Posted tagged ‘India’

DYK – The Bush Rat, the Indian National Congress & the Unreliable Servant

25 May 2013

What connection could the following have?

Did you know…

… that the Manipur Bush Rat (pictured) was described from the collection of A. O. Hume which he donated after his life’s work of ornithological notes were sold by a servant as waste paper?


The Manipur Bush Rat (Hadromys humei)
Painted by John Gerrard Keulemans (1842–1912) in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1886. (Public domain image)

Allan Octavian Hume Allan Octavian Hume CB (6 June 1829 – 31 July 1912) was a civil servant, political reformer and amateur ornithologist and horticulturalist in British India. Known to most of us as one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, a political party that was later to lead the Indian independence movement, few know that he was an extremely notable ornithologist who has been called “the Father of Indian Ornithology” and, by those who found him dogmatic as “the Pope of Indian Ornithology.”


Allan Octavian Hume
(Image: Frontispiece of “The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds (Vol II) . Public domain)

Hume had a vast network of correspondents all over India who sent him many skins and much information. Read about his network here on Shyamal‘s blog:

The Power of Networks – A 19th Century Tale

His collection has been described as :

..of eight great rooms, six of them full, from floor to ceiling, of cases of birds, while at the back of the house two large verandahs were piled high with cases full of large birds, such as Pelicans, Cranes, Vultures, &c. An inspection of a great cabinet containing a further series of about 5000 eggs completed our survey.

Read more about his collection here.

Hume’s interest in life science was lost in 1885 when all his manuscripts were sold by an unscrupulous servant as waste paper and after a landslip caused by heavy rains in Simla damaged his personal museum and specimens.

The Manipur Bush Rat was just one of 258 new species of animals and birds described from specimens of his collection. 


Images: From Wikimedia Commons. Click image to reach source.

Text : Wikipedia articles on “Allan Octavian Hume” and “Manipur bush rat“.

The Ibex of Sha-Ping

28 February 2010

Memorial to a young subaltern.

(Announcing the online library page of The Butterfly Diaries blog! Explore nature-writing online for free.)

Part of a green book cover with an embossed gold ibex head shown on it.

Click the image to reach the free download page from

Being a “fauji” of the Indian Army who loves the Himalayas, it is most appropriate for me to begin my free online nature writing   ‘collection’ with :

The ibex of Sha-ping, and other Himalayan studies” by Lt L.A. Rundall. 1915 (with numerous pen and ink sketches and coloured plates by the author).

An opened book standing with its outer cover facing us. The dustjacket is on and is fawn coloured. The spine bears the names of the book and author, a caricature of a bear cub, the cost (ten shillings and sixpence) and the logo for McMillan who published the book. The front jacket has the name written along the top edge and the head of an ibex in the centre.

Lt Lionel Bickersteth Rundall (1890-1914) was a young British army officer who perished in one of the battles of the First World War. Commissioned into  the British Indian Army,  Rundall  joined the “1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles (The Malaun Regiment)” . The First Gurkhas were located at Dharmsala in those days and it is from here that Rundall must have ventured forth into the mountains and vales of today’s Himachal Pradesh. He fell in love with the mountains and planned to return over and over again.

Returning to England more than once in a few years was financially difficult for subalterns in those days. The commanding officers who would have lived most of their life in strait-laced Victorian society would not grant leave to a young officer to visit the towns and cities calling such visits to where white memsahibs could be found as “poodle-faking”.

There was an old saw that goes as follows:

“A subaltern may not marry,
captains might marry,
majors should marry,
and lieutenant-colonels must marry.”

Young officers were prevented from marrying as it was felt that it could ruin them financially when the cost was added to the initial outlay for commission, uniforms, equipment, subscriptions and the mess. The purity of the mess was disturbed by marriage, as it took the officer out of the all-male warrior clique. An officer who married without getting permission from his commanding officer severely jeopardized his chances of promotion. Custom, economics and peer pressure combined to postpone marriage until quite late in life.

Instead, they were encouraged to go to hunting, shooting, pig-sticking or any other activity which would sublimate their normal sex drive. So it was in the case of Rundall. He wandered far and wide in the hills nearby. Captivated by the hgh mountains, the wild life, the cold spring water, the fresh air and the variety of Himalayan fauna not to be found anywhere today. His keen observation and talent as an artist led him to write a number of stories which he illustrated himself.  In the book, a preface contains excerpts of his last letter to his mother wherein he made plans for many more trips including a trip to Tibet. At this point of time, hardly a decade would have passed since Younghusband’s expedition had opened Tibet up to the British and such a thought would have great romantic appeal to a young man.

Alas it was not to be,  Rundall died on 19 Dec 1914.  This fact leads us to conclude that he was part of the First Battalion of the First Gurkha Rifles which went to France with the Third Lahore Division in 1914.  The first battalion was the only battalion of the First Gurkha Rifles which went to Europe during World War I. With them went my own field company, 20 Field Company of the Third Bombay Sappers and Miners, which marched down the streets of Marseilles, the very first Indian troops to set foot in France. The Indians soon found themselves in the front-lines of one of the most vicious wars ever known to mankind. In Dec 1914, the Indians were ordered to capture the village of Givenchy. The Indians fought courageously capturing two lies of enemy trenches but were forced to retreat by a strong German counter-attack  with heavy losses, including amongst the officers. It is surmised that Rundall died in this battle which raged from 18 to 22 Dec.

