Unraveling Savandurga

Trumpeted as one of Asia’s largest monolith, Savandurga towers high above the scrub jungle in which it is situated. This gigantic boulder is so popular that it has become synonymous with trekking in Bangalore. But how well do we really know Bangalore’s boulder backyard?

Savandurga state forest and monolith on wikimapia:

http://wikimapia.org/#lang=en&lat=12.920642&lon=77.292868&z=15&m=b&search=savandurga%20state%20forest

‘The Savandurga Package’ has been offered many times over by adventure companies whose only objective is to reach the hilltop as fast as possible! In this blind rush, trekkers miss out on learning about the unique scrub jungle of which Savandurga is a part.

savandurga lake
Gems of the scrub jungle

Savandurga State Reserve Forest, currently 2664 hectares, is one of Karnataka’s earliest protected areas. The forest type is dry deciduous scrub supporting a variety of birds, reptiles and mammals.

The scrub jungle, as it is widely referred to, is distinct unto itself. The harsh landscape is a  mosaic of boulders of varying shape and size, cliffs,crags, thorny bush and stunted trees. Very much a part of the Deccan Plateau, the geology of the region consists mainly of granitic rock along with peninsular gneiss, basic dykes and laterites.

The average annual rainfall received is 800 mm, merely one of the factors giving rise to the parched terrain that typically characterises a scrub jungle. Several other contributing factors exist – the fine sandy soil found here is derived from the erosion of granite rock and thus incapable of retaining sufficient moisture. Consequently, the flora of the scrub jungle remains stunted, having adapted to the scarce and intermittent water supply. Evidence of this can be seen in Savandurga’s dry vegetation, thorny bush, stunted trees with short trunks and branches that barely meet to form a closed canopy. The trees of this scrub jungle do not grow beyond 20 to 30 feet.

Nonetheless, Savandurga was once home to elephants and tigers and continues to offer sanctuary to rare and endemic creatures such as the Salim Ali fruit bat. Even today, it boasts of a thriving micro and macro habitat that support a healthy local ecosystem. Several large mammals and reptiles, like elephants, leopards, sloth bear, monitor lizard, Indian rock python still call this scrub jungle their home. Take a look at this:

Savandurga has a rich bird population too, including rare and endangered migrant visitors such as the great Indian bustard or lesser florican. Click to view a checklist of birds that you have a chance of sighting on any given day in Savandurga:

https://intothewildind.wordpress.com/2015/04/23/check-list-of-birds-savandurga/

Essentially, what we’re saying is that there is plenty to explore and learn when it comes to the isolated scrub habitats surrounding Bangalore, firstly that they are crucial to sustaining life in the city. So, we invite you to move beyond what’s popular and get to know Savandurga’s extraordinary scrub jungle for what it really is.

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Experience a new and exciting side of Savandurga with Secrets of the Scrub, a programme specifically designed for the purpose. As part of this workshop you will have:

Introduction to scrub ecology

Climb up the monolith, Savandurga

Observation and study of micro and macro habitat

Introduction to fragmented ecosystems and importance of green belts

Getting to know wildlife threatened by fragmentation

Research methodology: camera trapping

Human-animal conflict

When? 3rd May 2015

Meet up time: 5:00a.m

Assembly Point: ITW in-city Learning Center, #36, First Floor, Linden Street, Austin Town, Bangalore – 560047

Locate us on Google Mapshttps://goo.gl/maps/Jm3iX

Participation fee: Rs. 1,200 per head

Ready to explore? Get in touch: 9739461638 / 9880094687

You can even sign up online: http://www.townscript.com/secretsofthescrub

Brace yourselves as we reveal the best kept secrets of Bangalore’s favourite monolith, we’ll see you there!

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Common Indian Monitor (Varanus bengalensis)

Monitor lizards include some of the largest of their kind on Earth with 70 or more species spread around the globe. In India, we have the common Indian monitor or Bengal monitor, yellow monitor, water monitor and Thar desert monitor.

