephant which seems to breed, and also to come to musth, at any time of the year. The Chital has an extended breeding season, its rutting coinciding with the monsoon and the season of the birth of calves peaking from January to March, although some calves are born in every month of the year. This coincidence of birth of calves with the most difficult season of the year in terms of food availability is truly puzzling. In Karnataka, the major predator of Chital, the Wild Dog, breeds from January to March, presumably because its food is most plentiful at the time of fawning by chital. Among our birds, the small insectivores such as Warblers breed during the monsoon, apparently because this is the time of maximum abundance of insects to feed their chicks. The birds of prey, on the other hand, breed mostly during December-March, again apparently because this is the time of maximum abundance of their rodent prey which multiplies following the seeding of grasses and cereal crops towards the end of the monsoon.The breeding of herons, storks and other colonially breeding water-birds coincides with the monsoon. Thus at Bharatpur in Rajasthan or Ranganathittu at Shrirangapatna they breed from July to October, the southwest monsoon bringing most of the rains in these parts. On the other hand, at Vedanthangal near Chennai they breed from January to March, this part receiving most of its rainfall during the northeast monsoon. However, this rule is not without exception. Night Herons breed at Ranganathittu from April to August, but near Bangalore, hardly 120 km away, they breed from January to March; similarly Little Cormorants breed at Ranganthittu from July to October, but hardly 80 km away they breed from January to March.

The migratory birds show a remarkable annual rhythm of long distance movements. Many of our ducks, teals and waders breed in Siberia in summer, from April to September. In autumn they migrate south to India, staying here from October to March, moving north again in the spring. The migratory impulses of these birds is known to be controlled by changing day-length. They migrate southwards after breeding in response to decreasing day-length and north after wintering in response to increasing day-length.

Finally, a most spectacular example of biological rhythm is furnished by some species of tropical bamboos. Our commonest species Bambusa arundinacea, flowers and seeds only once in its lifetime at an age of 45-48 years, after which it invariably dies. Moreover, the flowering is synchronized for a whole population so that all the bamboo species flower and die over a region of several thousands of hectares within the space of three to four years. The significance of this seems to lie in the fact that when seeds are very occasionally produced in such large quantities, predators on the seeds such as rodents can only devour a small fraction of them. If on the other hand a much smaller seed crop was produced every year, a much greater fraction of the seed could be destroyed by the predators. Hence, it is likely that massive seeding in a few years has been favoured by natural selection.Animals not only respond to natural cues, but as the persistence of their rhythms under constant conditions shows, they also have endogenous rhythms – Circadian as well as circannual, and perhaps of much longer duration as well as in the case of bamboos. The precise nature of these biological clocks is yet unknown. Animals also use these clocks for purposes other than adjusting behavioural rhythms. Thus honey-bees, as also some fish and birds, are known to use the sun for navigation. However the position of the sun varies with the time of the day. These animals make fine adjustments for such movements of the sun by using biological clock.

Reference: Encyclopedia of Indian Natural History – Edited by R. E. Hawkins for Bombay Natural History Society. 

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Vanishing Species – Reticulated Python

An Article by Mohan Pai

Reticulated Python

(Python reticulatus)

Pic: courtsey David Barker

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

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

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

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


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

Variations in Reticulated Python

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


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


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

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

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

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

Web references: Reptile, Wikipedia, Jayashree Pakhare

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


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Vanishing Species – Indian Sloth Bear

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Sloth Bear

(Melursus ursinus)
The “dancing” bear is now an endangered species.

Perhaps the most familiar of our region is the dancing Sloth Bear. He is also Baloo, the “sleepy old bear” from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
Despite protection afforded under Wildlife protection Act 1972, about 1,000 bears are kept in captivity as dancing bears and 100 cubs are poached annually to replenish the supply.

Even though the sloth bears are protected by international and national laws, they face severe threats from various angles. The current population in the Indian sub continent is estimated to be a little over 4000 and the population is rapidly declining. Although some estimates place the figure at a higher level. The most important threat is the poaching of live bear cubs for Bear Dancing in India. The mother bear is often killed while trying to protect her cubs. The Adults are poached for their body parts such as gall bladder, bile, claws and genital organs which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Habitat destruction (illegal Quarrying, deforestation and mining, illegal tree felling etc) is further accelerating the rapid decline of this species. Shrinking habitat and encroachment by humans in forest areas has given rise to increasing incidences of man-bear conflicts in various parts of the country.

