Kanha's fauna

Secret lives in a nature reserve

Print edition : July 07, 2017

The barn owl. The species is threatened outside protected areas. Photo: Anant Zanjale

A verdant forest area in the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Sanjay K. Shukla

Neelam the tigress and her cubs crossing a waterbody. Photo: Sanjay K. Shukla

A black-faced langur taking refuge in a tree hole in summer. Photo: Anant Zanjale

A leopard family on the lookout for prey. It is extremely unusual to see an entire family of this elusive and solitary animal. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

Sloth bear cubs taking a ride on their mother’s back, a rare sighting. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

An Indian pangolin with its characteristic self-protective large scales. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

The honey badger. It is an omnivore with very sharp teeth. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

An Indian python and a porcupine. Pythons sometimes eat porcupines, only to die later. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

An Indian hare uncomfortably close to an Indian python. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

The small Indian civet. A mostly arboreal species, it is nocturnal and an omnivore. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

The palm civet. This variant of the species has characteristic white patches. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

A porcupine mother-young duo. Porcupines are large rodents with quills for self-defence. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

A jackal making off with an animal leg. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

The rusty spotted cat. One of the smallest wild cats, it lives on trees and rocky hides and is found only in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Mostly nocturnal and elusive, it feeds on small-sized prey. It is also hunted for food in several places. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

The hyena. It is an amazing animal with powerful jaws and strong teeth. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

A small pack of wild dogs at a sambar kill. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

A common mongoose mother with her young. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

A smooth-coated otter near a waterbody. It is a critically endangered species. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

The mouse deer. It is the smallest deer species, is nocturnal and lives in tree holes. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

A jungle cat with a mouse. Photo: Wildlife Institute of India/Kanha

The changeable hawk eagle with a mongoose that it has hunted. Photo: Anant Zanjale

A male sloth bear rubbing his back against a tree trunk for chemical communication with breeding females. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The Indian giant squirrel. It is an amazing arboreal animal that lives in multiple nests and comes down only to drink water. Photo: Rajneesh Singh

The bamboo pit viper. It is a poisonous snake that hunts mostly at night. Photo: Anant Zanjale

A barking deer pair at a water hole. It is a mostly solitary animal. Photo: Anant Zanjale

Indian vultures feeding on a sambar deer carcass. Photo: Rahul Sharma

Kanha is home to not only the tiger but also a wide range of lesser faunal species that lead interesting lives and play important roles in the ecosystem. Kanha’s network of camera traps gives us a glimpse of their world.

IT was the waning-moon fortnight in October, and it would be another two hours or so before the moon would shine. We were driving through a pure sal patch at the Kanha Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, when the headlights of our vehicle fell on an Indian, or black-napped, hare, often wrongly called a rabbit, an animal that does not occur in the Indian subcontinent. Startled by the light, the sprinter darted along the straight forest road, zigzagging in quick leaps, freezing strategically with amazing suddenness, and then resuming the dash again. This fascinating and vulnerable creature has large eyes that are positioned to allow for excellent broad-field vision and are adapted to its crepuscular (dawn and dusk time) and nocturnal activity patterns. I stopped the vehicle and watched the lagomorph, a group of plant-eaters and among the most hunted animals outside protected areas, disappear into the pitch darkness. The local belief is that once you see a hare, you do not see any other animal in the jungle. Fortunately, I had already seen three of the four almost leopard-sized cubs of the tigress T65, also known as Neelam, some time ago on the way.

A well-conserved, verdant forest, with densely foliaged tall trees, thick undergrowth and grassy plains stretched all around me in many different shades of darkness, extending refuge to some awesome and iconic and so-called lesser, but also amazing, creatures. Amid the seasonal fragrance of the forest, the relaxing and hypnotising chorus of cicadas and crickets, the rustling leaves and the soft calls of a nearby barred jungle owlet, I wondered about the significance of these commonly unseen species in the field of biodiversity conservation. These animals, big and small, are generally overshadowed by their “big brothers” in popularity, but they do lead interesting lives, anthropomorphically speaking, and play important roles in a wildlife ecosystem.

A habitat is home to a wildlife population, including all big and small species, and essentially includes the space, food, cover and shelter required for its survival. Depending upon the food and other habits of an animal species, it may require more than one habitat type for its existence. It is, therefore, desirable that there is good intermixing of different habitat unit types and that they are well distributed and not clumped into one area. This ideal situation helps animals minimise energy loss. The landscape of Kanha offers the full spectrum of habitat types, which require periodic monitoring and managerial interventions to remain healthy and sustain these populations. There are broadly three habitat types: forest, grassland and water. A finer classification of habitats could be given as follows: sal forest, miscellaneous forest, miscellaneous forest with bamboo, grassland, grassland with groves, large clearings, forest-grassland edges, riparian (along water streams), and water itself in different waterbodies. Kanha supports a wide range of microhabitats that are different from the pronounced and extensive habitats. Trees, including snags, which are dead and dying trees, offer rot holes, nesting sites and crevices. Some special habitat sites with geomorphological origins, such as caves, dens, overhangs and bouldery aggregates, have a significant bearing on lesser faunal species. There are also many identified aquatic wildlife species, either vertebrate or invertebrate, that live in water for most or all of their life. Such species occur in and around waterbodies of the protected area.