A few excerpts from Rundall are in order.  Illustrated with beautiful sketches and paintings by Rundall himself, his preface indicates that he had worked towards writing the book which his family published posthumously.

There is an attraction about the log fire, made up of a hundred things...

From the Preface

You who are wearied with the day’s work, and would hear of the wonders of the Himalaya, let yourself float in your imagination, out across the seas, over the parched sand of the desert, across the arid plains of India, and up into the everlasting snows where the chill night winds are sighing. There, below you, lies my camp ; in the clearing midst the dark pine forests, where the log fire blazes and crackles, and where the silver stream murmurs of the thousand mysteries of the mountains…

Come down with me to my camp. Seat yourself comfortably in my deck chair, and draw it closer to the blaze. Help yourself to whisky—I have nothing better for you, except the ice-cold water from the spring — light your pipe, and listen awhile to the stories which I will tell you, mainly of what I myself have seen, partly of what I have heard from the lips of other shikaris.

There is an attraction about the log fire, made up of a hundred things. Among these, the sweet scent of the burning pine, the sharp tongues of flame which leap and dart, the merry crackle of the dry wood, the hissing of the sap, and the myriad sparks which whirl upwards and soar floating on the wings of the blue smoke. Each but a small matter in itself but contributing to the cheery glow, and
without which it would not be complete.

So it is with the mountain, and its thousand streams, its forests and its lakes, its animals and its birds, its flowers and ferns. Without any one of them it would not be complete.

Sunset on snowy peak

Meet India’s Earth Warriors – Sanctuary/RBS Wildlife awards 2009

31 December 2009

India’s nature has many champions. Often they go unheard of or unrecognized.

Fortunately, we have the Sanctuary/Royal Bank of Scotland (earlier ABN AMRO) Wildlife Awards who recognise people from all walks of life. 2009 was the tenth year this sterling award recognised Indians for their contribution to India’s nature and wildlife.

From the high-level executive who plays an important role in policy and resource allocation to the academics who have devoted their lives to India’s biodiversity to the oft-forgotten wildlife warden or forester to the young scientist burning to contribute his bit.  All these, and more, are honoured by the Sanctuary/RBS awards.

This year (2009) the 2009 Sanctuary/RBS Awards prizes went to :-

The Lifetime Service Award went to Brijendra Singh who has kept Corbett safe for over four decades!

The Wildlife Service awards went to Prabir Kumar Palei of Simlipal Tiger Reserve, Narhari Pandurang Bagrao who restored the damaged forests of Shahapur in Thane, Paresh Chandrakant Parob for his fierce commitment to the Goa forest lands under his control and his courage in the face of powerful vested interests, Drs Divya Mudappa and TR Shankar Raman for their exceptional contribution to saving the Western Ghats and Mike Pandey for his wonderful wildlife films which brought environment into the homes of the common Indian through DD.

The Young Naturalists award went to Prosper S Marak, Aamod Zambre and Vishal Bhave.

Prosper Marak has changed the face of Meghalaya's forests with his activism.

Aamod Zambre is a champion of scorpions.

Some of you may remember Aamod from my post on him and his friend Chintan Sheth. They are definitely living up to their promise and potential!

Vishal Bhave is doing path breaking studies of the sea slugs on our shores.

More power to these young naturalists of India!

Vijay Pinjarkar journalistic reports have forced the government to action on many environmental issues. – Courtesy:Vijay PinjarkarVijay Pinjarkar and the Nagpur Times of India won the Wind in the Wings Award for his brilliant investigative stories and his dogged pursuit of those who would violate the environmental and conservation laws of the land.

The Green Teacher awarsdwas won by Dr MR & Dr (Mrs) Sarah Almeida for nurturing, guiding and shaping young minds to explore and understand the mysterious world of plants.

Read more about them on the original post on the Sanctuary Asia website.

Whither India on climate change!

6 December 2009

Snigdha Kar

This blog is graced by guest articles from its readers from time to time. We have already seen articles by Sarabjeet Singh and Shyamal. The guest writer is free to choose from any of the subjects with which this blog is concerned and the topic post is also of his/her choice.

This time, on the eve of the Copenhagen summit, we have a guest post from a young climate change activist – Snigdha Kar who chose to write on the subject closest to her heart – Climate change and India!

Here is a short biodata :

Snigdha Kar is a Zoology graduate who has worked as an Environment Educator with BNHS. While working in Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, she was fascinated by the importance of each species on earth and how each species is interdependent on the other. This experience has motivated her to work for saving the nature specially biodiversity conservation. She believes that awareness is one of the solutions for climate change, a major threat to biodiversity which has not received adequate recognition from the Indian wildlife community. Presently pursuing masters in Geographical Information Systems, Snigdha is a keen birdwatcher and photographer. Snigdha is an active member of the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN), a coalition uniting Indian youth and Indian youth-oriented organisations who are concerned about climate change.

Whither India on climate change!


Snigdha Kar

There has been considerable discussion on COP15 arising out of the meetings at Bangkok, Bonn, Barcelona and elsewhere. So many bilateral dialogues between countries, especially the debate between India, China and the global community, their follow-through the net, I am left wondering what exactly is it that we will be discussing at Copenhagen? More specifically, what will India be speaking and expecting : Will it be India’s stand of the developed world taking stringent emission cuts? Or Will it be the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012? Or Will it be common but differentiated responsibility? And Continuing with Annex I and Annex II definitions? Being part of Indian Youth Climate Network, I had the privilege of meeting some of the present and past negotiators like Mr. Shyam Saran, Mr. Surya Sethi, Dr. Nitin Desai, Ambassador Dasgupta and, best of all, informally with our Minister Mr. Jairam Ramesh as well.