The body of the sloth bear is 150–190 cm long, covered in long, shaggy fur, ranging from auburn to black, with a distinctive “V” shaped white mark on the chest, a whitish snout and black nose. The snout is long with bare lips and a lack of upper incisors, adaptations for its insect-based diet. The front feet are turned inwards and have non-retractable, curved ivory claws that are adapted for digging. The males, weighing 80–140 kg, are larger than the females, which weigh only 55–95 kg. Its pug marks are very similar to a human footprint. The tail is 15-18 cm (6-7 inches) long, the longest in the bear family.
Female Sloth Bears typically give birth to two cubs after a seven month gestation, although singleton and triplet births are also known. The cubs remain in the den for two to three months, and continue to accompany the mother for at least a further two years.Because of their warm native habitat, Sloth Bears do not hibernate through the winter, as some more northerly species do.
The Sloth Bear does not move as slowly as a sloth, and can easily outrun a human. One theory has it that early explorers saw these bears lying upside down in trees and gave them their common name for the similarity to the way a sloth hangs in trees. Another claims that the Sloth Bear gets its name because its normal walk is more of a meandering shuffle. The shaggy coat, light-coloured muzzle and long claws are common qualities of a sloth.
The Sloth Bear primarily eats ants and termites, breaking into termite mounds with large powerful claws and eating the occupants. It may also eat honey, eggs, birds, flowers, tubers, fruits, grains and meat.
The animal’s fondness for honey has caused it to be nicknamed the Honey bear. It has been known to scale the occasional tree to knock down a bee honeycomb, which it will then enjoy on the ground below.
The sloth bear is endemic to the Indian subcontinent and is found in a variety of habitats -from dry grassland to evergreen forests – but has a preference for tropical deciduous forests. Within that category, the Sloth Bear prefers dry deciduous forests and rocky outcrops to wet deciduous forests. Presently, its distribution range is shrinking and populations are becoming fragmented due to continuing habitat degradation and fragmentation.

Poaching and loss of his habitat and fragmentation of available habitat are the primary threats to the survival of the Sloth Bear on the Indian subcontinent. Predators such as the Leopard, wolves, and the Tiger may attempt to prey on the young, though the female Sloth Bear with young is exceptionally vicious regarding any threats to her young. Adults defend themselves quite well with their claws. Humans hunt the Sloth Bear primarily for its gall bladder, which is valued in eastern medicine. The Sloth Bear’s current conservation status is Vulnerable.
Attacks on humans
Sloth bears are more feared than tigers, due to their more unpredictable temperament, said to be the most aggressive and least predictable of Asian bears. In Madhya Pradesh, sloth bear attacks accounted for the deaths of 48 people and the injuring of 686 others during five years from 1989.

Daroji Bear Sanctuary, Karnataka
Hampi near Hospet, in Bellary district is a renowned world heritage centre. The unique Sloth Bear sanctuary is situated very close to this heritage site. Situated only 15 kilometers from Hampi, Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary is the only sanctuary in North Karnataka. Though the sanctuary is relatively new, which began in 1994 in the eastern plains of Karnataka, it has proved to be a suitable habitat for the Indian Sloth Bears in a span of few years. The rock-strewn hillocks that stretch between Daroji of Sandur taluk and Ramasagar of Hospet Taluk in Bellary district have been the abode of Indian Sloth Bears since ages. In October 1994, the Government of Karnataka declared 5,587.30 hectares of Bilikallu reserve forest as Daroji Bear Sanctuary. However, at the time of declaration, the forest had nothing but barren stony hillocks and thorny trees. Owing to the arduous efforts of the staff and support of the surrounding villagers, the sanctuary has transformed into a lush green area boasting of a verdant forest with exuberant local species of flora and fauna. It is estimated that about 120 Sloth Bears are living in this sanctuary, apart from Leopards, Hyena, Jackals, Wild Boars, Porcupine, Pangolins, Star Tortoise, Monitor Lizard, Mongoose, Pea Fowls, Partridges, Painted Spur Hen, Quails etc. About 90 species of birds, and 27 species of butterflies have also been identified in this sanctuary in a preliminary survey. How do the Bears stay confined within the range of the sanctuary? According to Range Forest Officer Sangamesh N Matt, the sanctuary has innumerable wild fruit-bearing trees and bushes like kavale (carissa carandas), jane (grewia teliafolia), ulupi (Grewia salvitidia), nerale (Eugenea jambolana), bore (zyziphus jujuba), etc in its premises. These trees and bushes yield fruits one after the other. Also, the authorities have started raising orchards of custard apple (seetaphal), Singapore cherry, mango, banana, maize, etc within the ranges of the sanctuary. Bears are fond of termites and honey, which are also available in plenty here. There are waterholes too, for quenching the thirst of the wildlife. Mr. M. Y. Ghorpade, a well-known wildlife photographer and ex-minister of Karnataka has been the guiding force behind the development of this sanctuary.

