Monday, March 16, 2015

Killing Tides

India represents 5 species of sea turtles i.e. Olive Ridley, Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, Loggerhead Turtle and Latherback Turtle. Of these, except the Latherback, other four are reported from the coast of West Bengal. The sea turtle habitat of West Bengal is represented by a 50km coastline of Purba Medinipur district and the sea facing islands of Sundarban Biosphere Reserve. The coast line of Purba Medinipur is a densely populated area with no forest cover except the casurina plantation in a few areas. So the area is not suitable for sea turtle nesting. Thus only a few individual nests were recorded over the years. The sea facing islands of Sundarban are devoid of any human habitation, and has good forest cover with sandy beaches. They are protected areas also. So, these islands harbor a few hundred nests each year. Only Olive Ridley nests were reported from West Bengal. Thus we can see that the whole coastal zone of West Bengal don’t have much nesting activity. But still it is an important turtle habitat mainly for Olive Ridleys mainly because of neighboring areas. Within 100kms from this here is Gahirmatha Rookery, which is one of the few mass nesting site for Olive Ridley turtles in the world. Thus the coastal water of West Bengal see much turtle movement from September-October to May-June.

The sea turtles of this area have always faced many threats. Some of the most severe threats were the commercial trade of turtle meat and eggs and incidental trapping in fishing nets. Though the activities of forest dept have much reduced the commercial trade of turtle meat, this trade has not stopped totally. Turtle death due to incidental catch in gill nets of trawlers has not reduced much. To reduce catching, forest dept has restricted trawling in few protected areas. Coast guard has also started patrolling from 1990. TED (Turtle Excluder Device) has also been introduced to reduce the no of death. But for various reasons, TED has not seen much acceptance in fishing communities. Thus most of the vessels don’t use TED in their fishing nets. So turtle get struck in fishing nets and eventually die. As the commercial trade of turtle meat is banned, the fishermen through away the dead turtles in the sea. These turtles wash up ashore. In the nesting season, the coast of West Bengal and Orissa fills with dead turtles.

As the commercial trade of sea turtle has shown a declining trend, we should also try to reduce turtle death due to incidental catch. All the 7 species of sea turtles that are found around the world are facing the danger of extinction. Though Olive Ridley is one of the numerous species of them, this does not mean they are not in danger. The coast of Orissa, the neighboring state has some of the few mass nesting site of Olive Ridley in the world and the costal water of Orissa also faces the same threats that the costal water of West Bengal faces. So, we should look for ways to minimize the threats for sea turtles otherwise they will go extinct like many other species.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Turtle Meat Trade

Turtle and tortoises are fascinating creatures. They have amused us with their appearance and behavior from ancient times. That’s why they were depicted in cave paintings and folklores. In Hindu Mythology, Lord Bishnu had an incarnation as a turtle. And in another literature we find mention of a turtle on whose back the earth is resting. In Aesop’s fables of ancient Greece, we find a story of a competition between a turtle and a rabbit. Turtles are kept in ponds and water bodies besides Hindu temples as good oman. Not only in folklore and religious texts, turtles have been mentioned in Ayurbeda medicinal practices. Turtle meat and eggs were relished by people from old times. But none of these have become the reason for their near extinction until the commercial trade of turtle meat has gained ground.

Of the 26 species that are found in India, 22 are under commercial pressure of various magnitudes. But the species which faces the maximum pressure is Indian Flapshell Turtle or Indian Mud Turtle (Lissemys punctata). It has three sub-species in India. L. p. punctata is found in Kerala, Tamilnadu etc states. L. p. andersoni is found in Pakistan, North India, Southern Nepal, upto Bangladesh and Mayanmar through Brahmaputra valley in the east. L. p. vita is distributed from southern Gujrat through Karnataka, Andhrapradesh, upto Orrissa in the east. So it seems the turtle is distributed in whole India except the state, Kashmir. Also as it mostly stays in areas near human habitation, it is one of the most popular turtle too.