We discussed and debate over lots of issues with these honourable negotiators but I am still very, very confused on how Government of India will approach the global negotiators. Obviously, they are not opening their cards at this stage but even after following and tracking the actions in detail over the last few months, I am unable to second-guess them. Right now I feel that our Prime Minister Dr. Singh might participate in the COP15 and through one of my contacts, I have learned that Mr. Pranab Mukerjee will be visiting Copenhagen for a day. (Current news reports have proved my belief right.)


The discussions have led me to believe with growing certainty that is a tangible difference in opinion between our negotiators. So would Dr. Singh be participating in COP to balance the two sides or will he pass on clear lucid instructions to guide the negotiators’ work?

Or to put it crudely, what’s the deal India desires?

If the US absolutely refuses to do things as we expect, which is quite possible then are we going to keep at it like the tongue reaches for a sore tooth? Will our preoccuation with the US monopolize our focus to the point that we say chuck the whole world, we will work within our borders to become the one developing country which did the best with the resources
available to us?

What are the chances of getting a fair and equitable deal at Copenhagen?

Many experts are predictably pessimistic; but being young, I don’t share their gloomy worldview. Today’s youth has a responsibility to make the policy makers accountable for their actions as whatever they do today will affect our future drastically. I sincerely hope that some kind of sane and positive political agreement will be made at the end of this year.

This is really a crucial time; the effects of global warming are very visible and the developing countries like ours are more vulnerable to the adverse effect of temperature rise. Our agriculture depends on monsoon; change in rainfall pattern has decreased our crop yield. We have a long coast line and will suffer if the sea level rises.

Sad to say, most of us should be aware of these likely consequences and their effect on our lives. I should not need to say too much on this.

Needed – A New Paradigm

Part of our problem is that we are hypocrites! When we talk about inequity in global climate dialogue, our policy makers conveniently forget about the inequity within the nation?

One of the leading Indian negotiators has said:

“I know there is inequity within India but this does not means that I will accept inequity in international forum.”

My question to him is what are you doing to reduce this inequity within our own country? Is it fair to dislocate thousands of people from the area they are living for years to build a nuclear plant? Must people living next to a thermal power plant need to experience the silent and deadly mercury poisoning but not reap any benefits of the electricity as they are not connected to grid?

Whom is this energy security for? The industries or the people who are rich and lives in cities like Delhi or Mumbai? Is it not the correct time to redefine the word “development” for which we are fighting in such global negotiations?

Its not that difficult to shift the paradigm of development toward a low carbon pathway. The National Action Plan on Climate Change has set very ambitious targets but I don’t any action or political will to push for action to meet those targets.

When nothing happens on ground, how can the result be anything but a big ZERO? The solar mission has set high targets which give us hope that poor villages will get clean, cheap and reliable domestic power supply. But once again, no steps has been taken. There is lack of communication between two ministries. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy was not aware about the solar mission until the PM’s document was released.

Similarly the Ministry of Railways doesn’t quite know how to mitigate the overcrowding in the transport sector by multiplying India’s freight capacities manifold! So what the pessimists feel appears to be true! With so much institutional neglect, lack of political will and the myriad complications in Indian politics, what can any citizen of India reasonably expect from Copenhagen?

If the powers that be recognise the essetial need to address energy inequity in our country, then and then alone will our nation be secure even if we get the most favourable terms in Copenhagen.

Can the discussion at Copenhagen be about realising that its the duty of each one of us to save Nature from catastrophic effects of climate change and by each one of us I mean every country of the world. Rather than playing a blame game of who is responsible for what percentage of damage, can we agree on a common responsibility of protecting our future?

We are sailing in one boat, now whomsoever has made the hole, its the responsibility of everyone to repair it otherwise all of us will sink. Somebody will have to come up with material to block the hole and that’s what the developing countries are asking for technology and financial transfer but it doesn’t mean that the developing countries can’t do anything without support. If someone put fire on your house, would you wait for him to support you to reduce the fire, come on its your home and you will have to save it.

There are ways in which each one of us can contribute to save the earth. Yes, I am talking about lifestyle change. I have done this and hope many of you are doing so. We still have the responsibility to make our policy makers accountable. I would like to request you all to raise your voice against issues which you think are critical. We have chosen our leaders and we can, must, will ask them what they are doing for our country.

About the Copenhagen deal, why worry about what America does or doesn’t, KP or not, common but differentiated or not? Are resources really a problem? If India just restructures its leaking and completely illogical subsidy structures then we could be in a position to fund not only our carbon sequestration but also projects in our neighboring countries. So the question of requiring funds from the West is gone. Are we going to have the guts to take leadership on dismantling our subsidies and creating resources within the country for everything from efficient and intelligent public transport to a spread of renewable like never before?

Are we talking technology for doing all this? I thought we had the best brains in the world? And anyway when we have the money from the source above then we can import the best solutions.

Sadly, the discussion in Copenhagen is not about climate change – its about the economics and politics of nations only. Whatever is the result of that deal, the fact remains that every leak has to be plugged in, every little done. There is no respite from responsibility in case of climate change. No sweet Lethe to bemuse us into procastination.

The time is Now for all of us – Copenhagen or not!

I would like highlight Anupam Mishra’s focus on ‘philosophical’ angle to the climate problem. So far, our emphasis has been on scientific solutions, which has caused more problems than it solves.

