Arid deserts and scrublands, wet and dry grasslands, tropical and temperate forests – the Indian subcontinent is blessed with a unique mix of habitats, diverse geographies, and microclimates. Not surprisingly, hundreds of species are found here, and nowhere else in the world. Yet, much of India’s biodiversity lies neglected. Some species remain poorly studied or monitored, some yet undiscovered, and almost all impacted by the relentless destruction of steadily disappearing habitats. The IUCN Red List 2018 tells us that 683 species of fauna and a fourth of all flora in India are endemic. The evolution of some was shaped by reproductive isolation, divergence, or hybridisation (neoendemism). The Narcondam Hornbill is, for instance, an endemic of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Though fairly similar in appearance, it is distinct from its mainland relatives, the Blyth’s Hornbills of Indonesia and New Guinea. Some, like the purple frog, were forced into isolation when their widespread populations became restricted and eventually confined to a smaller area (paleoendemism). Found only in the Western Ghats, the purple frog has been evolving independent of its closest relatives, the Sooglossidae frogs of the Seychelles. Climate change and the mismanagement of habitats endanger the survival of all the species listed here.
Sanctuary’s Assistant Editors, Divya Kilikar and Abinaya Kalyanasundaram picked out a few of India’s lesser-known endemics to showcase the stunning diversity of our beautiful country.
Not the largest deer, but the sangai, or brow-antlered deer, is large by human standards. Geographic isolation has resulted in a genetically distinct subspecies. Weighing close to 100 kg., with a body length of 1.5 m., a precariously small population survives in a tiny 15 sq. km. patch of “floating” vegetation in the Keibul Lamjao National Park. Located in Bishnupur district, Manipur, south of the saucer-shaped Loktak lake, the much-loved deer that inhabit this Ramsar site are referred to as “dancing deer” after their prancing gait. The humus-rich phumdis are buoyant grasslands that float on water. As the deer walk, these organic rafts bob up and down under their weight making it look as though they are dancing! Mitochondrial DNA sequencing has confirmed that the sangai is a genetically distinct species.
When the monsoon descends, the sangai habitat floods and shrinks further. The phumdis that settle down during the lean season, are now perpetually afloat, because of the increased water levels post the construction of the ill-advised Ithai barrage built by the National Hydro-Electric Power Corporation Limited. A study published in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment in February 2021 reveals that impacts of the climate crisis is likely to negatively affect the habitat within a few short decades.
The endangered sangai must also compete for resources with the hog deer and wild boar. The isolated population faces the perpetual risk of disease susceptibility and low genetic variability on account of inbreeding and diminished fertility. Experts now suggest that relocation to create a second, wild, satellite population is vital to the survival of the species.
“Over time, as they remain flooded, the delicate grasslands lose their nutrients and struggle to support the weight of the sangai, rendering more areas unsuitable for the species. Aside from flooding, the phumdis are also ravaged by wildfires. Mortalities from disease (inbreeding is common within the small, isolated sangai population) also pose a risk to the species’ future. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, in association with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Manipur Forest Department is working toward sangai conservation using science-based approaches and advocacy.”
– Dr. Ruchi Badola, Scientist, WII
While most civet species resemble cats, the Malabar civet has a more dog-like look. The existence of this small carnivore has been hotly debated within the conservation community for decades. It was believed to favour near-shallow waterbodies in the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, possibly its only home, where it largely foraged on the ground. According to the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), the last recorded sighting was half a century ago in Kerala’s Western Ghats forests. The species was officially listed as extinct in 1978. Then, in 1991 a villager discovered fresh skin that was thought to have belonged to Viverra civettina and this re-ignited hope of the species’ survival.
However, a 2010 study by Divya Mudappa, researcher and co-founder of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), together with Nandini Rajamani of IISER, opined that a wild Malabar civet had never actually been sighted with any degree of certainty and that its documented ecology was based on speculation. On reviewing the specimens collected, together with published and unpublished literature, the authors wrote that a unique genus Viverra does not, and probably never did, occur in the wild in southern India. Myth or not, the fact remains that the rich rainforest home of this “missing” civet continues to be threatened by anthropogenic pressures, and efforts to boost conservation action must be amplified.
