Nature – Animals
India is home to hundreds of species of mammals, reptiles, and thousands of birds. The varied climate and landscape make it an ideal place for wildlife. The rivers and the dense forests of the Western Ghats add to the ecosystem, encouraging further growth.
To protect this national treasure, India has many wildlife sanctuaries and protection laws. Currently, there are about 80 national parks and 441 sanctuaries. One of the most famous of these is Project Tiger, intended to protect the Bengal tiger–India’s national animal. But there are others, throughout the country, each showcasing the animals unique to that region.
A strange looking animal, also called the Sea Cow. The largest dugong population exists in the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay. Small groups have also been found in the Andaman and the Gulf of Kutch. They feed on meadows of sea grass in the shallow.
Growing to 3 m and 400 kg, Dugongs swim in family groups of two parents and one offspring, keeping reasonably close to the coast. Their attachment for each other often results in the capture of the entire family if one of its members is netted or harpooned.
Perhaps the most loved of water animals, the dolphin inspired wonderful stories based on true life incidents but the Indian Gangetic River Dolphin is now on the endangered list. The Indian Dolphins have weak eyesight as they live in turbid, silt laden waters. They eat fish and crayfish which they find by echo location.
From the coastal waters of Sri Lanka to the marshes of the Sunderbans there are two common species – the Plumbeous Dolphin and the Finless Black Porpoise. Unlike the freshwater species they have good vision, though they too use a sonar system for hunting. The Common Dolphin, found off the coast of South India holds the record for speed in water, reaching up to 30 knots or 55.5 km per hour.
The most serious rodent pests in Asian countries are the Indian Bandicoot and the Lesser Bandicoot. Large, weighing over a kilo, the grey furry Bandicoot is a fearsome sight.
The grain godowns in Calcutta are so greatly infested by Bandicoots that it is estimated that in a godown of 244 sq m they eat 4,226 kg grain a year, which is enough to feed 7,000 people for a day! Lesser Bandicoots also exploit crops in the field, travelling great distances to find ripe grain which they store in bulk underground. Bandicoots build up fat reserves when food is abundant and may weigh upto twice their normal weight. This helps them survive the months of drought when they live underground, feeding on food reserves and tubers. The female produces a litter of 8 to 19 young.
Asiatic Wild Ass
The only home of the Asiatic Wild Ass is the inhospitable terrain of the Little Rann of Kutch. Considerably taller and much sturdier than the domestic donkey, Wild Asses have been used by the Army as draft animals and to breed mules for mountain transport. They live in mixed troops of 10 to 30 animals except for 2 or 3 months in the year, after the young are born, when the mare, accompanied by the foals, lives apart.
India has three kinds of bear – the Sloth Bear, Himalayan Black Bear and the Brown Bear. The Sloth Bear, commonly seen performing tricks on streets, is the smallest of the species. It lives in the forests of the plains or lowlands, feeding mainly on insect larvae through mouths which are modified for suction. It can close its nostrils at will. Unlike other bears, the Sloth mates for life. It does not hibernate. The Himalayan Black Bear live in the broad-leaved deciduous forests of Assam and the Himalayas. The Brown Bear lives on the higher Himalayan slopes. Like the Black Bear, it is largely herbivorous though some do learn to kill. Himalayan species have naked soled feet for tree climbing.
Jambavan was the king of the bears in the Ramayana. His army helped Rama fight Ravana. Besides being a warrior, Jambavan was attributed with great wisdom and was one of Rama’s advisors. For his help, Rama granted him the boon of invincibility against all except his father.
In Vishnu’s next avatar (incarnation) as Krishna, Jambavan gained possession of a gem called the Syamantaka which could protect the virtuous wearer and destroy a wicked owner. Krishna and Jambavan fought over this gem which the wise old bear finally surrendered. He got his daughter Jambavati married to Krishna.
Found high on the Tibetan Plateau and around the peaks of Nanda Devi and Trishul, the male of the species has a hand- some slate-blue coat, a black chest and massive sweeping horns. Since it is the special prey of the Wolf and the Snow Leopard, it lives well above the timber line – 3,500 m to 5,000 m up in the Himalayas.
Classified in 1833, the Bharal has characteristics of both sheep and goats, living in social herds of 5 to 20. When not in rut the males live in all-male bands. The Bharal are ranked in the herd by the size of their magnificent horns and bodies and their conspicuous coats which help the males evaluate each other. In a rare fight for dominance, the subjugated male rubs his face on the rump of the dominant animal in a unique gesture of friendship.