Science appeals to the mind, but philosophy fills the heart; both approaches are complementary for the optimal solution!

Lets try our best right now so that our descendants may live to see a clean, green world.

The Raptors and the Agamid

14 July 2009

(Reprinted from Indian Birds Vol 5 No 1, kind courtesy Aasheesh Pittie)

A posting to the desert for an army-man is not unusual and I got my chance to serve in this terrain in mid 2004, at Jaipur, after more than 20 years of service; on all previous occasions as a junior officer, I had passed through fleetingly with hardly a chance to notice or experience anything. Now a Commanding Officer, I eagerly anticipated getting a good look at the landscape and its wildlife.

At the first opportunity I wandered off into the desert in a Gypsy 4WD. Driving eastward along the NH from Jaisalmer towards Jodhpur, I saw an obscure desert track and turned onto it, speeding on the sandy track across the country, towards the beckoning dunes. On each side were wide-open spaces punctuated by the occasional ‘khejri’ tree Prosopis cinerarea. A cross-breeze trickled sand across the track and shadows grew long as the sun paused over dunes. A small desert fox Vulpes vulpes pusilla with a bushy, white-tipped tail (Menon 2003) ran away from the vehicle.

All of a sudden, a large lizard zipped across the road, a few metres ahead of me, and dived into the sand. Before I could apply the brakes, the lizard was gone. I could not register what exactly had happened, even though it happened again and yet again. Lizards zoomed past, left and right. I was driving across a lizard colony like a German panzer division across the Russian steppe. In the fading light, the impression that stood out fleetingly was that of a thick tail with black and white rings.

A few days later, I ventured across the same path at midmorning. I soon came across the colony of dust-brown lizards. Stopping the vehicle and getting out scared them away, so I resorted to driving up as close as I could and using binoculars. I looked hard and long at a large, snub-headed lizard with a ringed tail. I had finally met up with Uromastyx hardwickii Gray, 1827, Hardwicke’s spiny-tailed lizard or ‘sanda’ as it is called in Hindi (Daniel 1983).

Spinytailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii).  Image by Clement Francis

Fig 1 - Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii). Image by Clement Francis

These lizards belong to the family Agamidae and are the only species of Uromastyx to be found in India—most of their relatives being North African or West Asian—with stubby legs holding a less-than-half-a-metre long cylindrical body barely off the sand, these vegetarian agamids hold up their large rounded heads, with flat snouts, smartly as they alertly look ahead. The slightest alarm sends them zipping off into their burrows in the sand. Their most interesting aspect is the tail. It has blue-gray spines arranged in whorls along its length, decreasing in size towards the tip, which is a pale or earthy yellow in colour.

The Uromastyx is one of the few lizards utilised by man. In North Africa, it is considered ‘dhaab’ or fish of the desert and relished by Islamic nomad tribes (Grzimek 2003). In India too, these lizards are caught for their meat, about which Malcolm Smith (1935) says, ‘…with certain castes of Hindoos it is a regular article of diet…the meat is said to be excellent and white like chicken… the head and feet are not eaten, but the tail is considered a great delicacy…the fat of the body is boiled down and the resulting oil is used as an embrocation and also as a cure for impotence.’

Uromastix hardwickii represents the southern and eastern limit of the extent of the Indo-African reptile fauna (Günther 1864). Interestingly, the lizard is named after a fellow-soldier, Major General Thomas Hardwicke, who is considered the first colossus of Indian natural history. He arrived at Fort William in 1778 as an artillery cadet in the Bengal Presidency Army, fought in the Rohilla and Mysore wars and was commended for gallantry on the battlefield. By 1809, he rose to command the Bengal Presidency Artillery. His span of duty and area of natural history study lay mostly in what is today Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Assam and Bangladesh (Singh 2006).

I visited the lizard colony often—initially, I thought them ugly but soon found that they looked very good to my eyes. They were always basking in the sun. I spent a couple of hours one day trying to observe them feeding. I hoped to see them nibbling on the ‘siniya’ shrubs Crotalaria burhia or tufts of ‘buadiAerva pseudotomentosa (?) that dotted the landscape around them. A few Prosopis of the native variety, whose beans they are reported to eat (Daniel 1983), were present within a few metres of the colony. The colony itself was on a flat, firm gap between eroded sand dunes which had been stabilised by vegetation and were barely two meters high. The desert track meandered along this flat for a 100 m or so, which constituted the diameter of the colony.

One day, my son and I had the rare privilege of observing a predator catching its prey. A few lizards basked outside their burrows while the rest were inside. All at once and apparently from nowhere, a brown raptor swooped straight down, with trailing wings and extended talons. Before the hapless lizards could gain shelter, it had caught a small agama. In the wink of an eye, the rest of the lizards were out of sight. The raptor’s sharp claws soon ended a few seconds of struggle. It remained on the sand about 60 m away, feeding ravenously. It was unaware of its audience, since its back was towards us, and I was forced to edge onto the dune and outflank it from the east. On reaching a vantage point, I had a good look at it through the binoculars. It fed hungrily for a good 15 min.

Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger) feeds on a Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii).

Fig 2 - Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger) feeds on a Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii).

It was a dark brown falcon, with prominent moustaches and a white chest. Its thighs were dark-brown and it had a brown crown. Grimmett & Inskipp (2001), a book that I find handy, despite their pesky habit of renaming Indian birds, told me that it was a Laggar Falcon Falco jugger. I later had the identification reconfirmed through the kind courtesy of a member of India-nature-pix.