“Discrepancies in the early field descriptions suggest that they refer to non-congeneric [of another genus] species, yet most of these descriptions have been repeated almost verbatim until now with no additional information from the wild. We present a novel possibility that the genus Viverra does not occur in the wild in southern India and the Malabar civet is not a taxon.”
– Divya Mudappa, NCF, and Nandini Rajamani, IISER
This understudied mammal has, in our view, been hastily tagged as being of ‘Least Concern’ in the IUCN Red List. The Madras hedgehog or bare-bellied hedgehog, looking for all practical purposes like a creature from a Western movie, was once widespread across southeastern India, and is just one of three hedgehog species found on the subcontinent. A nocturnal, insectivorous mammal, it is well-adapted to dry, arid environments. Initially, the Madras hedgehog was listed only from the scrub and arid regions of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but was later spotted in Andhra Pradesh as well. We have no population estimates of the solitary mammal, and little is known about its behaviour.
Dr. Brawin Kumar, a researcher from Kanyakumari who works at IISER-Tirupati, has studied the species across 16 districts in Tamil Nadu. He found no mention of the species even in local folklore. Through his surveys and fieldwork, he observed that between 2012 and 2017, a mere 18 live sightings were recorded in low elevation grasslands, hillocks, and in shrubby parts of some urban landscapes. The hedgehogs also frequent pasturelands where cattle graze (attracted by the influx of insects), red sand dunes or Teris along the coast, under dried Palmyra tree leaves during the day, and on the edges of agricultural lands and dried waterbodies. Kumar is now working to highlight the threats faced by the species, while raising awareness of its uniqueness and value for the benefit of local communities. Wind farms, road construction and human disturbance all pose a threat to this little-understood hedgehog, which also falls victim to the illegal wildlife trade. Its flesh and skin are mistakenly believed to have “medicinal properties” and tribal families store dried hedgehog skin in their kitchens to treat illnesses. “Dried hedgehog skin, mixed with honey, is given to children. I have observed at least a hundred households stocking up on its skin,” says Kumar who rues the fact that hunting for Madras hedgehogs is commonplace.
It is vital to create accurate estimates of hedgehog populations in every district in Tamil Nadu and other range states, says Kumar, who is working with locals to have a Community Conservation Reserve declared in Tirupur. Kumar’s research has unearthed the presence of the hedgehog in as many as 162 locations! Ironically, the Madras hedgehog is still not listed on any schedule of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, nor do any school books mention the species. Kumar is working with colleagues to change this by getting young and old community members involved in promoting awareness of the need to protect this captivating mammal.
“For the last three years, we have noticed a chilling pattern. After every monsoon in Tamil Nadu, there are reports of over 1,500 Madras hedgehog roadkills! This happens because the animals’ burrows are flooded and, being creatures of arid climes, they are attracted to the warmth of tarred roads and the abundance of insect food.”
– Dr. Brawin Kumar, Researcher, IISER-Tirupati
Anaimalai flying frog
The Western Ghats is an amphibian paradise – at least 117 species of frogs have been recorded here, of which 89 are endemics. The Anaimalai flying frog is one such, thriving in secondary tropical rainforests in the southern Western Ghats. The frog has been recorded in six locations in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, including the Anamalai and Parambikulam Tiger Reserves, as well as habitats outside these Protected Areas.
A 2015 paper also confirms the presence of the frogs in tea and cardamom plantations in Munnar and Mankulam, Kerala, where researchers observed nine nests. One of the many endless nights spent in the field threw up a sighting of as many as 42 adults! The frogs are generally known to favour marshy areas at about 1,000 masl., where they nest in overhanging vegetation. “At present, the home range and habitat utilisation of the frog outside of the breeding season are unknown and require further research,” the paper authored by Arun Kanagavel suggests.