The Indian Bison or Gaur is one of the world’s most impressive wild oxen. The adult male weighs up to 1000 kg and stands 190 cm at the shoulder. Both the male and female have a pair of upswept, cylindrical horns which grow upto 80 cm in length. The Gaur lives in hilly tracts with extensive forest cover, which is being destroyed (and the Gaurs’ number decimated) by deforestation. The Gaur is herbivorous and despite its size, extremely shy and retiring, feeding mostly at night. It lives in small herds, dominated by an old cow. Like all oxen, it has poor eyesight but an acute sense of smell alerts it to predators. A calf is born after a gestation period of nine months.
Legend has it that at the cost of their lives, the Bishnois of Rajasthan fought to protect the fleet-footed Black Buck from royal hunters. This beautiful animal develops a striking black and white pattern after reaching maturity at the age of three. In summer, its color fades to a pale brown. It is found in few, scattered herds, in semi-desert and open grasslands where it grazes on cereal crops and lives in gregarious herds.
Large deer, with stags weighing 170 kg or more and a shoulder height of 125 cm. The antlers sweep upwards for more than half their length before branching into 12 tines, from which their Hindi name Barasinga is derived.
At one time these deer ranged through the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra basins and as far south as the Godavari. Today they are seen only in a few reserves- Kaziranga, Dudwa in UP and Sukla Phanta in Nepal. These reserves support a total of about 3,000 animals. These are social animals, often seen in herds of a hundred. They prefer to graze near water and are threatened because their natural habitat has been given over almost completely to agriculture. Kautilya had special laws for horned animals. He prescribed that the owner of such an animal was to be punished if it caused the injury or death of a man. But when a person caused the death of the animal he had not only to pay a fine equal to the value of the destroyed animal but also to make up its value to its owner. This law held good for tusked animals as well.
A deer is so small (12″ high) that it is often called the Mouse Deer. The male has a pair of downward-pointing canines that look like tiny tusks. This timid and gentle creature lives in mixed evergreen and deciduous forests. It evades predators by hiding under bushes and has even been seen darting up the trunk of a tree when chased by dogs!
A solitary creature, it feeds both day and night on fruit and vegetation found on the ground and when it is hot or thirsty it pants like a dog. It is a silent animal and there is no call by which it is known. The Mouse Deer has a rather peculiar habit – it sometimes lies upside down in the hollow of tree.
Muntjac or Barking Deer
Called Kakar, it has short, single stemmed antlers meeting in a ridge on the nose. It is a small creature, growing to a height of 50 to 75cm. Muntjac live in pairs in a small home range where, unlike other deer, they breed through the year. The Indian species is also remarkable in having the smallest number of chromosomes in any mammal, the female having six and the male, seven. They live in thickly wooded hilly country and are quite courageous and aggressive, even fighting leopards if attacked. The Muntjac has a doglike alarm bark from which it gets its name, Barking Deer.
Called Kastura Mushk in Hindi, it is classified somewhere between the deer and antelope families. A little creature, standing just 20″ at the shoulder and harmless, it lives on snow mountain slopes and birch forests. These shy creatures live singly or in pairs, scraping out a shallow in which they live during the day. They come out to feed on lichen and grass morning and evening. Hunted for their precious musk gland (used in the manufacture of perfumes), these creatures are highly endangered.
Apart from the common, domestic cat, a number of interesting species are found in India. The Fishing Cat uses its well-developed webbed forefeet to catch fish. It lives in forests up to 1,500 m in the Himalayas. Bengal, UP, Orissa and the west coast and in grassy swamps and reed beds near rivers and tidal creeks. It preys on any animal or bird it can catch.
The Marbled Cat is about 3 ft in length, half of which is tail! With its striped and spotted coat, this cat looks like a smaller version of the Clouded Leopard. The Leopard Cat is a rather small animal with the total length of its head and body just under 2 ft, in which its tail accounts for more than half. It is found in forests throughout the country. It eats small animals and birds. Other cats found in India are the Golden jungle and Desert Cats.
This magnificent beast once roamed all of central and north India but is now confined to a small, isolated pocket in the teak forest of Gir in Kathiawar, numbering no more than 200. Parvati, Shiva’s wife, rides the lion (Simha) in her benign form, Vidya Maya. Simha is a zodiac sign corresponding to the western Leo. Budha, one of the Navagrahas or the nine planetary deities worshipped together in the temples, also rides upon a lion.
Civets are solitary, nocturnal animals with elongated weasel-like bodies. Their diet is completely carnivorous and after spending their day in hiding they come out in the dark to hunt small birds, mammals and reptiles. Their snouts are particularly long, housing 32 to 34 teeth. The Palm Civet, found in India, with a tail as long as its body is commonly called the Toddy Cat due to its preference for fermented toddy. Its claws are well-adapted for climbing. If disturbed, the Palm Civet leaves behind a foul odor.