The main reason of its wide distribution is its choice of habitat. It is a generalist when it comes to the choice of habitats. It is found in various type of wetlands like river, canal, pond, lake, paddy field even in drains, manholes of many cities. Though it is a fresh water species, it can bear with moderate level of saltwater. That’s why it is also found in estuaries of Sundarban, Bhitarkanika, Kuringa etc places. But it prefers swallow waters. It is also a generalist in terms of prey preference. Its food list includes frog, tadpole, fish, earthworm, crustaceans, molascs, waterplants, and many other things. It also scavenge on dead bodies and keep water bodies clean. Like many other reptiles, turtle also hibernates. In North India hibernation occurs between November and February. Another very interesting behavior seen in these turtles is aestivation. In summer months, if the water body dries up, they leave it and find another one. But if drought has dried up all the water bodies then these turtles aestivate inside mud. Many times this behavior proves to be a life saving one. Time of mating differs in these turtles locality wise. But everywhere it is related with Monsoon. Generally in North India, mating occurs in the month of April-June and egg laying occurs in the month of September-November.  An average clutch contains 9-15eggs. Incubation period is 270-350 days.

Commercial harvesting and selling of turtles has not gained much popularity until the seventies. Turtles were exploited but in a local scale. Mainly the fisherman folks were involved in this. But after seventies the situation changed rapidly. A racket came into play for commercial harvesting and selling of turtles in various places. All species of turtles were exploited but mainly Asian Giant Softshell Turtle, River Terrapin, Gangetic Softshell Turtle, Indian Mud Turtle were exploited most. The first two species are almost extinct in their natural habitat because of this commercial pressure. Now the other two species are mostly found in market. In this trade, Howrah has become one of the main trade center from the beginning. Turtles were transported here from Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Assam. Previously train was the main transport option used by this trade. It was easier to hide the turtles in fish parcels. This trade has peaked in the eighties. In 1991, forest dept has seized 4448 turtles from Kolkata of which 4053 were Indian Mud Turtle. 2926 nos of turtle were seized from Kolkata in 1992 of which 2732 were Indian Mud Turtle. In an average approximately 50-60 thousand turtles were sold in Howrah market alone every year. Later by the activeness of Forest Dept turtle meat trade has gone underground. The main market has now shifted from Howrah to sub-urban areas and Bangladesh border. The transportation system has also shifted towards Bus and Truck. This has somewhat reduced the size of the trade, but it did not stop the trade all together. Till now trucks are seized in various parts of India carrying turtles.

Indian Mud Turtle enjoys the ‘Schedule I’ protection of Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which is the highest protection in our country.  Though, only legal protection has never saved any species from extinction. One bright side of its wide distribution is that many National Parks and Sanctuaries are within its range which will protect a healthy population of this species. One very interesting fact is that in spite of this severe pressure from commercial exploitation, this turtle has hold its ground in almost all its range. Still it is a ‘common’ species in most of its range. Now only time and our actions will tell how long can it retain its ‘common’ status, or become extinct in its natural habitat just like River Terrapin.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

New Year Gift ( Yellow Speckled Wolf Snake)

This day I got a call from a friend asking me if I would collect a snake they have captured or would they kill it. And I certainly told him to keep the snake for me. Then I asked him about the description of the snake and came to know that it is a green snake with spots on it. I was not sure which snake it was from the description but as it is not similar to any venomous snakes found here locally, I told him, “it is probably a non-venomous snake but still don’t touch it.”

This conversation happened in the morning and I was told to pick up the snake in the evening. The whole day I was thinking about the snake but could not decide what it could be and in the evening when I received the snake, reality exceeded all my expectations! It was a small snake, approximately 12”-14” long with brownish green back and white belly. Moreover it had two yellow spots on each scale. And I shouted in joy, “it’s a yellow-speckled wolf snake!!!!” whenever I saw its photo in books and various online groups, I wished to see one in real life but its distribution is so limited that I never thought I would see one ever, that too in my hometown. It was 2nd January and all I could think was that this was the best new year gift ever.