Community members say the frogs consume cardamom, though this behaviour has not been observed. The range of the Anaimalai flying frog was previously thought to be more limited, which underscores the importance of involving communities, including farmers, into conservation plans, as the frogs have been recorded breeding in agricultural fields.
The species is also referred to as the false Malabar gliding frog, owing to its similarity in appearance to the Malabar counterpart. Juveniles sport striking zebra-like stripes that fade in adulthood. Interestingly, the Anaimalai flying frog is the only amphibian to be featured on an Indian postage stamp! Habitat loss on account of timber extraction threatens the future of this range-restricted, vulnerable amphibian. We urgently need to monitor and protect breeding populations in and around our Protected Areas.
“The species may possibly be considered a bad omen among the Mannan tribal community and this might explain the general aversion towards frogs among local communities, particularly women.”
– Arun Kanagavel, Herpetologist
Originally described from Nagarjunakonda, Vijayapuri South, these predominantly rock-dwelling skinks have been documented from just 20 locations (four in Andhra Pradesh, 16 in Telangana), all at elevations ranging between 120 and 520 m. They prefer rocky hills with dry deciduous scrub and secondary forests with a preponderance of xerophytic elements; with trees such as Borassus flabellifer and Ficus benghalensis, and shrubs including Jatropha glandulifera and Vitex negundo. Terrestrial reptiles, they burrow their entire bodies into loose soil, snout first, to escape predators. This is a common evasive manoeuvre of skinks, also used to burrow underground tunnels.
“This habitat is under serious threat from stone quarrying, tourism related infrastructure development, and grazing.” – Chethan Kumar Gandla, an independent post-doctoral researcher. In 2018, he visited the Nagarjunasagar dam area when he first spotted the skink. “Astonished, I took photographs of the species, noting details of the location and behaviour.”
Also called sea cows, dugongs are described as ‘farmers of seagrasses’ and are vital to the health of some of the most important carbon sinks on the planet. Dugongs trim marine vegetation as they forage, thus aiding regeneration. Seagrass ecosystems absorb carbon 35 times faster than tropical rainforests! They also prevent coastal erosion, vital to dealing with erratic weather extremes. A diversity of fish breed in seagrasses and this supports fisher communities along the coast. A single dugong may consume 40 kg. of seagrass in a day. According to a 2013 report by Dr. K. Sivakumar and Aditi Nair of WII, if the vegetation is not tall enough, dugongs begin to nip at the bottom, consuming rhizomes, stems and leaves, which results in cloudy waters with floating sediment.
Sohini Dudhat, a marine biologist who studied dugongs and seagrass habitats in the Andamans with WII, says that the team is currently attempting a visual census using drones. According to her, the Gulf of Kutchh also hosts a small population. While WII has noted a few signs of feeding trails, very few actual sightings have been reported by fishers here. In Tamil Nadu, a larger population thrives, but is threatened by hunting. The traditional consumption of dugong meat by local communities was once widespread, and continues in smaller pockets, despite being prohibited. Hunting is a concern in North Andaman too, though habitat fragmentation is a larger issue, particularly since the seagrass meadows have been repeatedly ravaged by tsunamis and climate extremes.
Globally, seagrass habitats, which usually occur near-shore, are declining at a rate of roughly seven per cent per annum owing to anthropogenic pressures (Waycott et al. 2009; Green and Short 2003). Their dependence on seagrass beds forces dugongs to remain close to shores, leaving them vulnerable to hunting, propellor strikes, accidental capture in fishing nets and sundry habitat degradation including toxic pollutants and plastic waste. Mothers incubate babies for a year or so and give birth to a single offspring once between three and seven years. This slow breeding renders them even more vulnerable to anthropogenic pressures. Like almost all other marine creatures, these gentle, once-abundant vegetarians are increasingly falling victim to the human mismanagement of Earth’s oceans.