About the same size as the Snow Leopard, the Clouded Leopard weighs about 40 to 45 lbs. It has enormous upper canine teeth which are closest amongst living cats to the great tusks of the extinct Sabre-toothed Tiger. The largely arboreal Clouded Leopard is found in dense evergreen Himalayan forests and in Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. It hunts by night. Its teeth help it seize relatively large animals.
Amazingly adaptable, leopards, the most versatile of the cat family are found from the snowline to sea level, in dry arid deserts and rain forests. Unlike tigers, they can live on small prey like birds and rodents. Considerably slimmer than the tiger they are incredibly supple and agile and can quite easily drag their kill, almost twice their body weight, up a perpendicular tree trunk. Leopards are excellent swimmers and use their tail in the manner of a crocodile. Loss of habitat and poaching has placed the leopard on the endangered list. In mythology, Bhairava, a form of Shiva, is the lord of the cremation grounds and rides on the back of a leopard.
One of the most beautiful but elusive cats, the Snow Leopard or Ounce is found in the high rocky terrain of the Himalayas above 12,000 ft. It hunts at night, preying on wild sheep and goats, musk deer, hare, marmots and other rodents. With the onset of winter, the Snow Leopard comes down to altitudes as low as 6,000 ft and establishes its territory near human settlements. It is on the list of highly endangered animals.
The tiger evokes excitement like no other animal does. Sleek, graceful, silent and secretive, tigers have become synonymous with power, aggression and beauty. The tiger population has rapidly declined from approximately 40,000 at the start of the century to less than 1,400 in 1972. This is largely due to excessive hunting. Once a common sight across the length and breadth of the country, tigers are now found only in sanctuaries and National Parks like Corbett, Kanha, Ranthambore and Sariska.
In 1972, Project Tiger was launched in nine reserves, as an attempt at redressed. Tigers now number approximately 4.000.
Called Uluk in Hindi, the Hoolock or White browed Gibbon is the only ape found in India. It is a rather small tailless animal, standing around 3 ft high with long antis, more than twice the length of its legs. Hoolocks live in hill forests in close knit family groups of about six, each with a distinct territory in the forests of Assam. A family follows the same trail every day in its search of fruit, insects, leaves, grubs and spiders.
The father is content with a single mate and the mother takes great care of her young. The mating season is early in the monsoon and the young are born in the cold weather between December and March. These apes are much more agile than their larger relatives and walk upright with their arms stretched out to maintain balance. The Hoolock has a characteristic huk-huk-huk whooping call from which it is said to get its name.
The monkey that you see in tinsel and rags, performing tricks on the street is the Rhesus Macaque, the commonest monkey in India. It is found in jungles and in cities and over a period of time adapts to human beings. It forages for food mostly on the ground and as such is less dependent on trees than other macaques.
The rarest macaque is the Lion-tailed Macaque of the Silent Valley rain forest in Kerala. With its black face framed by a fringe of golden fur and a long tail that looks much like a lion’s, this shy, secretive monkey, is one of endangered species because its habitat is rapidly disappearing.
Langurs derive their name from the Sanskrit ‘Langulin’ or long-tailed. Five species are found in the Indian subcontinent from altitudes of 4,500 m to about sea level. The commonest is the Hanuman Langur and the rarest and most recently discovered, is the Golden Langur found in northwest Assam. The others are the Capped, Nilgiri and Purple faced Langurs, found essentially in Sri Lanka.
Langurs live in two kinds of social groups – bisexual mixed reproductive groups or all male groups which sometimes attack the mixed groups and drive away the dominant male. When this happens, the invading male asserts his supremacy by killing as many nurslings as possible which brings the mother back into the sexual cycle.
The Ramayana epic has a legend about Hanuman, Rama’s langur devotee in the battle against Ravana, who set Lanka on fire with his tail. The celibate Hanuman is popularly worshipped as the strong protector, Bajrang Bali.
Slow Loris and Slender Loris
The Slow Loris (Sharmindi Billi, shy cat, in Hindi) is a small nocturnal creature with enormous eyes and a stump for a tail. Its head is almost as big as its body -1 ft to 1.4 ft. Found in the dense forests of Assam and Chittagong, this shy animal is rarely seen and little is known about its habits. During the day the Slow Loris sleeps curled up like a ball. It eats fruit, leaves and insects hanging upside down from the branch of a tree. The Slender Loris is even smaller than the Slow Loris, a mere 8″ to 10″ in length, with no tail. It rarely weighs more than 10 to 12 oz. It is found in south India and has the same nocturnal, secretive habits as the Slow Loris.
