Almost Famous species: the wild side of 2020 from forest to backyard

  • We have selected species that are “Almost Famous” – species that do not get regular media attention.
  • However, we have also gone beyond looking at animals in a perfectly natural setting. We take a broader lens and look at the animals as they are, in their daily struggles for existence.
  • Each story uses a species as a lens to look at ecosystem health, backed by scientific research and data where appropriate.

Stretching from the Nicobar Islands very close to the equator to the Western Himalaya in the north, India covers about 30 degrees of latitude, with a long coastline on its peninsula. The wide geographic extent, topographic features with multiple long mountain ranges and fertile river basins, and the monsoon winds give rise to a plethora of habitats that have been home to a variety of creatures.

The global pandemic overtook our media narrative in 2020. However, we ensured that our coverage offered a peek into the elusive natural world. It is not every day that we encounter mushrooms that glow in the dark, a monkey with a golden coat or fish that exist in underground caverns.

The species we cover as part of this series are what we like to call “Almost Famous.” Any mention of Indian wildlife always conjures up images of charismatic large mammals. We acknowledge that these are interesting; but we want to draw back the curtain on other species that are equally fascinating. My summary below includes one story on elephants as an honorary mention, lest the pachyderms (and other large mammals) feel offended.

Important as it is to observe nature in its pristine form, a shot of reality is necessary to keep us grounded. Alongside India’s rich biodiversity also exists the second largest population in the world, a dichotomy that we have lived with for decades. Less than 5% of Indian land is demarcated as protected areas. Wildlife of course knows no boundaries and the interactions between animals in the forest and people who live near forests takes multiple forms, ranging from peaceful coexistence to full-fledged conflict.

In 2020, we went beyond looking at animals in their natural worlds. We took a broader lens and looked at creatures as they are, in their daily struggles for existence.

New to science

As scientists venture deeper into hitherto unchartered territory, employing more advanced techniques and with the involvement of citizen science, species that have not been scientifically documented so far are being added to India’s biodiversity roster.

The Anamalai wood snake is found south of the Palghat Gap, while its sister-taxon, the the Perrotet’s wood snake dwells in the hills ranges north of the Gap. Photo by Sandeep Das.

Batty about flying mammals

Yes, we love bats and no, they are not in any way transmitting coronaviruses to humans – as was the “trending” fake news when the pandemic began. We published articles and an explainer video debunking myths on COVID-19 and bats. Bats are actually super cool. They perform vital ecosystem services. Flying foxes, a group of bats that get their name from their long snout and ears, exhibit some remarkable characteristics – a mid-wife system and homosexuality!

Researchers exploring Meghalaya’s cave systems and forests described five new species from the state this year. At the other end of the country, in the Western Himalayas spanning Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jammu, and Kashmir, researchers have compiled a library of bat calls. Bats use echolocation to navigate while flying and to locate prey. The bat call library can provide an acoustic snapshot of the bats in a given region, useful for making localised checklists while monitoring biodiversity.

Alright up there? Monkey business and more on the canopy

The Himalayan langur is a leaf-eating primate distributed along the Himalayas, ranging from north-western Pakistan, through Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the western Himalayas in India, to Nepal in the east. Climate change may force the Himalayan langurs to move out of forests in protected areas in western Himalayas in India and Nepal, to forests that are outside protected areas.

Endemic to northeast India and Bhutan, golden langurs are one of the world’s most endangered primates. Appearing deep cream-colored in dull light and bright golden as the sun rays strike their coat, Gee’s golden langurs were once found in large forest swathes. They are now split into several small, isolated populations clinging on to splintered forest patches and fringe villages where they often come into conflicts with local communities.

There are two other monkey-like creatures that inhabit canopies in India. Both are lorises – tree living primates that live in tropical areas, related to the lemurs of Madagascar (remember the film with King Julian?). The grey slender loris is found across peninsular India and parts of Sri Lanka. Bengaluru comes in the northern end of the range; the species has somehow clung to life in Bengaluru’s remnant green spaces. The Bengal slow loris is a gum-eating, nocturnal, tree-dwelling primate species found in northeast India. The animals are seen in trees up to 30 feet from the ground in the forests of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Sometimes, they are also found in bamboo thickets.

The Western Ghats forests in Kerala and Tamil Nadu house the Travancore flying squirrel, which glides between trees using a membrane stretched between its hind legs, as a wing.

Another canopy living small mammal, the red panda, is distributed in the eastern and north-eastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests and the eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests, which geographically fall in China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and northern Myanmar. The red pandas are actually two separate species – Chinese and Himalayan red panda.

Watch: Explore the Almost Famous Species YouTube playlist

Not just another goat

Once thought to be extinct in India, the markhor – the world’s largest mountain goat – was found at two sites in Jammu and Kashmir: the Kajinag National Park in Baramulla district and the Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary in Shopian district. To conserve the species, the markhor recovery project was started in 2009 by involving the wildlife department, herders, local communities and the Indian Army.

The Siberian ibex, large goats with curved horns, are found in diverse mountainous habitats in central Asia, extending to India. A genetic analysis has shown that the ibex found in the Himalayas is different from those found in other regions. The researchers propose that the Himalayan ibex can be considered a different species.

The “other” bustards

The Great Indian Bustard assumes centrestage when we talk of bird conservation in the Indian subcontinent. However, India has two lesser known bustards: the Bengal florican in the Ganges and Brahmaputra basins and the “elegantly comical”, once-widespread lesser florican.

Tracking devices found that the Bengal florican moved between India and Nepal (and perhaps Bhutan), mainly in agricultural fields and grasslands outside protected areas. Given this finding, the 13th Conference of Parties of the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS), held in India in February this year, unanimously voted for the Bengal florican to be included in Appendix 1 of the CMS.

