Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The littlest cat amongst us

Pencil drawing of a rusty-spotted cat at strolling at nighttime by Aparna K.

I have loved cats all my life. My fascination with cats started when I rescued my very first cat. Growing up in a small town allowed me to scamper around all day long without any adult supervision.  This also meant that a boy in my street used this unsupervised time one day to torment a poor little kitten. This kitten and a pup that seemed quiet ferocious were tied together by a rope attached to a pole. The frightened kitten ran in circles, chased hot on heels by the pup. I decided to put a stop to this and brought the tiny kitten home and called her Minnie, after my favourite cartoon character, Minnie Mouse. Minnie had black and white color pattern with a black mask. She was a well behaved cat who allowed petting even from strangers. She would often laze around on our sunlit window ledge and atop our large peepal tree.  The next ten years of our life was filled with joy, and Minnie kept her gene-pool alive by giving birth to many kittens during her life with us.

Camera trap image of rusty-spotted cat captured at Bhadravathi Reserved Forest by Sanjay Gubbi / NCF

Years later when I started my work at the Nature Conservation Foundation, an organisation that works for wildlife conservation in India, I was tasked with helping scientists to study how many leopards could be found in Southern Karnataka. We did this by setting up cameras in the forest. These cameras automatically take photographs when there is even a tiny movement in front of them. Imagine my surprise and happiness to find the world’s smallest wild cat, a rusty-spotted cat photographed by one of our traps! It is called rusty-spotted because of the rust coloured spots that cover its entire body.

This cute little wildcat occurs in a variety of mixed habitats and survives even in dry thorny forests. Going through the many photographs from the camera traps that we had installed to study wildlife, we were able to watch them from a distance and peek a glimpse at their fascinating and obscure life.

Largely nocturnal (active during night-time) this demure cat preys on rodents, insects, lizards, birds, eggs and even bats. Quite a few photographs have captured this cat in the act of carrying its prey expertly in its mouth. It is also a very good tree climber- just like its cousin, the domestic cat.

Going through its antics caught on camera has been a very rewarding experience for me. I also realised that just like its larger cousins tiger and leopard, the rusty-spotted cat also prefers a solitary life, meeting others of its kind only to breed. 

Camera traps employ a passive infrared sensor to detect when an animal passes in front of the camera. Sometimes the sway of a tree or a moth fluttering in front of the camera can also trigger the sensor! This means we often end up with lots of other unusable images as well.  

Rusty-spotted cats are largely found in the Indian subcontinent. It has an average body weight of 1.8 kilogram which is half the size of an average adult domestic cat and is around 45 centimetres long with an equally long fluffy tail trailing.

Owing to its cryptic (shy) nature not much is known about the ecology and behaviour of rusty-spotted cats in the wild.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, an international organisation that monitors the population trends of wildlife, places the species as Near Threatened, which means that this species could possibly be threatened with extinction in the near future.

P.S  : An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu - In school

Friday, November 3, 2017

Grizzled giant squirrel

Grizzled giant squirrel illustration_AparnaK

We all know the diminutive scampering palm squirrel making forays into all branches of a fruiting tree assiduously collecting food. We have grown up watching their antics as they walk like a trapeze artist on suspended wires and leap unbelievably between treetops. A few of us must have seen the Indian giant squirrel also known as the Malabar giant squirrel, Kenchalilu in Kannada. But did you know that South India also hosts another giant squirrel? It’s called the grizzled giant squirrel.

The name is suggestive of its appearance – white interspersed between greyish brown hairs giving them the grizzled appearance. It is the smallest amongst the giant squirrel family. This not too well-known giant squirrel occurs in small numbers in Riparian forests (vegetation that generally grows alongside rivers in rain shadow region) of just 3 states, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and further south in Srilanka.

Tree canopy contiguity is very essential for the grizzled giant squirrel since are mainly arboreal just like their cousins –palm squirrel and follow a diet of mainly fruits, leaves, bark and some flowers. They are known to be partial to young tamarind, mango, Terminalia arjuna (Holematti) and Pongamia pinatta (Gobbarada mara) leaves and fruits. They also occasionally feast on insects and bird eggs.

Like Malabar giant squirrels, the grizzled also builds a roughly globular multilayer nest using twigs, leaves and tree fibers in layers and raises up to two young. They are highly territorial and very vocal.

They are known for their role as seed dispersers however the population of this charismatic species has reduced by 30% in the last 25 years due to habitat loss by deforestation, fragmentation of existing forest patches, excessive cattle grazing and harvesting of food trees by local people, forest fire and hunting of the animal for meat and fur.