Yellow Speckled Wolf Snake ( Lycodon jara ) is a non-venomous snake found from West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh and Ganjam district of Orissa in India and also from Nepal and Bangladesh. The maximum length recorded is 22”. It’s a smooth scaled, slender bodied snake. The head is slightly broader than the neck like all other wolf snakes. The upper side varies from glossy brown to purplish black. Belly side is white in color. Almost all the scales on its back have two yellow spots on them and thus the name. Sometime the spots are white in color. Very little is known about this snake. Only that it is a nocturnal snake and it eats geckos.
From my personal observation I found that this snake prefers corners and crevices than open place. Though it is a nocturnal snake, given a choice to stay between a dark open place and a bright corner, it feels more secure in the corner. It also hides its head slightly under its body coil like a few other wolf snakes. “And unlike the Common Wolf Snake, not tempermental and usually does not bite when handled.” Though the previous line was written for a few other wolf snakes like Barred Wolf Snake in the book ‘Snakes of India, The Field Guide’, I found it perfectly suitable for this one too.

When I released it in my own front yard, it was very quick to vanish from my eye and I am sure not to see it again ever though it is just in front of my house. Snakes have evolved to stay hidden so good that we often don’t realize how many snakes are there around us. That is infact in the benefit of both of us. Otherwise we would have killed all the snakes if we had the chance, or atleast that is the mentality of many of us. But it is good to know that people are changing. Thank you Utpal Das for this wonderful new year gift.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Snake Dancing dilema

For the last few years, I was getting information about an age old tradition of snake dancing on a particular date of year but could not locate the place or date in specific. This year the situation was different. Few of my friends have already got the information and asked me if I am interested to go with them or not. I had no reason to reject them, so I hopped on their bike and off we go.

It was a very interior village and I am not disclosing the name because I don’t want to promote this practice. Anyway when we reached there, first we located the people who actually do the performance. By talking with them we came to know about many things. This snake dancing on the occasion of Lakhsmi Puja (a celebration of the goddess of wealth) is almost 150yrs old. All through the rainy season they catch the snakes in and around their village. And they only catch Monocellate Cobra and Spectacled Cobra because of their spectacular hood display. Then on this occasion, they perform the snake dancing for 3 consecutive days and release the snakes in the nearby river. (well, I was skeptical about how many snake will survive after the release.) Just before the ceremony, the organizers have emptied the venom glands of the snakes by making them bite repeatedly into papaya stalk. This way the dancers will not have to worry about the bites they may receive during the show.

At the scheduled time they transferred all the snakes to a small stage that was set in the fair ground. Each snake was in its own earthen pot. There were total 30-40 snakes of various size and age group but all are mostly adult only a few sub-adults. Then they started the show. There were 3-4 performers on the stage and a few other men to assist them. Performers were bringing out snakes one by one, played with them a little bit, then put it into its pot. It was a modest show. The music was deafening. A big crowd had gathered around the stage and they were very enthusiastic. Dancers were playing with 1-2 snakes at a time. Even I noticed to get bitten a few times but they didn’t care. This went on for approximately half an hour and came to an end.

One thing struck in my mind, most of the snakes were injured. They have injury on their head and several places on their body. If this is the type of performance that I saw was going on, then they don’t have any chance of having that extent of injuries. When I expressed my concern to my friends, they showed me the pictures from the first day of the event. This took me by surprise.

