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Wednesday, March 19

Hunting threatens endemic turtles in Kerala

Travancore tortoise, Indotestudo travancorica, reptile hunting, turtle hunting, hunting in western ghats
Travancore tortoise (Indotestudo travancorica)
(Photo Credit: Arun Kanagavel)

 Cochin forest cane turtle (Vijayachelys silvatica) and Travancore tortoise (Indotestudo travancorica)- two endemic reptiles found only in Southern Western Ghats- are hunted by locals and indigenous people including contract workers of Kerala Forest Department in Vazhachal and Chalakkudy forest divisions in Kerala , claims a new study published in the Asian Journal of Conservation Biology.

The researchers have met with tribal and non-tribal communities in the locality who claimed to have collected sack full of Travancore tortoises while clearing fire lines as contract labourers for the Forest Department  in these forest areas.

“These Chelonians (a taxonomic order which includes reptiles like turtles and tortoises) were usually collected while “cutting” fire-lines during the annual fire-management initiatives undertaken by the Forest Department and during the collection of non-timber forest produce (NTFPs). Respondents stated that they filled ‘sack loads’ of chelonians especially while clearing bamboo stretches”, says the study.

Wednesday, March 12

Eternal lessons for natural history lovers

Natural History of Indian Mammalia , free ebook, sterndale
Natural History of Indian Mammalia  - Cover
Accounts of the past, when visited after hundreds of years, give a new reading every time. The methods will be obsolete by now, the facts irrelevant, but beyond that, books from the past deliver valuable lessons. This makes Natural History of the Mammalia of India and Ceylon Written by Robert A. Sterndale, an interesting read for nature lovers, even after 130 years of its publication. 

Published in 1884, the book is irrelevant now with a faulty taxonomy, obsolete classification and its often unscientific approach for the present day reader. But as you read on, the actual natural history insight builds up within you – something beyond the mere academic interest.

Like similar books written by British officers who devoted their time to document the natural history of the new colony alongside discharging their duties, Sterndale’s book also looks at the natural history of India though the eyes of an outsider. The book details about almost all mammals found in India and Ceylon based on the works of his contemporaries like Jerdon and Blyth. Many of the accounts are also based on author’s own records and collections and from the information collected from the ‘native ‘shikahris’’ (in the authors parlance).

Reading the book from our times makes a very different impression. An Indian natural history lover going through the book now may find it amusing with the details of the mammalian fauna, especially with the detailed notes on animal behavior.

You may also meet some interesting mammals which our generation was not lucky enough to see at least once. For instance, the book records the existence of Malabar Civet Cat, which in our times  still keeps its enigmatic status despite strenuous camera trapping efforts to get a picture at least. It says that Malabar Civet was once “abundant in Travancore, and found occasionally in the uplands of Wayanad and Coorg.”

Lessons for the big game hunting
However, a serious nature lover today may get annoyed with the author’s perspective which turns the book into a guide for hunting fanatics. Each animal and its characteristics get a narration through the eyes of a hunter.

 Author’s description of the Blue Bull suggests a prospective ‘hunter-reader’ how to handle the animal carefully, so that he doesn’t miss the trophy. 

“Although he is such an imposing animal, the blue bull is but poor shooting, unless when fairly run down in the open. With a sharp spurt he is easily blown, but if not pressed will gallop forever. In some parts of India nilgai are speared in this way. I myself preferred shooting them either from a light double-barreled carbine or large bore pistol when alongside; the jobbing at such a large cow-like animal with a spear was always repugnant to my feelings. They are very tenacious of life. ”

What a merciful, kind hunter, he will not spear one, but will only shoot to kill.

(Watch a video clip on Nilgai, if you haven't seen one so far)

Tiger? Good to skin!
Interestingly, the book also points to the historical perspective of conservation, in a way that it never talks about that. Tiger which hits headlines everyday for the attempts to keep it on the face of the earth is never talked upon in that way, but on its measurements and the quality of skin. For a hunter of 1884, often, the tigers are brute,cunning and dangerous – nothing else.

Well, you may raise a point for defense, since tigers were aplenty at that time. But it is this inability of those educated and visionaries in our past generations to look into the future, that pushed other creatures (and humans too) to the brink of an imminent extinction. Unfortunately we are also following their path, making the planet unsafe for our forthcoming kids.

Makes interesting read
The book will interest two types of readers, one -nature lovers who want to understand about the fauna of the country in the past, two -those who want to have a glimpse of the older times to get amused. But if you are home grown green terrorist, you may throw it away at once.

However, most of the taxonomic classification system used in the book has changed now. Many of the names and species are now confirmed as just synonyms or situations of mistaken identity.

Despite these drawbacks brought by time, it still holds significance in many ways. Being a major work on documenting the mammalian fauna of the country, it is rich with distribution records and similar information which may help any student of biodiversity today.

But the actual significance of the book lies in developing a good insight on natural history, to its present reader. It helps to understand how the fauna of the country was looked upon as something to devour on and how such a perspective lead us to the present point. May be that is the best lesson on natural history to look for, in this book. It keeps it relevant beyond the times.

Now, Read the book here.