“Populations vary in each of the dugong’s habitats in India. In the Andamans, I noticed how vulnerable the seagrass meadows in the Islands are, being subjected to natural and anthropogenic pressures. Seagrass meadows have been affected by the tsunami, possibly due to cyclones, changes in land use patterns (which alters nutrient flow into the water), and sedimentation due to infrastructural development. These factors have led to fragmentation of the extensive meadows found 20-30 years ago. Loss of habitat has severely affected dugong populations, not to mention other threats such as accidental net entanglement and hunting, which are still prevalent in some areas. ”
– Sohini Dudhat, Marine Biologist
The only Rhinoptilus species in India, this nocturnal bird was believed extinct until its rediscovery in 1986 by Bharat Bhushan, an ornithologist at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in a village in Kadapa District, Andhra Pradesh. This site was later designated as the Sri Lankamaleswara Wildlife Sanctuary (SLWLS), now the only known home of the species. The scrub jungle patches with open areas that are visited by the courser face a diversity of threats including encroachments, agriculture, nonnative plantations, livestock grazing, construction of check dams, quarries and canals. On top of this, illegal opportunistic trapping by locals is commonplace.
Between 2010 and 2012, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) formulated a joint Species Recovery Plan (SRP), with the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department (APFD), (also translated into the local language, Telugu). Nearly 200 camera traps were set up in SLWLS. “Although several thousand images of nocturnal birds and animals were captured, none were of the Jerdon’s Courser. Recently, the APFD restarted this SRP, but field work has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says P. Jeganathan, wildlife biologist with NCF, who was part of the project in 2010.
The last authentic record of the bird was in April 2008. Jeganathan says: “We have searched using remote cameras in and near the Sri Lankamaleswara Wildlife Sanctuary where suitable habitats exist, though the entire area has not been covered, and not during all the seasons. The construction of the Telugu Ganga Canal around the sanctuary certainly affected suitable habitats but it is difficult to conclude whether the bird has completely disappeared. There are several areas that need to be explored and if suitable habitats exist without much disturbance, there is a chance that this species occurs there. We need more eyes to find this bird and it is not going to be easy!”
“The Jerdon’s Coursers are not seen very often. [During our surveys,] we could see their tracks or hear their calls. When we looked for them at night (as they are nocturnal), they would crouch down when our torch beams found them and stay still for long periods of time. Once I had to wait nearly 45 minutes for the bird to get up.”
– P. Jeganathan, Wildlife Biologist
Southern birdwing butterfly
With its striking black, white and yellow wings, this jewel of a butterfly is endemic to south India and is the second-largest butterfly in India. It was declared the state butterfly of Karnataka, its colours matching the state flag. Found at elevations of 2,700 masl. in Western Ghats habitats varying from lowland evergreen coastal forests, to mixed deciduous forests, dry scrub and agricultural fields, recent reports of its presence have been received from Bengaluru near the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) and the Bengaluru University. During and post-monsoons, southern birdwings can be spotted gently circling and sailing among treetops. They are avoided by predators, their bright colours indicating unpalatability, a result of the aristolochic acids ingested as caterpillars. Females lay eggs on creepers and climbers of the family Aristolochiaceae: Aristolochia indica, A. tagala and Thottea siliquosa. As adults, they feed on nectar from Lantana, Clerodendrum, Ixora and Mussaenda flowers.
Given its restricted range and endemicity, the IUCN recommends on-going monitoring of the species.
“During field work in Goa, I would often observe the southern birdwing flit high above the forest canopy. It would almost seem like a bird gliding with its beautiful black-yellow wings against the blue sky. I have also searched for its host plants to observe the caterpillars but this is difficult in the forest. Even working as a butterfly researcher, I have only seen the caterpillar once during my entire study.”