People are holding 5-8 snakes together over their head. Snakes are biting each other ferociously; they are biting the performers also. Blood was seen everywhere. The performers were even seen rolling on the stage over the snakes, which is severely dangerous for the snakes. I was wondering how this could go on un-noticed by the forest dept. Then from a member of the organizers I came to know that forest dept had stopped the program for 3 years in the past. But like all other activity in our country, they had made some arrangement with the local forest dept. So I guess this will go on for another few years in the future.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Living Fossil, Himalayan Newt

This year Durga Puja was a bit different. I didn’t go to pandels to see goddess Durga but went to a small mountain village to see an animal which is the only representative of its family in india. It is Himalayan Newt. Though it is not uncommon in Darjeeling Himalayas, we choose Namthing Lake as there is an established conservation site of Himalayan Newts, which greatly increases our chance of seeing one.

When we reached Namthing Pokhri, it was raining. Rain may be a disturbance for us humans but being an amphibian, it is a happy time for Himalayan Newts. We searched the lake for it but with no success. In the next day we went to the site again but this time we didn’t took chance and asked the local people for help. This time after a few minutes of searching, yes, it was there. To be truthful, in the first impression it looked very ugly.

Himalayan Newt, Tylototriton verrucosus, is an amphibian. It also has a tail. So, it looks like a hybrid between a lizard and a toad. It has a moist, warty skin, a laterally compressed tail for swimming and well developed limbs for walking. Its total length is from 130-200mm of which almost half the length is tail. It has a dark brown coloration which helps it to stay hidden in the submerged vegetation during the day. But in the breeding time the males sport a orange red belly color, which they use to attract females. It is a nocturnal animal so it comes out of water in the night to feed on the ground. It generally eats insects, earth worms, tadpoles etc. in India it is found in  North Bengal, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.

Though it is a lower animal, it too has an elaborate courtship ritual. First the male shows its orange red belly color to the approaching female. Then the ritual begins. The male also calls like frogs and toads but in a lower pitch. After the ritual male grabs the female by the foreleg and stay mounted for an hour. Male then deposit a bag of sperm which the female picks up with her anal opening. Then the female lays eggs in the submerged vegetation of a stagnant pool.

One more interesting thing about this animal is its regeneration power. We all have seen how geckos lose their tail and regenerate but Himalayan Newt have gone further and can regenerate even a bitten limb.

Like all the other amphibians Himalayan Newt also hibernates in the winter season to hide from the cold weather. It generally buries itself into the soil 6” to several feet deep. But this cannot save it from the other enemies like habitat destruction, use of pesticide or the fungal infection. So the future does not look  very bright for this little creature which came to earth even before the dinosaurs.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Jumping Chicken (Frog Meat Trade)

A few days back when I was browsing Facebook, I stumbled upon an interesting cartoon. It was about frog meat industry. I got interested and tried to find out more. A little bit of searching and reading brought out some anxious facts.
image courtesy:
In contrary to my belief that only tribal and rural people eats frogs, it is a delicacy among the people of 1st world countries. Even they have depleted their frog population so much that they are forced to import it from third world countries of Latin America and South-east Asia. Currently Indonesia is the biggest exporter of frog legs. It exports about 142 million frogs each year and about 7times of this number is consumed in the country. Thailand, China, Malaysia, Brazil and several other countries also exports frog legs. Frog legs are popular in south east Asian countries but they are in huge demand in countries like France, Italy, USA etc. even Mr. Barak Obama was seen eating frog legs in a party. This demand has resulted in the disappearance of many frog species and several other species have become rare. A few countries have set up frog farms to supply the demand but still most of the frogs come from the wild.
image courtesy: Getty images
What is the actual impact of this? A few years back India was the biggest exporter of frog legs. This trade was so popular that frogs were called jumping chicken. But India has banned this trade in 1987. Bangladesh has also banned it in 1990. They must have good reasons to so. This frog meat trade does not affect all frog species. It only targets the bigger species. In India, the targeted species were Indian Pond Frog(Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis), Indian Bull Frog(Hoplobatrachus tigerinus), Jerdon’s Bull Frog(Hoplobatrachus crassus). Frogs are a natural insecticide. They eat a whole lot of insects, molluscs and other things that damages our crop production. And the bigger the frog, the more insect it can eat. Not only in frog stage, in the tadpole stage also it helps us by cleaning up the water. Now when we picked up frogs from the environment, the insect population multiplied considerably and crop damage also have increased. The problem became so severe in India that the revenue lost due to crop damage far exceeded the revenue generated through frog leg exporting. Same thing has happened with Bangladesh and same thing will happen with the other countries too. Frogs are an important part of our eco-system and removing them from it is not a wise decision.
Indian Bull Frog
15yrs after banning the trade, frog population in India has revived itself and the species are not in danger anymore. But thanks to Mr. Manjunath Sullolli an image from Goa brings out the question again, “has the trade really stopped in India?” Actually as long as there will be demand in the market, some people will always be ready to supply. If only we can change our taste for frog meat, the frogs can really be saved.
image courtesy: Mr. Manjunath Sullolli