This huge, tusked, thick-skinned mammal uses its long flexible trunk rather like a human being uses his hands. Its natural habitat is in the semi-tropical forests of Assam, north Bihar, UP, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala which has the famous Periyar elephant reserve. Elephants have long been domesticated and used to shift logs and shunt railway wagons. The forest department too uses elephants to carry tourists. Their number has declined alarmingly over the last decade because of loss of habitat and poaching for the ivory trade.
A creation myth in the Sathapatha Brahmana tells how the elephant was made. Aditi’s eighth son, Martanda was born deformed. When Aditi shaped him, her seven sons threw away the spare flesh which became the elephant. Because of this creation, the elephant is said to partake of the nature of man. The elephant is also associated with rain clouds and the Sanskrit word naga means both elephant and cloud.
Elephants were widely used as transport and war animals and were a symbol of power and wealth. In the Post Vedic period, the king himself would consecrate the state elephant with a ritual baptism and a special staff was allocated to Airavata, the white elephant which took part in royal pilgrimages and festivals. The Agni Purana also mentions a rite in which a figure of an elephant is made from mud taken from an anthill. The elephant-headed god Ganesha is the most beloved and popular of Hindu deities.
Of the five species of rhinoceros in the world, only the Greater one-horned Indian Rhino is found here. It is now an endangered species with a population of less than 1,500, restricted almost entirely to eight small protected areas in Assam, West Bengal and Nepal, notably the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
Both the male and female have a single horn (of hardened hair) on the nose which grows 15 to 45 cm in length. The rhino is hunted for this horn which is believed to be an aphrodisiac. It also has a pair of tusk-like lower incisors which it uses in combat, in preference to the horn.
The Royal Bengal Tiger
These herbivores are solitary by nature and move around singly or in small groups with the most permanent association being between the cow and her calf.
These relatively primitive mammals hunt at night by smell for insects. There are four species on the subcontinent: The Pale and the Long eared Hedgehog, in the Rann of Kutch and the Afghan and the Blanford in the dry foothills west of the Indus valley. Hedgehogs can live in arid environments where they are active in the summer and monsoon and generally hibernate in winter in colder regions.
During the day, desert Hedgehogs sleep in burrows or in crevices in the rocks. They are voracious eaters, even attacking and overcoming venomous snakes and scorpions, though they also eat fruit, eggs and nestlings. When approached or threatened, the hedgehog rolls itself into a tight ball. Occasionally though, a wolf is swift enough to catch it before its defense mechanism comes into play.
Indian Wild Dog
A pack animal, called Dhole in Hindi. The pack, an extended family of 5 to 12 animals, is maintained at a fairly constant number as breeding is restricted to one female per pack. They hunt in the morning and evening. Prey includes chital, hare, deer and even larger animals which they attack on the rump and flank. Wild Dogs communicate by whistling, mainly to reassemble the pack after they have dispersed. Their community spirit is seen in the fact that the entire pack participates in feeding the lactating bitch and her pups. Dholes are poisoned by jungle dwellers. As a result, they have dwindled vastly in numbers.
The Indian Wolf is smaller and shorter- haired than its cousins in North America and Eurasia. In the last 50 years with the spread of agriculture the wolf population has lost much of its habitat. They now survive only in the remote regions of Rajasthan, Gilgit and Ladakh. They are often killed by man as they are a threat to his flock.
Wolves hunt essentially at night, covering distances of 20 km in search of prey. During the day they shelter in natural rock caves or burrows which they excavate. Recent studies show that wolves mate for life. The male helps to feed the pups when they are young. The lifespan of a wolf is 15 years.
The small town of Kombai in Madurai is the home the famous Kombai or Poligar dog. Poligars were rulers of a palayam, a small territory. Kombais are very powerful, muscular dogs with incredible speed. In days gone by they were used for hunting and guarding. They are very gentle with children and make perfect pets.
Known as the Greyhound of Maharashtra, it is smaller than the English Greyhound and makes a good watchdog. The Mudhol is usually bred and sold by a nomadic tribe called the Vadharis. Mudhol hounds are sleek, elegant, black and tan dogs. A pointed head, long muscular neck and bright, intelligent eyes characterize the Mudhol. With well-muscled shoulders and thighs and neat, compact feet, these hounds weigh about 9 to 14 kg.
A beautiful ivory-colored dog from Tamil Nadu, it weighs about 120 lbs and looks somewhat like the Great Dane. It has a deep chest, pink nose and golden eyes. It is a hunting dog, good at cornering and killing wild boar.
Rampur Hounds, said to be of Persian Greyhound descent were very popular with the Mughals. The Rampur Hound is very handsome with its sleek body, strong skull and deep chest.