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Vanishing Species – Leatherback Turtle


An article by Mohan Pai

Leatherback Turtle

Dermochelys coriacea

Illustration: Courtesy Canadian Museum of Nature

The longest-living marine species ever to ply world’s oceans, their survival into the next decade is doubtful.

They are the longest-living marine species to ever ply the world’s oceans. They survived catastrophic asteroid impacts and outlived the dinosaurs. But the leatherback sea turtle, the largest turtle in the world, is on the brink of extinction, and scientists question whether the animal will survive into the next decade. Over the last 22 years their numbers have declined in excess of 95 percent .

The leatherback turtle is the largest of all living sea turtles. and is the only living species in the genus Dermochelys. It can easily be differentiated from other modern sea turtles by its lack of a bony shell. Instead, its carapace is covered by skin and oily flesh. Instead of teeth the Leatherback turtle has points on its upper lip. It also has backwards spines in its throat to help it swallow food. Leatherback turtles can dive to depths as great as 4200 feet (1,280 meters).The leatherback turtle is entirely at home in the sea but comes to the shores to lay its eggs on sandy beaches. Cold blooded animals that they are, turtles live life in slow motion and live for hundred years or more. The leatherback turtle is a species with a cosmopolitan global range. In India leather backs come to the beaches of Kerala and Andaman and Nicobar islands where their eggs are a much prized food. This egg collection now threatens the existence of many sea turtle species. But notably enough, some fishing communities from Tamil Nadu have the tradition of not finishing off all the eggs in the clutch, but always leaving behind one, thus ensuring long time persistence of the race.
Leatherback turtles have a flattened, round body with two pairs of very large flippers and a short tail. Like other sea turtles, the leatherback’s flattened forelimbs are specially adapted for swimming in the open ocean. Claws are noticeably absent from both pair of flippers. The leatherback’s flippers are the largest in proportion to its body among the extant sea turtles. Leatherback front flippers can grow up to 2.7 meters in large specimens, the largest flippers (even in comparison to its body) of any sea turtle. As the last surviving member of its family, the leatherback turtle has several distinguishing characteristics that differentiate it from other sea turtles. Its most notable feature is that it lacks the bony carapace of the other extant sea turtles. Instead of scutes, the leatherback’s carapace is covered by its thick, leathery skin with embedded minuscule bony plates. Seven distinct ridges arise from the carapace, running from the anterior-to-posterior margin of the turtle’s back. The entire turtle’s dorsal surface is colored dark grey to black with a sporadic scattering of white blotches and spots. The turtle’s underside is lightly colored.The adults average at around one to two meters long and weigh from around 250 to 700 kilograms. The largest ever found however was over three meters from head to tail and weighed 916 kilograms. That particular specimen was found on a beach on the west coast of Wales in the North Atlantic.Leatherbacks are also the reptile world’s deepest-divers. Individuals have been discovered to be able to descend deeper than 1,200 meters (3,937 feet).They are also the fastest reptiles on record. The 1992 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records has the leatherback turtle listed as having achieved the speed of 9.8 meters per second (35.28 kilometers per hour) in the water.
Of all the extant sea turtle species, the leatherback has the widest distribution, reaching as far north as Alaska and Norway and as far south as the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and the southernmost tip of New Zealand. The leatherback is found in all tropical and subtropical oceans, and its range has been known to extend well into the Arctic Circle. Globally, there are three major, genetically-distinct populations. The Atlantic Dermochelys population is separate from the ones in the Eastern and Western Pacific, which are also distinct from each other. A third possible Pacific subpopulation has been proposed, specifically the leatherback turtles nesting in Malaysia. This subpopulation however, has almost been eradicated. The beach of Rantau Abang in Terengganu , Malaysia, had once had the largest nesting population in the world with 10,000 nests per year. However in 2008 only 2 leatherback turtles nested at Rantau Abang and unfortunately the eggs where infertile. The major cause for the decline in the leatherback turtles is the practice of egg collection in Malaysia. While specific nesting beaches have been identified in the region, leatherback populations in the Indian Ocean remain generally unassessed and unevaluated.
Like all sea turtles, leatherback turtles start their lives as hatchlings bursting out from the sands of their nesting beaches. Right after they hatch, the baby turtles are already in danger of predation. Many are eaten by birds, crustaceans, other reptiles and also people before they reach the water. Once they reach the ocean they are generally not seen again until maturity. Very few turtles survive this mysterious period to become adults. It is known that juvenile leatherbacks spend a majority of their particular life stage in more tropical waters than the adults.