Due to its low numbers with just over 500 and in decline this animal has been recognized as ‘Near threatened’ by International Union for Conservation of Nature, an international organization who is an authority on the status of the natural world. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Wildlife allowance – An incentive for the foot soldiers of our protected area

June 2016

Forest rangers, the unsung foot-soldiers, are the guardians of our planet’s most precious natural assets. Without them, our efforts to protect wildlife are a lost cause. A survey carried out by World Wildlife Fund regarding ranger perceptions (Singh & Lee, 2016; Singh, 2016) found that many of the wildlife rangers across the world in Africa, Asia and Latin America faced life-threatening situations while on duty, threats by community members related to their work, a poor work/life balance, and face insufficient support and poor recognition of their work from their governments. Hence, as a key preliminary step, improvement in the conditions of employment and offering greater recognition of their work must be implemented, especially in the developing world.

© Sanjay Gubbi

Karnataka, the southern Indian state, today hosts of over 15 percent of its land cover protected under multiple-use forest called reserved forests, and protected areas comprising of conservation reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves. Of this, over five percent is designated as protected areas. Over 2,500 personnel are employed by the Karnataka Forest Department in these protected areas as forest watchers, guards, deputy range forest officers and range forest officers, together called as the frontline staff or wildlife rangers. This is in addition to the several hundred staffs who are employed on a need basis for short periods.

These frontline staff employed by the state forest department, during their daily duty face several hardships including and not restricted to - living in remote areas, harsh weather and difficult terrain, bear the brunt of antagonism from local people during wildlife conflict situations, face threats from smugglers and poachers, a risk to life from wildlife encounters and other similar quarters. They also stay away from their families for several weeks at a stretch. Though they are the cornerstones of conservation of tiger, elephant and other charismatic wildlife species, they are still a neglected lot.

Sanjay Gubbi as Member of the State Board for Wildlife had proposed to the state government of Karnataka that an additional financial benefit should be paid to the frontline staff working in the protected areas in the state due to the various hardships they face while on duty. An additional pay as recognition of their gruelling working conditions and their commitment towards protecting and conserving wildlife can serve as positive re-enforcement in their line of work and boost their morale considerably.

After a follow-up of over seven years spanning over six state wildlife board meetings, convincing four Chief Ministers of the state, political leaders and government officials; a proposal initiated in March 2009 has finally been approved by the government. A government order passed in June 2016 has mandated that all permanent frontline line staff working in the protected areas of the state, in addition to their regular salaries, must be provided with a hardship allowance. An amount varying from USD ~53 to ~30 is now to be paid to all the frontline staff as ‘wildlife allowance’ on a monthly basis and comes into effect from June 2016. Though the amount may look small, it is very useful for the frontline staff.

This is a first of its kind initiative in the country and is a sustainable initiative as it is built into the governmental system rather than support from outside agencies that could vary as per availability of resources. A previous allowance by the federal government through the National Tiger Conservation Authority had allocated an additional allowance of USD ~12, but only to the staff working in tiger reserves.

Similar initiatives could be taken up in other states within India, and in the developing world that has similar working conditions and benefits like India for frontline staff of protected areas.

Another new wildlife record for Karnataka

Chinkara camera trapped in Bukkapatna State Forest, Tumakuru district. ©Nature Conservation Foundation

An exciting record of wildlife has been documented for Karnataka from Tumakuru district. Chinkara also called as the Indian gazelle (Gazella bennettii) has been recorded from Bukkapatna State Forest (153 km2) in Sira taluka of Tumakuru district. The record was made under a study on leopards carried out by wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi of Nature Conservation Foundation and his team. The study uses camera trapping for understanding leopard numbers in various parts of the state.

Chinkara called as ‘sanna hulle’ in Kannada was thought to sparsely exist only in northern Karnataka in areas bordering Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Very little is known about its distribution within Karnataka and it normally occurs in arid areas, deserts, savannahs and subtropical light forests. This is the first ever confirmation of this species for southern Karnataka and it is surprising that it occurs as south as Tumakuru district. This is perhaps the second only photo-documentation of the species from Karnataka. Part of Bukkapatna forest falls within Gubbi taluk hence it is possible that chinkara is found in Gubbi taluka as well. In addition, Bukkapatna forests abut Suvarnamukhi Reserved Forest that falls under Chitradurga district where chinkara was seen, confirming its presence in Chitradurga district as well.

This antelope species is known to exist in India, and in very few numbers in Pakistan and Iran. It is almost decimated in Pakistan and Iran due to overhunting as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. In India, chinkara is protected under Schedule-I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 giving it utmost protection.

Apart from hunting for meat and trophies, the species is also losing ground due to extensive conversion of grasslands to agriculture and industrial development, and predation from feral dogs. Areas like Bukkapatna are more and more threatened by wind energy projects.