In about 20 min, the falcon had eaten the lizard. I could hardly see any remains. Angling to get a better view, I alerted it. After a moment or two, it flew off. I walked up to the kill, but had a hard time locating the forlorn grey tail, which was all that remained.

All that remains - a forlorn tail; the rest the falcon ate!

All that remains - a forlorn tail; the rest the falcon ate!

I visited the colony often, hoping to see more signs of predation. Since the local foxes are largely nocturnal, I had not had an opportunity to observe their feeding behaviour. I suspected that these lizards, and the many small rodents that poked their heads out after dark, formed part of their diet.

For a few months, nothing interesting happened during my field trips. Then in mid-summer, I chanced to go south of Jaisalmer. It was a windy day. The sand blew steadily, forming a constant desert haze. I found a small colony of Uromastyx next to the road. To my surprise, this time there was a raptor nearby. It was a large, brown, heavy-set Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax perched on a desiccated ‘rohida’ tree Tecomella undulata.

A Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax) in the Thar desert. Image - Ashwin Baindur.

A Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax) in the Thar desert.

The lizards and eagle appeared to be oblivious of each other and seemingly intent only on braving out the scouring sandstorm. The swirling sand inhibited the use of binoculars so I walked up to the tree, upon which the raptor took off into the brown swirls. Numerous white streaks on the bole and branches told me that it was a favourite perch. I sifted the litter at the base of the tree in the hope of getting pellets but found something else—desiccated spiny-tail fragments and a few bones. This seemed to indicate that the Tawny Eagle was a likely predator of Uromastyx.

Debris below Tawny Eagle perch: bones, old pellets and an Uromastyx tail.

Fig 3 - Debris below Tawny Eagle perch: bones, old pellets and a Uromastyx tail.

The Tawny Eagle was one of my constant objectives in the field—a strong and agile bird of prey—it was the predominant avian desert raptor. During a drive on 11th June 2006, along what I call ‘Eagle Alley’, a 10 km stretch of road between Pokharan and Khetolai, I counted 12 Tawny Eagles perched on wires, masters of all they surveyed.

A few days later, I returned to Eagle Alley to see a handsome Tawny Eagle, a beautiful near-orange-fawn in colour, sitting on a concrete fence picket near Chacha Odhaniya railway station. It looked at me very distastefully and proceeded to express its opinion of me by being violently sick! It then flew off without a backward glance. I suspected that it had just ejected a pellet and scrambled across barbed wire and thorn to get at it. I was gratified to find a sticky yellow-white pellet with spines of Uromastyx clearly visible. I photographed the pellet, delicately maneuvered it into a polythene bag and brought it home; but alas some over zealous house cleaning left me with no chance to dissect it.

The Tawny Eagle who expressed his opinion!

Fig 4 - The Tawny Eagle who expressed his opinion!

The freshly egested pellet shows spines of Uromastyx. Image - Ashwin Baindur.

The freshly egested pellet shows spines of Uromastyx.

Lydekker (1895) states about the Saker Falcon Falco cherrug that, ‘In the Harriana Desert of India these falcons feed largely on a spiny lizard of the genus Uromastix.’

The Saker Falcon is, of course, a winter visitor to the Indian Subcontinent, while the Tawny Eagle and the Laggar Falcon are residents. The Spiny-tailed lizard, being locally common in patches, is probably a significant food source for these birds of prey of the Indian Desert.

Soon after, my unit moved out from Rajasthan and I saw my last Spiny-tailed lizards on a stormy July evening braving the sand sitting close to their shelters. Nearby somewhere, I was sure, were Tawny Eagles, girding themselves against the gritty dust storm, which brought my tryst with the desert to an end. Our special train chugged out of Lathi at nightfall and I left the desert and all its mysteries behind me yet again.


Nandan Kalbag for identification of plants; Dr J. Pranay Rao of Raptor Conservation Foundation, Hyderabad, for confirming identities of the raptors mentioned in the article; Pervez Cama, Ashok Captain and L. Shyamal for encouragement and guidance.


  • Daniel, J. C. 1983. The book of Indian reptiles. Mumbai: Bombay Natural History Society. Grimmett, R., Inskipp, C. & Inskipp, T. 2001.
  • Pocket guide to the birds of the Indian Subcontinent. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Grzimek, B. 2003. Grzimek’s animal life encyclopedia (second edition): Vol. 7—reptiles. Farmington Hills, Minnesota: Thomson-Gale.
  • Günther, A. C. L. G. 1864. The reptiles of British India. London: Robert Hardwick. Electronic reprint of 2000 by Arment Biological Press.
  • Lydekker, R. 1895. The Royal natural history. Vol 4. London: Frederick Warne.
  • Menon, V. 2003. A field guide to Indian mammals. New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley & Penguin India.
  • Singh, Lt. Gen. Baljit (Retd). 2006. Fauna and Flora: contributions by the Indian Army officers 1778–1952. Dec06_13. htm. (Accessed: 10th December 2008).
  • Smith, M. A. 1935. The fauna of British India including Ceylon and Burmah, Reptilia and Amphibia: Sauria. Vol 2. London: Taylor and Francis.
  • Wikipedia ( articles on Uromastyx hardwickii, Aquila rapax and Falco jugger.


All images (less the first one by Clement Francis) are by Ashwin Baindur and are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 2.5.