Adult leatherbacks are prone to long-distance bouts of migration. Migration in leatherback turtles occurs between the cold waters in which mature leatherbacks cruise in to feed on the abundant masses of jellyfish that occur in those waters, to the tropical and subtropical beaches in the regions where they were hatched from. In the Atlantic, individual females tagged in French Guiana off the coast of South America have been recaptured on the other side of the ocean in Morocco and Spain.Mating takes place at sea. Leatherback males never leave the water once they enter it unlike females which crawl onto land to nest. After encountering a female (who possibly exudes a pheromone to signal her reproductive status) a leatherback male uses head movements, nuzzling, biting or flipper movements to determine her receptiveness. Females are known to mate every two to three years. However, leatherbacks have been found to be capable of breeding and nesting annually. Fertilization is internal, and multiple males usually mate with a single female. However, studies have shown that this process of polyandry in sea turtles does not provide the offspring with any special advantages.While the other species of sea turtles almost-always return to the same beaches they hatched from, female leatherback turtles have been found to be capable of switching to another beach within the same general region of their “home” beach. Chosen nesting beaches are made of soft sand since their shells and plastrons are softer and easily damaged by hard rocks. Nesting beaches also have shallower approach angles from the sea. This is a source of vulnerability for the turtles because such beaches are easily eroded. Females excavate a nest above the high-tide line with their flippers. One female may lay as many as nine clutches in one breeding season. About nine days pass between nesting events. The average clutch size of this particular species is around 110 eggs per nest, 85% of which are viable. The female carefully back-fills the nest after, disguising it from predators with a scattering of sand.

A leatherback turtle has set the record for ‘the longest trip for marine vertebrae between breeding and feeding sites’. It swam 20,558 kilometres, non-stop for 647 days!

Acknowledgements: Wikipedia, National Geographic, Canadian Museum of Nature
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Western Ghats, India – Shivaji’s Forts

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).



Geography has always played a decisive role in the history of a region. The geographical character and features dominated by the Sahyadri range prevented any real subjugation by alien powers of the Indian subcontinent south of the Tapti river, in the sense that northern India was; the geopolitical influence of these mountain ranges and their rugged and difficult terrain was immense.

The Deccan plateau is a landscape characterised by flat top summits, terraced flanks and precipitous slopes. These flat topped natural scarps rising above lower slopes which were then thickly wooded and surrounded by broken and uneven terrain were difficult to ascend. In many of these hills a sheer precipice of black basalt over 500 to 600 ft high ran almost all around making them natural strongholds.

The word ‘Fort’ originates from the French word ‘Fortis’ meaning strength. Even in Indian languages, they are called ‘Durg’ which is derived from the Sanskrit Word ‘Durgamam’ meaning inaccessible.