DISTRIBUTION: Common Indian or Bengal Monitor (Varanus bengalensis) can be encountered across the Indian sub-continent and thrive in lower elevations, be it moist forests or semi-arid deserts.

As the most widely distributed of varanid lizards, their global range extends to west and south-east Asia; from the riverine valleys of Iran to Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma and Indonesia. The clouded monitor is considered a sub-species of the common Indian monitor.

HABITAT: They dig soil to create burrows that are used as shelters along rock crevices and buildings. Common Indian monitors are not territorial and are constantly exploring new range in response to food availability and the seasons.

BIOLOGY: Monitors wear a dark studded, leathery hide stretched from snout to tail, around 100 cms is the average length of a Bengal monitor. They constantly flick a forked tongue, much like their serpent relatives, employed as a sensory organ rather than to swallow food. They store fat as reserves especially in their powerful tail that can grow up to 100 cms, a good source in times of prey scarcity.

Sub-adults are comparatively more colourful with cross bars across their throat, neck and belly; colouration has been observed to vary across the range.

Monitors are fantastic swimmers, reptiles with the highest standard metabolic rate, capable of submerging themselves for a whopping 17 minutes.

One of Into the Wild’s camera traps caught a common Indian monitor cooling off in a rock pool set in his natural habitat in Magadi. Click the forward arrow really fast to watch a stop motion of this rare footage:

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Read more about these active lizards:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/monitor-lizards-found-to-breathe-birds/

BEHAVIOR: Being diurnal, they sleep during the night and begin their day with a good bask at around 6a.m. These shy lizards avoid humans to every possible extent and are known to be solitary by nature. Though certain varanids are known to possess a small amount of venom, the Bengal monitor makes no claims to such toxicity; even when caught, they rarely bite.

BREEDING: Their breeding season is between June and September with male combat emerging as early as April.

FEEDING: A regular meal for a common Indian monitor could mean eggs, arthopods, snails, ants, beetles, grubs, among invertebrates. They are also known to feast on vertebrates such as fish, frogs, lizards and snakes but rarely. Even rarer is their scavenging of dead carcass.

Monitor lizards in India are significant beyond their natural history. Legend has it that Tanaji Malusare, one of Shivaji’s commanders, used Yeshwanthi (his monitor lizard) and rope to scale a rock face and launch an attack on his enemy, winning the Battle of Sinhagad in 1670.

Read more about how illegal trade of monitor lizard meat has entered the urban market here: http://wp.me/p5P9Ju-L

Yellow Bellied Green Cat Snake

Yellow bellied green cat snake (Boiga flaviviridis) is a new species of cat snake ‘described from the dry forests of eastern Peninsular India’. Discovered only recently, its particularly beautiful yellowish-green dorsal shimmer over which unpatterned black bands gently run ends in a short tail.

Even for skilled herpers, the yellow bellied cant snake is a rare sighting. It is only recently that the first live specimens are being recorded. On our nights out herping, the Into the Wild team has encountered seven in and around Krishnagiri, Tumkur and Savandurga. Some as long and large as this one:

01.B.fs
Yellow bellied green cat snake, Tumkur range

Considering these recent findings and recordings, a question that arises to the mind is -why now? Have made a gross underestimation about the extent to which the world of reptiles has evolved? Are all fauna – known and unknown – finally being driven out of the safety of their forests by human centered development?

The answer is a combination of all of the above, among reasons; but how Boiga Flaviviridus has slipped being noticed for so many years certainly remains a small mystery and the assumption that our studies of the natural world have been exhaustive can no longer be made.

Human centered development is unbalancing our natural environment today more than ever before. We must consciously understand the seriousness of this situation and consider this as a wake up call towards action comprehending the interaction between humans and ecology in the process of urbanisation and set in motion the conscious shift towards urban ecology.