A Decorative Beetle

12 July 2009

Calothyrza margaritifera - a Cerambycid beetle recently found in Pen.

Calothyrza margaritifera - a Cerambycid beetle recently found in Pen.

On a afternoon in early July, at Vavoshi near Pen, my father-in-law, Mr Nandan Kalbag spotted an intriguing beetle in black and white. It resembled a stylised Guy Fawkes mask of the kind that I remember seeing in ‘V for Vendetta‘. It was perched on a hanging flower-vase and was motionless. It stayed there awhile and after a couple of hours it was gone.

One of the big advantages of being a son-in-law of a man keenly interested in the natural world around him is a steady stream of images and anecdotes which permit me to vicariously enjoy those moments with him. In course of time, the image came to me, was bunged onto the InsectIndia yahoo-group. There it was picked up by a friend and forwarded to a Dr Hemant Ghate of the Zoology Dept of Modern College in Pune, a man desperately keen on beetles. After consulting with Dan Heffern, an American engineer turned coleopterist, a verdict was delivered – the culprit was identified as Calothyrza margaritifera which was described by Westwood in 1848.

Common names are a luxury available to enthusiasts of mammals, birds, butterflies, a few reptiles and amphibians. In the world of arthropods, there are very few common names. Calothyrza margaritifera – the name meant nothing to me. I don’t really know much about beetles – I am quite prone to mis-spelling them too; I forget they are ‘beetles’ not ‘beatles’. India has no recent handbooks on beetles for the amateur. It took a little patient digging online to find out a little more about this curious insect.

Calothyrza margaritifera is a longicorn or long-horned beetle; it belongs to the family Cerambycidae. Most but not all cerambycids have antennae longer than their bodies. These beetles are wood-borers and some are economically significant pests. Some small cerambycids mimic ants, wasps and bees. A member of this beetle family is considered to be the largest insect in existence today.

C. margaritifera belongs to the tribe Phrynetini of the subfamily Lamiinae. The beetle volumes of the Fauna of British India of the early twentieth century vintage are the only tomes available to the amateur naturalist of India. Unfortunately Charles Joseph Gahan, the author of the Cerambycidae section only wrote one volume which unfortunately excludes the Lamiinae, those taxa being reserved for the never written second Volume.

The known range of C. margaritifera embraces the Central Himalayas of India and Nepal, and extends across Myanmar to Thailand. The discovery of this beetle in Raigad district of Maharashtra is then an important range extension. Fortunately, the species has a very distinct look so that, strictly speaking, a specimen may not be needed to record the find.

Like most picturesque long-horned beetles, Calothyrza margaritifera demands a substantial price on the international specimen trade – prices typically range from ten to 35 dollars each. Most Calothyrza specimens show Thailand as their area of origin. One may think that the Biological Diversity Act of 2002 as amended may protect Indian beetles but there is ample evidence to the contrary on the internet, this site being one such example. Single Calothyrza margaritifera specimens, and occasionally pairs appear for sale in insect catalogues and sometimes on E-Bay!

We are often reminded of the need to preserve and protect our biodiversity by stories of how such and such organism s being investigated for new science, fresh discoveries and path-breaking insights. It may interest you to know that Calothyrza margaritifera is one of those. In this case, the vivid white of the beetle cuticle is being investigated at the nano-technological level. The vivid whiteness of the beetle’s cuticle is not the result of a hue but rather the nano-structure of pill-shaped chitin growths. The abstract of the paper, presented in a symposium on ‘Bioinspired and biointegrated materials as new frontiers for nanomaterials’ (Symposum M) on 10 Jun 2009 at 12:05 hrs this year in Strasbourg, can be found here.

What worries me most is that there are hundreds of such delicious scientific curiosities waiting to be discovered in our jungles which may never come into existence before the forests and their associated biodiversity are lot forever.

Image credit – Mr Nandan Kalbag (under Creative Commons 2.5 SA)


20 January 2009

(An extract from ‘A Naturalist on the Prowl’ by E.H. Aitken)

A naturalist on the prowl!

Prowling on the seashore one evening, I espied another prowler, and he espied me, and avoided me as the burglar avoids the policeman. He did not run away, but just deflected his course a little, took advantage of a dip in the sandy beach, got behind a growth of screw pines and was not there. It was getting too dark to see clearly, but by these tactics I knew that he was a jackal. He had come down in the hope of catching a few crabs for his supper. Scarcely had he got himself away when, with a shrill squeak and a scrambling rush, a fat musk rat escaped from my foot into a heap of stones. What was it doing there? Hunting for crabs. Now there is something very revolting in the thought that crabs are liable to be killed and eaten by foul jackals and disgusting musk rats. The crabs are a peculiarly interesting people, like the ancient inhabitants of Mexico, unique and not to be ranked with the other tribes of the earth.


Professor Owen holds that the hand of man suffices to separate him from all other animals almost as widely as any two of them differ from each other. “The consequences,” he says, “of the liberation of one pair of limbs from all service in station and progression are greater, and involve a superior number and quality of powers, than those resulting from the change of an ungulate into an unguiculate condition of limb.” Think me not a mocker if I suggest that the crab shares this endowment with man, and perhaps that is the reason why he seems to stand apart from all other creatures that are clothed with shells. By pedigree the crab, I admit, is but a prawn which has curled its tail under its stomach and taken to walking; but no one who has lived much among crabs and associated with them, so to speak, can lump them with prawns and other shell-fish good for curry. A crab is not like a lower animal. He does not seem to work by instinct. All his avocations are carried on as if he had fixed principles, and his whole behaviour is so deliberate and decorous that you feel almost sure, if you could get a proper introduction to him, he would shake hands with you.