Saturday, June 16, 2012

10 points to avoid snakebite

As the rainy season is approaching, the interaction with snakes is about to increase for everyone. But as it is not desirable for most of us, a simple few steps could help us avoid them altogether. It will also save many lives of both men and snakes.

Conflicts with snakes mainly happen at two places, inside the house and outside the house. Let us first understand why snakes enter houses. Snakes enter mainly for two reasons, to hunt and to take shelter. Snakes often enter houses to hunt for rats, mice and toads that take refuse in our houses. Another reason is taking shelter. Snakes, like other reptiles go into hibernation, i.e. a long period of inactivity, for 2-3 months in the winter season. So they look for places where they can safely hibernate and keep out from the winter chill. The same thing happens in summer too. To beat the heat they try to find a cool shaded place to aestivate. In nature snakes seek out places like underground tunnels, under fallen trees or brunches, under big stones etc. human homes offer perfect alternatives of these in the form of cluttered corners, unused rooms, under the stairs, behind the almirah etc.

And out side the house conflicts happen when people accidentally step on them or go near them. Snakes generally hunt in the morning and evening when the temperature of the atmosphere is moderate. In the noon, when the temperature is high snakes take rest under dry leaves, under fallen logs, inside holes in tree trunks, under the exposed roots etc.

So if we sum up the points, it will go like these.

  1. Free our homes from rats and toads by using poison, traps, hand picking etc.
  2. Clean the house and neighborhood and see that no garbage is staying for too long like pile of bricks, heap of firewood etc.
  3. Snakes don’t like the smell of carbolic acid, bleaching powder etc. so using these around houses can reduce incoming of snakes.
  4. People generally get bitten at night because they don’t see the snake in dark and step on it accidentally. So using a flashlight in snake infested areas in the night will reduce snake bite.
  5. Generally people get bitten on the foot. So using a ankle high shoe can reduce snake bite also.
  6. As snakes take rest under exposed tree roots, under heap of dry leaves etc, we should be careful when passing them or stepping on them.
  7. In the harvesting season snakes gather around the fields to hunt rats because rats gather in great numbers to collect food grain. So be careful when roaming in the field especially in the harvesting season.
  8. Snakes generally bite only when it is cornered. So if you accidentally come near a snake, give it room to escape and it will escape at the first chance.
  9. Most ground dwelling snakes don’t have very good eyesight; they feel our presence through vibration on ground. So in front of a snake, if we stay still, it wont be able to recognise our presence and eventually it will go.
  10. Snakes like the warmth of our body and blankets and hide in our beds. As a result, many people get bitten while they are sleeping and if the bite is from a Krait, you wont even feel the bite. So always check the carefully before going to bed and use a mosquito net.

You see these 10 points are no rocket science. They are just general awareness that we need to maintain. And you will be surprised to see the result of it. It will surely lower the chance of getting bitten by a snake. So keep safe and enjoy monsoon.