Bahamanis of Gulbarga who ruled for about 200 years were some of the first fort builders in the Sahyadris. Amongst local families Silahars of Panhala and Bhojraja in particular built many southern forts – Vishalgad, Vasota, Ragnya, Bhudargad and others. The Bahamani rule disintegrated by the middle of the 16th century and for a number of years chaos and anarchy prevailed. Out of this troubled times rose Shivaji who during his comparatively short span of life dominated the entire landscape of the northern Sahyadris and established his kingdom encompassing the entire mountainous region.

There are over 300 forts spread all over the northern Sahyadris from Salher in the north to the fort of Terekhol on the border of Goa. The forts and pinnacles of the northern Sahyadris are the sentinels that have witnessed a turbulent past and present us with a rich, romantic diversity of site, function, history, architectural style and cultural heritage. Here every peak seems to possess a fort and reverberate with its past of valour, daring, treachery and fluctuating fortunes.

Chhatrapati Shivaji – a painting

From 1294 AD the region was ruled by a succession of Mohammedan dynasties. This difficult terrain of the Sahyadris suited very well for Shivaji’s guerilla techniques, and enabled him to outsmart the mighty Generals of Aurangazeb and Bijapur. The ramparts and bastions of these forts depict the drama of the Sahyadris as well as Shivaji’s skills in harnessing these natural forces for his cause. He fought the might of the Mogul Empire in the north and that of Bijapur kingdom in the south and finally achieved a stunning victory and became the founder of the Maratha Empire. Shivaji himself in a letter to the Mogul Officials (Kutute Shivaji – copy of the manuscript is in the State Archives, Mumbai) brings out the importance of the rugged terrain and the fact that it is a difficult region for the Moguls to conquer.


The letter is reproduced below:
“Far-sighted men know that during the last three years, famous Generals and experienced officials have been coming from the Emperor to this region. The Emperor had ordered them to capture my forts and territory. In their despatches to the Emperor they write that the territory and the forts would be captured soon. Even if imagination were a horse it would be impossible for it to move in these parts. It is extremely difficult for this region to be conquered. They do not know this. They are not ashamed of sending false reports to the Emperor. My country does not consist of places like Kalyani and Bidar, which are situated in plains and could be captured by assaults. It is full of hill ranges. There are sixty forts in this region. Some of them are situated on the sea coast. Afzal Khan came with a strong army, but he was rendered helpless and destroyed.“After Afzal Khan’s death, the Amir-ul-umara, Shaista Khan, marched into my land, full of high hills and deep gorges. For three years he exerted himself to the utmost. He wrote to the Emperor that he would conquer my territory in a short time. The end of such a false attitude was only to be expected. He was disgraced and had to go away.
“It is my duty to guard my homeland. To maintain your prestige you send false reports to the Emperor. But I am blessed with divine favour. An invader of these lands, whosoever he may be, has never succeeded.”

Shivaji was a fort builder par excellence. It is said that he conquered 130 forts, built 111 and at the time of his death in 1680 possessed some 240 forts.
Among the many forts associated with Shivaji’s exploits the following are some of the prominent forts:

Shivneri :

This was a Nizam Shahi fort situated about 3 km from Junnar in the Malsej Ghat region. This is the birth place of Shivaji – he was born on February 19,1630 (some sources give the year of his birth as 1627).

Torna & Rajgad :

Both these forts are situated in the Bhuleshwar range. Torna was Shivaji’s first conquest in 1646 when he was only 16 years of age. Around the same year he also captured the fort of Morumbdev (later called Rajgad), 40 km southwest of Pune which served as the capital of Shivaji for 25 years before he moved it to Raigad.

Raigad :

Raigad stands separated by a ravine from the main range, to the west of the point where the Bhuleshwar range starts. It was here that Shivaji was crowned as king on June 6, 1674. It was a safe residence as the natural defences offered by way of ramparts and bastions were further strengthened by vertical scarps.
It commanded an excellent view and it enabled Shivaji to easily control Javli-Mahad area, right up to the sea. Raigad was the capital of the Maratha empire and he died in this fort on April 4, 1680.