To inform yourself of the basic details on the yellow bellied green cat snake:

http://www.indiansnakes.org/content/yellow-green-cat-snake

Featured image: Sandeep GA

Cobra incubation

Having been involved in urban wildlife management for close to a decade now, I have been on the receiving end of many cobra eggs. Varying circumstances cause these ‘orphaned clutches’ to land up in my care, either the eggs are forcefully abandoned by rescue of the mother or are clutches from captive cobras in Bannerghatta Zoo handed over to an expert by the Forest Department. Most often, however, they are found by accident while excavating on construction sites.

Naja Naja, or the spectacled cobra, is oviparous (producing young by means of eggs) and lay their clutches in rat holes or termite mounds in the hot pre-monsoon months (April to July). One clutch comprises of anywhere between 10 to 30 eggs of which hatchlings emerge roughly 48 to 68 days later. What has always amazed me is how each hatchling is independent upon birth, with fully functional venom glands that they learn to use by powerful natural instinct.

I have been exposed, on multiple occasions, to the delicate process of captive breeding and egg incubation (of cobras and other reptiles). From these experiences, I observed and learnt about the varying factors that need to be regulated so as to be able to achieve full success in hatching.

Typically, incubation is performed under the accuracy (and assurance) of sophisticated incubators that one uses to design a highly controlled environment for the purpose. Apart from being hard to access, this kind of scientific equipment is not cheap either so I hadn’t the luxury of using an incubator.

New born cobra hatchlings incubated at home

 

Instead, I was handed each clutch in a plain cardboard box, leaving me to conceptualise my own apparatus for incubating these clutches of cobra eggs. What I constructed was a simple set up that consisted of a thermometer, plastic container, hydrometer, vermiculite and charcoal. All my equipment was well researched, peer-reviewed and.. made at home!

Cobra eggs take 70 to 100 days to hatch in an incubator. In this expertly controlled environment, temperature and humidity need to be raised in accordance to one another so as to offer suitable conditions for hatching. As one can imagine, achieving this on a homemade, DIY system threw up new challenges every day, demanding constant improvisation based on my assessment of new developments.

In the process, I shifted the box frequently between rooms to offer variations in ambient conditions, using my discretion and judgement of what works best. Quite often the box of eggs would up in my bathroom where levels of moisture happened to be at its best. On that front, regulating humidity turned out to be the biggest obstacle; trial, error and constant dialogue with experts pushed me to choose a little known but time-tested method to tackle the issue of humidity.

I made a couple of holes in the box, stuffing them lightly with cotton to keep moisture from escaping. I had to repeat the exercise multiple times a day and on a timely basis. I would keep select holes closed during specific time slots in the day, regularly switching the swabs of cotton around strategically, eventually achieving ideal humidity for incubation.

Yet another amusing aspect that added it’s own element of uncertainty to the process was that I never actually knew the age of a clutch given to me. Everyday held the possibility of watching baby cobras wiggle out of the safety of their shells. It surely was an exciting time to be me!

2 cobras
Cobra baby making an entrance, emerging from its soft shell casing

I am happy to report 100% success rate for all the clutches I tended to, a total of 400 baby cobras that I have incubated and released into the wild.

Stranger in the city

Caught up in the day’s usual hurry, the rescue calls pass by without much flare. I have even developed a standard script that helps me assess the real danger faced by both animal and human. More often than not, a snake would have wound up in the extreme corner of a garden, probably hunting down a rat; a more common location being in the gutter or drainage outside.

In such cases, we deem it unnecessary to progress with the ‘rescue’ as neither party is in need of expert intervention. The snake will move along just as it landed up there, unwittingly. In order to be able to filter out the real emergencies from false alarms, my first and immediate question is – where is the snake, inside or outside?