India’s smallest bustard, the lesser florican, is down to 11 individuals in Madhya Pradesh. Meanwhile in Rajasthan, good farming practices are helping to keep a small area of the bird’s habitat intact. The Ajmer forest department has also successfully tried out artificial hatching of lesser florican chicks.

Fishy business

The charismatic golden mahseer, known for its large size and striking golden hues, are found in cold water habitats of the Himalayan region, especially fast moving waters with a rocky bottom. Microscale protected areas to conserve the iconic species, and fish passes to ensure migration are needed to enhance viable populations.

The Eastern Ghats in Chhattisgarh has its own large bodied fish — the Bodh fish, also called the “shark of Bastar,” a species worshipped by tribal communities like the Marias and Gonds. Anglers need a special wire mesh net to capture the fish, which has sharp teeth that can tear a normal net to shreds.

The Gollum snakehead fish, with its long, scaly body and delicate, veil-like fins, was discovered last year in south India. Further analyses have revealed that the underground dwelling fish is so different from other snakeheads, it warrants its very own family, Aenigmachannidae. This new family is also ancient, a “living fossil.” Genetic analyses reveal that it possibly evolved at least 109 million years ago, when the last dinosaurs still roamed the world.

While these three fish occur naturally in the Indian subcontinent, a certain fish group called tilapia have established themselves in large sections of the country’s waterways, making small craters in shallow water as a breeding display, out-competing native species in natural ecosystems and assuming pride of place in cuisines. The Mozambique and Nile tilapias were introduced to India to boost food security, but have turned a scourge for natural ecosystems.

Sea cucumbers are marine invertebrates, said to perform similar functions to earthworms in the terrestrial ecosystem. India has 173 species, which are being smuggled due to high demand in China and parts of southeast Asia for food and traditional medicine. In India however, the species is under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, bracketed alongside lions and tigers. The Lakshadweep administration announced the creation of the world’s first conservation area for endangered sea cucumbers over an area of 685 square km.

Of softshells and otter freshwater critters

The Cantor’s giant softshell turtle is one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world, capable of growing to more than 1 metre in length and weighing more than 100 kg. Found across Southeast Asia, the species is considered rare throughout its range.

The black softshell or Bostami turtle has an unusual home: the temple ponds of Assam. In Assam when a child is born, a common practice is to donate turtles to temples as people believe they live long. While the species is nearly extinct in the wild, temple ponds have acted as small conservation areas for the turtles. A conservation programme is working toward releasing the turtles back in the wild.

The critically endangered Ganges shark is so rare, that after a single sighting in 2006, the species was not seen again until 2016, when it re-emerged at a local Mumbai fish market.

India has three otter species, out of the 13 that occur globally. Camera trap records and indirect sign surveys have produced evidence of the presence of mainly Eurasian otters in Sikkim. India is also home to two other species, the small-clawed otter and the smooth-coated otter.

A female otter in river Kolhu, Uttarakhand. Photo by Sayanti Basak.
A female otter in river Kolhu, Uttarakhand. Photo by Sayanti Basak.

Bisons in tea estates, a special buffalo and cows in the sea

In places adjacent to forests like Coonoor and Kotagiri in Tamil Nadu and Kodagu in Karnataka, the Indian bison (gaur) is coming out in herds to forage in farms. Gaur belong to the family of wild oxen and is considered the largest living bovine. The naturally shy animal is slowly shedding its fear of humans and shifting from being active during the day, to being nocturnal in areas of increased conflict.

The Todas are an ancient pastoralist tribe who inhabit the Nilgiri mountains in South India. Both the livelihood and the culture of the Todas revolve around the Toda buffalo, a breed of the Asiatic water buffalo. A 2013 study revealed that the population of pure breed Toda buffalo totalled just 3003.

The dugong is the only known herbivorous marine mammal on earth, which feeds exclusively on seagrasses, a kind of marine flowering plant. Dugongs act as “farmers” in the seagrass ecosystem, rendering it conducive for fish breeding and hence fisher livelihoods.

Read more: Editor’s review of 2020: Virus, controversies, wildlife, transitions and wetlands

The ant-eating bear

Sloth bears are the world’s only bears built to eat ants. They love their occasional meat tidbits of course but thrive mostly on ants, insects, fruits and wild berries (including berries of the infamous invasive Lantana camara). Human-bear conflict is frequent across most of its range where bears regularly come in contact with people. Deaths caused by sloth bear attacks are a concern; people, in turn, tend to also engage in retaliatory killings.

No boundaries to wildlife

Gharials are critically endangered, with only about 650 adult individuals found in the wild in sparse pockets of the subcontinent’s rivers. Once common in the Indus, Ganga, and Mahanadi river systems, wild gharial populations are now found mainly in India and Nepal. They are on the verge of extinction in Bangladesh. In India, the gharial nesting sites are now found mainly in Chambal, Girwa, Ghagra, and Gandak river basins. Seven transboundary gharial movements have been recorded in the last 40 years, with the most recent one the identification and capture of a gharial that was released in Nepal and captured in West Bengal’s Hooghly river in May 2020.

Another transboundary journey has now been fettered by an electric fence. Elephants in north West Bengal, would earlier cross the Mechi river along the Indo-Nepal border, over to Nepal, along a regular route identified as the Mahananda-Kolabari elephant corridor. In 2016, a solar-powered fence erected by Nepal abruptly cut off the herds’ transboundary movement along this route. The fencing has increased the levels of human-elephant conflict in the area.

Indus dolphins, found in freshwater sources like rivers in India and Pakistan, have different fates in both countries. While the population is recouping in Pakistan, there are only between 5 and 11 individuals left in India.

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