– Ravi Jambhekar, Ecologist and Botanical Illustrator
Mishmi Wren Babbler
The Mishmi Wren Babbler (also called the Rusty-throated Wren Babbler) was an enigma for ages. It was first described in 1947 by S. Dillon Ripley from a single specimen collected in Dreyi in the Mishmi hills of eastern Arunachal Pradesh. The bird was not spotted again for several decades. In 2004, two scientists Ben King and Julian H. Donahue set off from Roing towards the Mayodia pass in the Mishmi hills in search of the babbler. They played the calls of a close relative, the Rufous-throated Wren Babbler Spelaeornis caudatus, and to their delight, the Mishmi Wren Babbler called back! Within 90 minutes they spotted the furtive and tiny bird, as it flitted amidst the roadside trees. In the course of their expedition, a total of 17 individuals were spotted in low, dense secondary forest vegetation along roadsides, at elevations between 1,700–2,400 masl.
Until 2017, the only known location of the species was near Mayodia pass after which, it was reported from further north on the way to Anini. Conservationist and ornithologist Shashank Dalvi, who co-authored a paper on the species’ range extension, says the: “species is highly territorial in summer as well as winter months and found exclusively in the undergrowth in the cloud forests. The Mishmi Wren Babbler is one of the species in Northeast India, which shows allopatric as well as parapatric speciation. Due to allopatric speciation, at mid-elevation it does not share the same range with some of its sister taxa like the Rufous-throated Wren Babbler and Naga Wren Babbler. However, elevationally, it does share the same range with the Bar-winged Wren Babbler. Due to speciation, Spelaeornis Wren Babblers found at mid-elevation have independent geographic distribution. However, it has been observed that the Mishmi Wren Babbler and Rufousthroated Wren Babbler share their distribution with the Barwinged Wren Babbler in terms of elevation on a mountain range where they have a small overlap.”
Dam construction and road widening threaten the future of this small bird. “Climate change will also be a major threat for this species in the future. Several species in the eastern Himalaya are already migrating upwards,” Shashank adds.
“Even though the Mishmi Wren Babbler is highly localised (distribution wise), I have seen this species on every visit, in the undergrowth along the main Mishmi hills road, but always between 1,500-2,200 masl.”
– Shashank Dalvi, Conservationist and Ornithologist
A rare and ancient ecosystem, Myristica swamps were once thriving across the low-lying valleys of the Western Ghats. These groves were traditionally considered sacred by local communities across the Western Ghats. However, much of the cultural knowledge has been lost over time.
These tropical freshwater swamp forests are home to several species of the Myristicaceae family, believed to be the most primitive flowering plants in the world, dating back to the Early Eocene. These evergreen trees have evolved to survive the water-inundated swamps by possessing two types of strange-looking roots – knee roots that stand out of the ground and exchange gases; and stilt roots, which emerge from the trunk and keep the tree erect in the soft wet alluvial soil. They form a dense, closed-canopy top, creating a unique ecosystem, which harbours several endemic species.
The predominant species – Gymnacranthera canarica and Myristica fatua magnifica – are listed as Vulnerable and Endangered, according to the IUCN Red List.
The Myristica sapphire Calocypha laidlawi is an endemic damselfly species that breeds in forest streams and rivers flowing through the Myristica swamps. Dark bodied with azure streaks, and dark violet-metallic gossamer wings, it is often seen perched in the shade, either on submerged logs or twigs. The Myristica bambootail Phylloneura westermanni (bottom) is another endemic damselfly species that lives in small colonies on overhanging plants.
Myristica swamps now survive in fragmented patches, most having been converted to paddy fields, monoculture tree plantations, or submerged under dam reservoirs. These swamps’ ability to act as sponges (storing water during monsoon and slowly releasing them into streams through the year) make them vital infrastructures for water storage and carbon sequestration, apart from the fact that they support a diversity of floral and faunal biodiversity.
Myristica Bambootail in Wayanad. Photo: Jignasu Dolia
Abinaya Kalyanasundaram is a writer, editor and photographer who loves creating narratives about the natural world.
Divya Kilikar is a writer, editor and wildlife enthusiast who focuses on communicating the rationale behind conservation.