One afternoon I received a frantic call from a home in Vijayanagar. On asking my primary question, she reported that a multi-coloured snake was stuck upside down on her roof! Ignoring the obvious exaggeration regarding colour, I inferred that the only way this was possible was on a tiled roof or hut. However, when I asked her about this, she insisted that it was a concrete establishment, a garage where the family parked their vehicles.

What she was describing defied all logic, going against literally everything I knew about rescue and snakes from the past six years! This left me amazed, puzzled and no doubt, very curious. Assuming she had made a blaring error in judgement, I patiently questioned her once more on what type of animal she was seeing and whether it was a snake at all. This line of interrogation was met with a curt ultimatum – to stop wasting her time with questions and do my job, or she would call for help elsewhere.

That over-confident response was exactly the jolt I needed to spring into action. Rushing to the house, I found that it neighboured a mixture (chow-chow) factory that had been a habituated site for cobra rescue over the years. Still a bit unsure of what to expect, however, I entered the house with slight hesitation only to take in the incredible sight of a magnificent, 2 feet long ornate flying snake, upside down on the garage roof; her apparently ‘unbelievable’ report was true to each word.

Astonished to see this specimen – at least 400 kilometers away from home – in the middle of chaotic Bangalore city, thoughts raced through my mind at an unprecedented speed.

Specimen post rescue, safely contained

Some background about the ornate flying snake will give you an insight to my confusion. Non-venomous in nature, this exquisitely coloured snake’s habitat ranges from rainforest, dry and mixed deciduous or coastal forest (none of which can be found in the city). It thrives in thick vegetation and prefers high branches, tree holes or crevices for roosting.

Being arboreal, the ornate flying snake is named after its own amazing ability to glide short distances as a method of escape. The snake is light in body weight, its anatomy designed to incorporate a parachute like belly that offers good resistance to mechanical shocks received on falling from a height. All this is well and good but here is where it gets truly interesting..

The ornate flying snake is widely distributed across the Western Ghats, also found in Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and the Seven Sisters. Being more common to east, than south India, you can now comprehend my surprise on encountering this flying snake in some random garage in the city. The extraordinary nature of the situation only reminded me that I had to collect myself and not rush through rescue protocol.

Knowing fully well that the ornate flying snake is lucrative in exotic pet trade, I had to tread ahead with caution. I began to carefully interrogate the lady who had called in the rescue, asking direct and indirect questions to somehow assess what kind of people lived here, were there other specimens on the premises, did I need to call for backup etc.

The media covered this story extensively
This story of the ‘Stranger in the City’ caught the media’s attention, they covered it extensively.

As she began to retrace her steps, she happened to mention that she had come into the garage to collect prasadam that her husband brought back from Kukke Subramanya. Having thoroughly navigated and herped the length and breadth of the Western Ghats, I was more than familiar with Kukke, Kumaraparvatha, associated trekking trails and the wildlife found there. It was at this point that the story unraveled.

Her husband had recently driven up to the pilgrim town of Kukke Subramanya. He parked the car by the riverside while there and the arboreal snake must have slithered; travelling 400 kilometers to Bangalore without even knowing it!

My extended love affair with the majestic Western Ghats had me visiting frequently on work. These trips, rescue and other interactions secured me a place in the good books of the Forest Department at Kukke. I called and set up a date; with all the arrangements made, I enjoyed my few days with this legendary serpent before having to release it back into its rainforest home.

Red sand boa (Eryx Johnii)

As a native of the sub-continent, the red sand boa can be found across the country except on the islands and the states beyond north Bengal. This meek snake is also endemic to Iran and Pakistan.

HABITAT: It flourishes in semi-desert plains, rocky scrub plains and dry foothills. Preferring loose sand or crumbling soil, the red sand boa is a burrower that lives most of its life underground.

While herping, one can encounter the red sand boa in gardens, agricultural areas, desolate and abandoned areas of land that has sandy soil, cracked earth, mounds, rat holes, brick and rock piles.