At times I have thought I detected a broad grin on the face of an old crab, but this may be fancy. I incline to the idea, however, that he has a sense of humour. He is courageous too-not foolhardy, but wisely valiant, and marvellously industrious. Watch him as he repairs his house flooded by the tide. Cautiously he appears at the door with a great ball of sand in his arms, and erecting his eyes to see if any enemy is near, advances a few paces, lays his burden down and returns to dig. Again he appears and puts a second ball besides the first, and so on till there is a long even row of them. A second row is then laid alongside the first, then a third, and a fourth; then a passage is left, after which a few rows more are laid down. So rapidly is the work done that the tide has scarcely retired when the whole beach is chequered with flowerlike patterns radiating from a thousand holes. These are the work of infant crabs mostly, for as they grow older they venture to retire further from low water mark, where the sand is dry and will not hold together in balls. Then they bring it up in armfuls and toss it to a distance. But, old or young, their houses are swamped and obliterated twice in every twenty-four hours, and twice dug out again; from which you may judge what a life of labour the sand crab lives.

The sand crabs reach almost upto the Screw pine (Pandanus) zone.

The sand crabs reach almost upto the Screw pine (Pandanus) zone.

The sand crab...

The sand crab...

...and his labour.

...and his labour.

Plover patrol! Watch out, sand crabs!

Plover patrol (foreground)! Watch out, little sand crabs!

He is, I think, the noblest of his race. Living on the open champaign of the white sea-shore, he learns to trust for safety to the keenness of his sight and the fleetness of his limbs. Each eye is a miniature watch-tower, or observatory, and his legs span seven times the length of his body. When he runs he seems to be on wheels: you can fancy you hear them whirr. But, keen as is his sight and amazing as is his speed, he more than needs it all; for, alas! he is very tasty and all the world knows it. In his early days the sandpipers and shore birds, nay, the very crows and preh pudor! my turkey patrol the water’s edge, and he scarcely dares to show his face by daylight. Then, as he grows beyond the fear of petty enemies, he comes within the ken of greater ones. The kite, sailing high overhead, swoops like a thunderbolt and carries him off. The great kingfisher, concealed in an overhanging bough, watches its opportunity, and when he has wandered far from his hole, darts upon him and scoops him up in its long beak. The kestrel hawks him, dogs hunt him in sheer wantonness, jackals hunt him to eat him, owls lie in wait for him, and when he takes refuge in the water, an army of sharks and rays is ready for him. And man closes the list.

“These wild eyes that watch the wave
In roarings by the coral reef’

are watching mostly for crabs. He is drawn from his hole with hooks, dug out with shovels, caught in traps, netted with nets, and even in the darkness of night distracted with the sudden glare of flambeaux and knocked over with sticks.

Man - arch-enemy and predator no 1.

Man - arch-enemy and predator no 1. The crabs in the basket are Three-spotted Crabs (Portunus sanguinolentus), a swimming crab. The crabs in the basket were caught at sea by local fishermen using nets and were at Harne beach waiting to be sold. (Identification - 'Marine Life in India' by BF Chapgar.)

Many are the ways in which the race of crabs have sought to shun their thousand foes, some by watchfulness and wisdom, or cunning and skill, some along paths of degeneracy and shame. In the aeons long gone by, it seems, there lived a craven crab who condescended to seek safety by thrusting his hinder end into an empty shell, and to-day his descendants are as the sand on the sea-shore for multitude, dragging their cumbrous houses about with them and thrusting out their distorted arms to pick up food, and shrinking in again at the least sign of danger. Safety they have bought with degradation, but there are moments of supreme peril even in the base life that they lead; for the crab grows and the shell does not, and it is an inexorable law of nature that, when you change your coat, you must put off the old before you put on the new. The most ludicrous sight I ever saw was two hermit crabs competing for an empty shell. Neither of them could by any means take possession without exposing his naked and deformed posteriors to the mercy of the other, and this he dared not do; so they manoeuvred and circled round that shell and made grimaces at each other till I laughed like the blue jays in Jim Baker’s yarn.

A hermit crab (Superfamily Paguroidea)

A hermit crab (Superfamily Paguroidea)

The hermit crab drawn out in full splendour!

The hermit crab drawn out in full splendour!

Others of the race have tried to win security by burying themselves in the mud at the bottom of the sea and stretching out their beggar hands for food. The hands work hard, but the stomach is starved, and in some of this family the body has dwindled into a mere appendage to a great pair of claws. Of these is the giant from Japan, whose grim skeleton, eleven feet in stretch of limb, adorns the walls of the Bombay Natural History Society. Smaller specimens are common about Bombay.

The Japanese spider-crab (Macrocheira kaempferi), largest known arthropod.

The Japanese spider-crab (Macrocheira kaempferi), largest known arthropod.

Then there are crabs which make their backs a garden and grow seaweeds and even anemones, under whose umbrageous shelter they roam about the bed of the ocean in aesthetic security.

Midway between the mud crabs and the sand crabs is one whose ingenuity and adroitness rescue it from contempt. Its hind legs are transformed into an absurd pair of shovels, and the length of its eyes is simply ridiculous. If you have patience to sit perfectly motionless for a time at some spot in Back Bay where the retreating tide has left a dead level of oozy slime, you will see a hundred of these little blueish creatures moving about and collecting some form of nourishment from the mud with their quaint and crooked claws; but move’ a hand, and presto! they are gone. In an instant they have put themselves under the mud and left nothing, except perhaps the points of their long eyes, in the air.