Simhagad :

This fort called Kondana was Shivaji’s biggest achievement in his early career, which he captured by peaceful means in 1647 which later came to be known as Simhagad. Simhagad is located in the Bhuleshwar range, 26 km south of Pune. It was later surrendered to the Moguls and again recaptured in 1670 after a bitter struggle. The assault was led by the valiant Maratha warrior Tanaji Malusare. The fort was stoutly defended by Udai Bhan, the Rajput commandant of the Moguls. Both the leaders fought a duel which resulted in their death. The loss of brave Tanaji saddened Shivaji and he is said to have cried in anguish “I have won a fort but lost the lion”.

Purandhar :

Purandhar fort, at the end of the range which runs southeast from Simhagad is a strong fort that witnessed many a great battles in the Maratha history. The veteran general Jai Singh was sent by the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb to recapture the forts and territory occupied by Shivaji and leaving him no alternative but to surrender to the Moguls. Having arrived in Pune, Jai Singh marched towards the fort of Purandhar and the siege of Purandhar began on 30 March, 1665. There were fierce attacks by the Moguls and equally fierce defence put up by the Marathas. Although the Moguls were poised to capture Purandhar, but at the express request of Shivaji, the fort was allowed to be surrendered and the garrison permitted to evacuate the stronghold. There were 7,000, men and women, in the fort of Purandhar; of these, 4,000 were fighting men defending the fort. The siege of Purandhar is one of the most memorable sieges in Indian history.

Pratapgad :

The hill station of Mahabaleshwar marks the start of the Shambhu-Mahadeo range of the Koyna region. On the west of the ridge is located the historically important fort of Pratapgad (1,438 m). This fort is one of Shivaji’s most brilliant defense structures built by him in 1656 with some clever manipulation of the terrain.

Pratapgad – Pic by Mohan Pai

Militarily it was an important fort as it controlled the Ambavani and Pir passes and was one of the strongest forts due to its vertical scarps. This grim fortress with its towers and battlements surrounded by high, basalt walls pierced with loopholes from whichonce sprouted Jingals – muskets fixed on swivel – still stands as an impregnable monument. The fort was once the scene of a dramatic act of double treachery. Shivaji met his opponent, Afzal Khan, the powerful Bijapur General, in a supposedly unarmed truce. They both embraced each other in a show of cordiality. Afzal Khan whipped out a hidden dagger and stabbed the foe, but the wily Maratha had taken the wise precaution of wearing a shirt of mail and concealed in his left hand a set of imitation tiger claws. He killed Afzal Khan with this weapon. A small monument and tower marks the scene of this vicious encounter at Pratapgad.

Panhala & Vishalgad:

Panhala range branches off from the main Sahyadris south of Warna valley. The range starts with the fort of Vishalgad, which is a historic fort captured by Shivaji in 1659 and is well protected by scarps, walls and bastions.
The range then goes eastwards to Panhala fort, which was captured by Shivaji in November 1659. Both Vishalgad and Panhala have been witness to deeds of valour and epic defense.
Since March 1660 Shivaji had been pinned down at Panhala for over four months in a tight siege by Siddi Jauhar of Bijapur. Shivaji decided to escape and taking advantage of the rainy season and dark nights, on 13th July 1660, slipped out of Panhala and made straight for the fort of Vishalgad, 64 km away. Shivaji’s outnumbered bodyguards were overtaken by the Bijapur forces at Pawan Khind (Ghod Khind) some eight miles short of safe Maratha territory. The epic defense of his Mavle escort enabled Shivaji to avoid capture but at the cost of his valiant leiutenant Baji Prabu’s life.

Memorial to Baji Prabhu at Panhala fort – Pic by Mohan Pai

Shivaji once again attacked Panhala and recaptured it in 1673. South of the Panhala range in the Amboli region has the southern most forts of Bhudargad, Pargad and Rangnya which was captured by Shivaji in 1657.