BIOLOGY: This nocturnal snake is fesurial(a burrower). Everything from it’s cylindrical body shape, blunt and truncated head + tail and tough, shovel shaped face are all adaptations to a life of burrowing. Yet another adaptation are its small eyes as the snake is active at night and in soil, not requiring excellent eyesight in order to survive.

The red sand boa’s colour is uniform and darker in adults. Their colouring ranges from reddish brown to reddish black, chocolate brown and just plain brown. Juveniles have a banded pattern that is more prominent.

BEHAVIOR: The snake uses its blunt appearance to its advantage. When threatened, it coils and raises its tail as if it were the head, to confuse the predator.

DIET: The red sand boa consumes a variety of mammals, some feeding exclusively on other snakes. They are known to use the method of constriction implying that they paralyze their prey by tightly coiling their body around it and effectively strangling or suffocating it to death.

Chameleons

As many as 180 species of chameleon camouflage themselves in varying habitats across the world. The evolutionary adaptations of this old world lizard is fascinating, a genuine testament to the millions of years Nature has invested on its spectacular design and functioning.

DISTRIBUTION: Found primarily on the mainland of sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 50% of all chameleon species exist in Madagascar. They are also native to southern Europe, north Africa, middle east, Sri Lanka, southern India and select islands of the western Indian Ocean.

As a favourite of the pet market, this gentle reptile has emerged as an invasive species in parts of the United States (Florida, Hawaii, California).

HABITAT: Chameleons are almost always found in warm habitats inhabiting every kind of tropical rainforest, savanna available; also seen in desert and steppe.

BIOLOGY: Best known for their ability to change colour, the chameleon’s locomotion is characterised by swaying gait. They have heavily ornamented faces (especially in males) sporting crests, horns, nasal protrusions or a distinctly shaped head. Their eyes are independently mobile but co-ordinate when focusing on prey. The upper and lower eyelids of a chameleon are fused with a tiny pinhole through which their retinas observe the world in 360 degrees.

Mostly arboreal, a prehensile tail enables them to cling onto wiry tree branches as tong-like limbs carry them forward in a manner so theatrical and distinct unto chameleons. A long, slender highly modified tongue is rolled up when not in use and launched to catch prey.

The very anatomy of the chameleon is adapted for climbing and visual hunting.

MASTER OF DISGUISE: Chameleons the world over are capable of varying combinations of colour as striking as turquoise, yellow or purple. This ability functions as camouflage, social signal and to regulate temperature observed in some cases. The darker colours are reserved for agitation or intimidation; males show multicoloured patterns during courtship. This amazing ability to change colour is employed by some, like the Smith’s dwarf chameleon, in accordance to the quality of vision of different predator species.

How do they do it?

Specialised cells called chromatophores contain colour pigments present in the cytoplasm three layers below a chameleon’s transparent outer skin. The first layer is yellow + red; second is blue or white and the third melanin, a dark pigment that controls how much light is reflected. The colour pigment in each layer rapidly distributes and re-distributes to influence the animal’s colour.

FEEDING: Insectivorous, ballistically project their muscular tongue to capture prey at a distance. A chameleon’s tongue to body ratio is 1 : 1.5 or 2 on an average and temperature heavily influences the amount of food it consumes.

More on the chameleon:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2ACbO6HEq8

Slender loris in superstition

In the legitimate business of black magic, two kinds of people employ the slender loris:

The first are a unique breed of quacks who walk around with a loris in a wooden box and claim to tell you your fortune by placing both silver and gold bracelets before the shy (and scared) creature to make it choose. If it picks the gold (which it almost always does and is probably trained to do) the person will have to buy the gold chain in thanks, or her/his luck will be cursed.

The second type of slender-loris-abusing-con-artists price themselves at a premium to be used selectively, only for revenge and curses – they call themselves witches. They tie a personal belonging from the ‘victim’ very tightly to the arm of the slender loris who is then released. The witch convinces the seeker of revenge that the loris, being in tremendous pain, will surely curse the owner of the object tied to its arm, ruin their life to a point where it kills them. Thousands of people thus seek out the slender loris as the highest form of revenge – inflicting the curse of death.