A Fiddler Crab.... a mere appendage to a great pair of claws.

A Fiddler Crab.... a mere appendage to a great pair of claws.

Then there is the Calling Crab, which has fostered one hand until it has grown into a veritable Roman shield, behind which the owner may shelter himself, calmly taking his food with the other. How these hold their own I cannot tell. They are not strong, nor yet swift, nor wary; but wherever the sand is soft and black, they people the shore in countless numbers. It may be that that blazing muster of gaunt, mailed hands in orange and red, ceaselessly beckoning to all the world to come, tries the courage even of a hungry crow. I am inclined to think this is the explanation of the matter, for I have often seen one of the feeblest of the mud crabs collect in dense squadrons and perform long journeys over the open shore, with nothing to protect them from wholesale slaughter unless it was the fear inspired by such an ominous mass of legs and arms.

Sally Lightfoot! The agile Red Rock Crab (Grapsus grapsus)

Sally Lightfoot! The agile Red Rock Crab (Grapsus grapsus)

Where the foaming waves dash themselves against rugged rocks and moss-clad boulders, with black fissures between, and here and there a clear pool, tenanted by anemones and limpets and a quivering, darting little fish, chafing in prison till the next tide shall come and set it free, there the sand crab is replaced by the crab of the rocks, most supple-limbed of living things. How it turns the corner of a mossy rock, as slippery as that

“plug of Irish soap
Which the girl had left on the topmost stair,”

and awaits unmoved the onset of a great wave, then resumes its meal, daintily picking off morsels of fresh moss with its hands and putting them into its mouth. A life of constant watchfulness it lives and hourly peril, as many an empty shell in the pool bears witness. Its direst enemy, I believe, is the ghastly octopus, that ocean spider, lurking in crack or crevice, with deadly feelers extended, alive to their very tips and ready for the THE SWIMMING CRAB unwary. That this gelatinous goblin should be able to master the mail-clad warrior is wonderful but true. All his armour and his defiant claws avail nothing against the soft embrace of eight long arms and the kiss of a little crooked beak.


Though their proper home is the border line between land and water, the crabs have pushed their conquests over nature in all directions. Some swim in the open sea, their feet being flattened into paddles, and these are horribly armed with long and sharp spines for the correction of greedy fishes. They have been found in the Bay of Biscay, a hundred miles from land, and are common on the coasts of England, where they are said to kill large numbers of mackerel. Bombay fishermen often find them in their nets. Other crabs inhabit the forests, climbing trees. Of these we have one beautiful species, all purple and blue.

The tree climbing Coconut Robber (Birgus latro)

The tree climbing Coconut Robber (Birgus latro)

Others have their home in the fields, lying buried during the months of drought, and coming to life when the rain has softened the earth. They love the rain, and often have I drawn them from their holes by means of a fraudulent shower from a watering can. Slowly the poor dupe comes out to enjoy it, and when his feet show themselves at the door, you can thrust in a trowel and cut off his retreat. Then he knows he has been fooled, and backing into a corner, extends his great claws and defies the world.

Did you ever see a motherly land crab with all her children about her, leading them among the tender grass on which they feed, like a hen with her chickens, and when their little legs are weary, gathering them into her pouch and carrying them home? It is a pretty picture, and I wish I could paint in the father of the family; but the truth must be told, and I am afraid that when he meets with his offspring, he runs them down and eats them. At least I saw such a chase once. Never did crab flee as that little one fled from the chela sequentes of his dire parent. He doubled and dodged and ran again, but all in vain! He was caught and nipped in two. Then came Nemesis in the form of my dog, and the pursuer was pursued. In his flurry he lost his way, and darting into the wrong hole, all but fell into the arm~ of a bigger crab than itself. Darting out again, he was instantly crushed by a great paw.

You may ask how I know that the big crab was father of the little one. I do not know that he was; but what does it matter? He did not know he was not.

A family meal!

A family meal!

Image credits & licensing information :

  • Note. This document is published under Gnu Free Documentation License.
  • Line drawings F.C. McRae in the original print of E.H. Aitken’s ‘A naturalist on the prowl’ and are accordingly public domain.
  • Photos of screw-pines, sand crabs, plover patrol, crabs in basket – self. [Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 with Self-attribution].
  • Remaining photos taken from Wikimedia Commons. Please search among category ‘Crabs’ for the source images originals and their exact license restrictions.

Note 2. After I had written this blog, I realised that I had bought a natural history book some time ago about creatures of the sea. I dug it up from my book box and began reading it. I was surprised – here was so much that I wanted to learn and and all the while the book was waiting patiently for me to fetch it from its place. I’m referring to  ‘Marine Life in India‘  written by B.F. Chapgar, the renowned Indian marine biologist and doyen of the BNHS. Published as recently as 2006, it is written in a very easy to read and understand style, with nice photographs, lots of small chapters each concerning a group of animals or aspect of sea life and lots and lots of line-diagrams. If this blog about crabs interested you, and you are an amateur naturalist in India who would like to learn more about this fascinating new world, don’t have second thoughts but go out and get your own copy! It costs Rs 350/- which is not costly for such a book by today’s standards.

Disclaimer. Please note I have no commercial considerations with Oxford University Press and I am not unfortunately personally acquainted with the author.