Pitchandikulam’s wildlife specialist Dr Bubesh Gupta was one of the key experts working on the recent Telangana State wildlife survey. Here, we meet two fascinating animals identified as endangered in this report.
Have you ever heard of the Slender Loris or Indian Pangolin? Excluding of course those with special interest and knowledge of wildlife and conservation – many of us would be hard-pressed to identify them and for the general public, they are certainly not household names.
Whilst some of the more ‘iconic’ species such as the Bengal Tiger and the Asian Elephant rightly receive much media attention and priority conservation status, we’d like to introduce you to the two lesser known, yet equally fascinating creatures who are currently suffering a similar fate here in India, with their numbers declining at an alarming rate.
Slender Loris and Indian Pangolin, along with the tiger and Indian wild dog or Dhole, were identified as endangered in the recently completed wildlife survey of the newly formed Telangana State (until 2014 part of Andhra Pradesh) and they are on the ‘Red List’ of endangered species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
Pitchandikulam’s wildlife specialist Dr Bubesh Gupta was one of the key experts working on the Telangana wildlife survey which assessed the number, frequency and endangered status of animals in this central Indian state. As in many other parts of India, over 80% of the original forest cover has been cleared for agriculture, timber harvesting, or cattle grazing, but large blocks of forest can be found in Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve and elsewhere, which are rich in biodiversity and home to some magnificent plant and animal life. Detailed surveys such as this are crucial starting points for any restoration and conservation project, and only with accurate data it is possible to make the right decisions and implement sustainable measures that really work.
Habitat restoration and plant and animal conservation have been at the very heart of Pitchandikulam’s work over the past 45 years, and we are delighted to have the chance to offer some of what we have learned beyond our own bioregion and assist other conservation projects across India.
So now back to our incredible animal friends, the two fascinating and important species worth saving.
Slender Loris (Loris lyddekerianus)
Commonly found in the tropical scrub and deciduous forests as well as the dense hedgerow plantations bordering farmlands of Southern India and Sri Lanka, the Slender Loris is a small, nocturnal primate. It prefers to inhabit thick, thorny bushes and bamboo clumps where it can evade predators and also find insects, which is the main diet.
These animals are about 25 cm long and have long, thin arms. They weigh around 275 grams. They have a small, vestigial tail. Their most prominent feature is the pair of two large, closely set, brown eyes. Being arboreal, they spend most of their life on the trees. Though their movements are slow, they can climb up fast to the tree top when threatened. They either hunt on their own or in pairs. They are known to be very social at dusk and dawn, interacting with others of their own.
Apart from insects they are also known to eat leaves, flowers, slugs and sometimes eggs of birds. Among the strange habits they have is the urine washing of their face and limbs, which is thought to soothe or defend against the sting of the toxic insects they prefer to eat.
These animals face a threat from poachers due to the belief that they have magical and medicinal powers. This hunting, along with destruction of their habitat, is their major threat. There are no confirmed numbers on how many slender lorises survive in the wild. They are one of the least studied of all primates in India.
- Slender lorises roll up in a ball to rest and sleep curled up tightly with their head tucked between their hind legs as they cling to a branch.
- Slender lorises are incapable of jumping even short distances, but they can bridge significant gaps in the trees with their long limbs.
- Female slender lorises hang upside-down during mating.
- Female slender lorises have two pairs of mammary glands.
- Slender lorises are often referred to as “bananas on stilts”
- Slender lorises’ main form of defense is to freeze until the danger passes. They can remain in this frozen stance for hours to avoid detection!
- They are hunted for their eyes, which are believed to have medicinal properties, and they are occasionally sold as pets
The Indian Pangolin or the thick-tailed pangolin (Manis crassicaudata)
Pangolins, often called “scaly anteaters,” are covered in around 13 rows of sharp, tough, overlapping moveable scales, making it the most effective armour in the mammalian world. These burrowing mammals eat ants and termites using an extraordinarily long, sticky tongue, and are able to quickly roll themselves up into a tight ball when threatened. Its extraordinary tongue is longer than its body, and is specially adapted for reaching and lapping up insects in deep crevices. To tear open the anthills or termite mounds, it uses the powerful forelimbs that are armed with three disproportionately long claws. In sharp contrast, the hind legs have tough soles and short, blunt nails on the five toes.
Eight different pangolin species can be found across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Poaching for illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss have made these incredible creatures one of the most endangered groups of mammals in the world.
Major threats to pangolins in India are hunting and poaching for local consumptive use (e.g. as a protein source and traditional medicine) and international trade, for its meat and scales in East and South East Asian countries, particularly China and Vietnam.
They are a creature like no other, one of nature’s curiosities, and the world would be poorer without them.
- The pangolin’s closest relatives are carnivores, but they are the only mammals that are covered in scales.
- Pangolin scales are made of keratin, just like our finger nails, and make up 20 per cent of their body weight.
- The word ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay word ‘penggulung’, which means ‘one that rolls up’. When it is threatened a pangolin will curl itself into a tight ball, which is impenetrable to predators.
- The mammal can consume up to 20,000 ants a day. That’s about 73 million ants a year!
- Pangolins can close their ears and nostrils using strong muscles. This helps protect them from ant attacks.
- They have long, sticky tongues, which are often longer than their body and attached near its pelvis and last pair of ribs. If a pangolin fully extends its tongue, it is longer than the animal’s head and body!
- Pangolins don’t have teeth, so they can’t chew. Instead, they have keratinous spines in their stomach and swallow stones that help them grind up their food in much the same manner as a bird’s gizzard.
- Pangolins are hunted for meat, for use in traditional medicine and as fashion accessories. The large-scale illegal trade in Asian pangolins is drastically driving down their numbers.