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Unfortunately, in reality, the tightly tied armband cuts into the loris’ frail hand, stops blood circulation and the only thing that ends up dead or severely injured is the loris.

Other myths clouding awareness about the slender loris exist. In Tumkur, the unique orange glint by which you can recognise its eyes at night was taken for a ghost, wreaking havoc in surrounding villages. This was actually the locals’ first sighting / interaction with this primate about whom very little is known.

Read more about the loris here: Urban Wildlife: Slender Loris

Featured image: BBMP Forest Cell

The changing urban ecosystem

Despite the major advance in science and natural studies, humans are yet to comprehend the full range of impact they have on the environment. Human action are merely the first domino to fall and bring down along with it complex and intricate natural life cycles that have existed for billions of years.

Bangalore: A study of the rescue records from the last 25 years shows an explosion in the population of cobras, Russell’s vipers and rat snakes while non-venomous snakes such as green keelback, olive keelback (pictured below) are disappearing. Why?

The primary reason for this is our inefficient waste management system.

Scientifically speaking, snakes such as the cobra, Russell’s viper and rat snake have adapted well to the urban environment. The main reason for this is because of the endless supply of rodents hosted by the surplus garbage in the city. With most of our trash going straight into the gutter, the rodent population increases only to feed these expert rodent hunters better.

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Plump, well-fed cobra rescued from Bangalore city limits
The non venomous species on the other hand depend on amphibians (frogs, skinks, lizards, geckos) whose survival in turn depends on a healthy ecosystem which we no longer provide (due to degradation of resources, conflict in their allocation, climate change, urbanisation and many other factors).

Unchecked urbanisation is the reason why our co-inhabitants are dying out; the fact that we have eliminated so many species of snake from the checklist of Bangalore in such a short span of time is devastating.

From our archives: take a look at these non-venomous snakes that seem to be disappearing from the urban landscape:

Juvenile green keelback (Macropisthodon plumbicolor)
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Yellow collared wolf snake (Lycodon flavicollis) feeding on gecko
Olive keelback (Atretium schistosum)
DSC04361
Dumeril’s black headed snake (Sibynophis subpunctatus)

List of non-venomous snakes whose numbers we have noted to be on the decline (going by total rescue calls received for each specimen since 2010):

Olive keelback

Green keelback

Buff striped keelback

Vine snake

Common sand boa

Banded racer

Kukris

Bronzebacks

Common wolf snake

Barred wolf snake

Painting a gruesome tale: squirrel poaching

The Indian palm squirrel is adored across the country. From feeding them nuts as children to nursing injured baby squirrels, these cuddly rodents form a familiar part of the urban ecosystem. Common to all Indian cities, especially in the south, squirrels are seen everywhere, but little is known of their plight.

Squirrels are hunted, killed and their tails sold to the paintbrush industry. They are easy prey for old poachers who no longer possess the will nor energy to go after animals that require specialised skill to trap.

Today, towards the outskirts of Bangalore, you might have noticed local people setting up small nets in mango and other fruit orchards. These nets are for catching these timid and harmless squirrels. Easily lured by nuts and food, poachers use calls to draw them near and when caught, their tails are immediately chopped off. Certain local tribes do consume the meat but most often, the body is simply discarded.

As part of urban wildlife rescue and seizures, squirrel poaching has been observed to be rampant in and around Sarjapur Road, Whitefield, Varthur and in the Kolar District (to name a few local sites).

Record shot of poachers' belongings: net traps and dead squirrels
Record shot of poachers’ belongings: net traps, bait, squirrels killed after capture

Role in Urban Ecosystem:

Squirrels are rodents, not scavengers. Their main role being pollination, seed dispersal and a significant place in the food chain, serving as important prey for carnivorous birds and mammals.