Salher & Mulher :

These two forts in the Selbari range running west to east dominate the landscape south of Mosam river. Salher is the highest hill fort (above 5,000 ft) in the Sahyadris and marked the northern most point of Shivaji’s kingdom which he laid siege to it and captured in 1671. Mulher is an ancient fort built in the 14th century and is also known as Mayurgad. The famous battle of Salher took place in early 1672. The Moguls had laid siege to the fort of Salher. Its capture had become a point of prestige for the Moguls. But Shivaji was determined to force the Moguls to raise the siege. In the ensuing battle Maratha forces defeated the Mogul forces led by their General Bahadur Khan and the entire equipment and booty was captured by the Marathas.
Apart from Salher and Mulher, this range of hills had nearly ten forts – Chandwad, Indrani, Kanchan Manchan, Dhodap, Ahivant, Achalagiri, Hanumantgad, Markand and Saptashringi.

Mulher Fort – Pic by Mohan Pai

Tryambak Range :
Harihar fort (1,120 m) is in the Tryambak range north of Igatpuri and is built on a triangular rock. Kalsubai, the highest peak of the northern Sahyadris at 1,646 m lies in this range branching off in the easterly direction. The range has the highest and difficult hill forts of Kulang, Alang and Madangad. Further northeast is the Patta fort (1,370 m) and on the main crest of the Sahyadris running southeast is Ratangad (1,296 m).

Budhargad near Kolhapur – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Sea-Forts :

There are a number of sea forts situated along the long Konkan coast which played an important role in the history of the Sahyadris. As the Konkan coast came increasingly under his possession, Shivaji started building a number of coastal fortresses in order to strengthen his modest navy and keep in check the Siddis of Janjira, the Portugese and other powers. He laid the foundation of the fort of Sindhudurg near Malvan on December 5, 1664 which became his naval base. He also built several other sea-forts such asPadmadurg, Vijaydurg, Jaigad and Devgad. Coastal Fort at Ratnagiri – Pic by Mohan Pai

Murud-Janjira fort which is situated 2 km into the sea from Murud, was constructed in the 11th century and was considered impregnable and witnessed many a battles. It was occupied by the Siddis during Shivaji’s time and even Shivaji was unable to effectively blockade this formidable fort.

End of an Era

After the last Maratha war and signing the treaty of 1818, the British controlled most of the Northern Sahyadri region and started establishing the British rule. Most of the forts were systematically dismantled by them for political reasons. They dynamited rocky stairs, fort walls, ramparts and approach routes to many impregnable forts to make them unusable. The damage done by these charges can be seen even today.
The techniques of war had also undergone a sea-change. The development of long range powerful artillery warfare effectively put an end to the value of these forts as defense strongholds and they did not play any further role in the history of the region.

Western Ghats, India – Introduction

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).

These blogs have been created to publish some of the key chapters from my book “The Western Ghats” published in 2005. The book has been out of print for some time and a number of people have evinced keen interest in the book and hence these blogs. 


The Sahyadris or the Western Ghats is a major mountain range of the world that runs for 1,600 km N-S forming what has been called “the girdle of the earth”. In terms of geological age, they are much older than the Himalayas.
The range is only next to the Himalayas on the Indian subcontinent and represents the tropical humid area rich in biodiversity. It is a precious gift of the Nature – priceless because the well-being of the entire southern peninsula hinges on the ecological stability of these mountains.
But this priceless asset, an inheritance, is being squandered away through mindless exploitation and wanton destruction. The rate of forest destruction continues at a staggering rate, threatening to turn this once lush green region into a lifeless, brown desert in the not so distant future.

In this book I have attempted to construct a profile of the Western Ghats covering different aspects – from the geological history to the tribes and the hill stations with the intention of showing what is it that we are in the process of destroying. It is high time that the common man is made aware of this irreversible damage which will ultimately affect the quality of life and his well-being and that of the generations to come.

I was born in a village at the base of the Sahyadris in Goa on the West Coast and spent all my life in the shadows of this great mountain range. When I looked for a publication that gives an overview of the Sahyadris, I did not find any. So I started collecting material from various available sources and put it together. This book is the result of that endeavour. I also undertook journeys and travelled the whole length and breadth of this range from Kundaibari Pass, south of the Tapti river to Kanyakumari with my camera.

Mohan Pai
September 7, 2005

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