Of the six species of antelopes found in India, three species the chinkara, blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) and the four-horned antelope (Tetracerus quadricornis) are found in Karnataka. Bukkapatna has all these three antelope species, and perhaps the only documented place in Karnataka that has all these three antelope species.

This study on leopards is giving interesting results. Last year the ratel or honey badger was first photo-documented in Karnataka under this project in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary.

An edited version of this news was published in April 2015 in local newspapers in Kannada

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Present but invisible!

Have you wondered which animal visited your garden unseen by you? Nibbled on a choice root, bitten some of the fruits or run away with the flowers?

Most wild animals are generally shy of people. A lot of them are crepuscular if around people; meaning they are active during dawn and dusk, not so much during the day. Some even roam unseen in the day. But how to find out which of these share their habitat with you?

Here is one way. While walking on loose or wet soil you may have seen your feet leave behind tell-tale signs of your walk. It is the same with most animals! Where the soil is soft or wet you can clearly make out that an animal has walked the path.

If you live in an area that has a fair bit of vegetation or has a park close by, take a stroll on the mud paths and look out for animal footprints. Such footprints are called pugmarks if we are talking about a dog or cat; or more generally they are called 'tracks'. Let’s first see how to differentiate between the pugmarks of a dog and a cat.

All species of cat (eg tiger, leopard, jungle cat) have claws, but none of them (excepting the cheetah) leave behind claw marks in their pugmarks. This is because their claws are safely retracted most of the time. In contrast, all species of dog (eg wolf, jackal) show claw marks in their pugmarks since their claws do not retract. A second difference is that the centre of the paw (the pad) leaves more semicircular marks in cats and more triangular marks in dogs.

The photo of two tracks shows how you can use these two features to tell between a dog and a leopard. Of course a domestic cat pugmark is much smaller when compared with a dog’s!

How to tell a dog and leopard apart. Note that the pugmark on the left is facing downwards. Photo: Sanjay Gubbi

You can use this guide to guess some of animals found around you by  their tracks (not according to scale)

The illustration shows what a cow's track looks like. In comparison, the cloven hoofs of a deer are closer to each other and have pointed tip. A wild pig’s track is similar to that of a domestic pig. A jungle cat pugmark is slightly larger than that of a domestic cat but smaller than that of a leopard. A peafowl’s track is at least twice the size of a chicken.

Keep practicing identifying the tracks around you, so that soon, when you come across an animal footprint, you can surprise your family and friends by pulling a Sherlock Holmes and declaring which animal has walked the path unseen!

Apart from tracks, some wild animals also leave behind scrape marks made by their claws either while searching for food or to mark territories. Big cats like tigers and leopards leave behind scrape marks, urine scent marks and faeces to mark the boundaries of their territories and to attract potential mates.

Wildlife scientists and nature enthusiasts, who know how to differentiate different footmarks and faeces of between species, can tell which particular wild animal or bird has walked along recently. To gather information about the presence or absence of wild animals (like tigers, leopards, wild dogs, etc) they walk kilometers inside forest roads and other wildlife habitats, looking for these tell-tale clues that animals leave behind them.

The results of these sorts of surveys are vital. They tell us about where these animals are found, and other time, can also be used to monitor changes in their distribution.

An edited version of this article was published in the Hindu , In school - http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/present-but-invisible/article7703329.ece

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The perfect camouflage

My recent visit to Sharavathi Valley Wildlife Sanctuary that promised torrential rains and leeches unexpectedly (although, not surprisingly) gave me the lifer I have been looking forward to for quite sometime.

What seemed like Browns fluttering from a distance turned out to be not just some Evening browns, Glad eye bushbrown and common bushbrown but Blue oakleaf (Kallima philarchus).

Along with the Bushbrown butterflies and a few beetles about 5 Blue oakleaf butterflies were feeding on the tree sap , whose name I am ashamed to say I don't know. With the excitement of seeing the oakleaves I forgot to photograph the tree to ID it.

Now, the obviously interesting thing about oakleaf butterfly is that they are found in the evergreen forests and mimic dry oak leaves. They don't just have the shape and colour of the leaf, they come, together with the blotches a dry leaf sports, a mid rib, a stalk and to top it with a flourish a transparent spot on its apex! (To break its outline, i guess).

It has blue-indigo discal bands running on the upper wing which it flashes when it takes off only to settle among the foliage the next minute, closing its wings, with its under wing looking like a leaf, completely throwing off its predator that keeps looking out for something blue.

The only other Oakleaf butterfly I have come across was the Orange oakleaf in Buxa tiger reserve - that did not bless me with its upper wing (sigh)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Random Thoughts: Rainforests

Random Thoughts: Rainforests: The woods, they echoed the words in my ear. I felt the warmth of the sun and the coldness of the stream on my skin. Eyes full of lush gr...