Kanha supports thousands of animal species that coexist in natural segregation on the basis of ecological niche partitioning in terms of food habits, habitat types and other specific ecological needs. Nature has helped these species evolve different hunting/feeding strategies and mobility patterns to reduce competition between them. For instance, the hunting techniques of a tiger, a leopard or a pack of wild dogs are quite different. Tigers stalk large-sized quarry through stealth. While leopards usually go for small-sized prey and also kill common dogs and goats near villages, wild dogs chase and kill their prey. Similarly, different herbivore species have different food preferences and foraging tactics. Some are grazers, while others are browsers and coarse feeders. Likewise, smaller species have their own food habits and ecological niches that help lessen competition among them.

Small is beautiful

Kanha supports several endangered faunal species, including those listed in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Besides the most talked-about “big brothers” such as carnivores like tigers, leopards and wild dogs and herbivores like gaur, barasingha, sambar and chital, Kanha is home to a wide range of the so-called lesser faunal species: 325 species of birds; 30 of mammals; 40 of reptiles, including 25 of snakes and 15 of lizards; 15 of frogs; around 500 of insects, including moths and butterflies; 115 of arachnids; and several species of crustaceans, molluscs and fish. There are also a large number of smaller life forms belonging to different phyla and classes of the animal kingdom. Although attention is focussed mainly on the management of the larger mammals in the tiger reserve, the less iconic wildlife species have their own ecological roles and importance in the Kanha ecosystem and their protection emanates from overall conservation efforts, the tiger being the umbrella species for all these lesser animals.

All these species are distributed at Kanha over time and space. While some species are diurnal, others are nocturnal or crepuscular. Each animal has its own biorhythm, which is a recurring cycle in its physiology and daily functioning, such as sleeping, waking and also emotional responses. Some cryptic species have camouflaged bodies or colouration as an anti-predator strategy. However, this could also be a strategy among predators to confuse and deceive prey species. Some of the lesser species remain arboreal most of the time, while others live in burrows, tunnels and thickets. Most of these species remain elusive even to those who patrol the protected area day and night, let alone tourists.

While it is easy to see and photograph large animals, lesser faunal species are elusive and difficult to monitor using normal conservation methodologies. Nowadays, a nature reserve is expected to document evidence of the presence of as many species as possible. Even data on presence/absence can provide important ecological information on the protected area. And there is no better evidence than photographic documentation. Besides, it is also interesting to get a peek into the secret world of creatures and gain insights into their behaviour when they are alone. Monitoring large animals through regular photography while staying hidden can serve the purpose to some extent as can long hours of video shooting after habituating the target animals. For small, cryptic and nocturnal animals, systematically designed camera traps have become popular but, of course, they have their limitations. These cameras trap images of animals and record dates and time and even distribution patterns of different species. Kanha has a network of around 450 camera traps. The cameras function day and night, snap all the animals passing in front of their field of view and store the images on a memory card. The card is removed periodically and its contents are downloaded.

Ways of animals

The tiger is extremely photogenic, equally peripatetic, with almost fixed routes for movement, and provides ample opportunity for general photo-monitoring. The more interesting and insightful images include those of mother and cubs, playful cubs, and animals at kill. These images bring out a wide range of emotions: the tenderness and concern of a mother, the cheerfulness and carefreeness of the cubs, and the famed aggression and ferocity of a tiger, the spirit of the Indian jungle.

Unlike tigers, leopards, which may be called the “ghost cats” of the plains, are mysterious and elusive. With their rosette-patterned body markings, they are perfectly camouflaged. It is extremely unusual to see an entire family, with a male, female and cub. Even sightings of a male-female pair are not common. Solitary by nature, they hunt small-sized prey at night. They also lurk in the vicinity of habitations and prey upon dogs, small cattle and pigs.

The wild dog, or dhole, ranks third in the predator hierarchy of the Kanha ecosystem. Excellent runners, fearless and ruthless, with highly collaborative social groups, dholes are also known as “whistling hunters” as they emit a continuous high-pitched yelping sound that resembles whistling to keep the members of a pack together. Their sense of smell is highly developed. Watching the pack kill an animal is a rare sighting. The endangered striped hyena is a poorly understood carnivore species. Basically a nocturnal scavenger, the animal lives off carrion and carcasses of cattle and ungulates. Its food habits restrict its distribution to near human habitations, and the core zone of the tiger reserve hardly offers sightings of it. Although the buffer zone has a number of villages, sightings of this amazing animal, with its powerful jaws and strong teeth, are not frequent.

A long muzzle, a body covered with dense hair, a well-developed sense of smell, and poor eyesight and hearing are some of the distinguishing features of the sloth bear. An omnivore, it feeds on termites, ants, roots, tubers and fruits. It is an expert tree climber, and the males rub their bodies against trees to chemically communicate with breeding females. The mother is extremely protective of her cubs, and it is an interesting sight to see cubs taking a piggyback ride on their mother’s back. The small Indian civet and common palm civet belong to the Viverridae family. The Indian civet is generally an arboreal nocturnal omnivore, also referred to as “toddy cat”. It feeds on fruits, small mammals and insects. As the cat is fond of honey, it is said to have a sweet tooth. It lives in hollow trees, burrows and in thickets. The common palm civet is ring-tailed, with three to five lines on its back. This cat is solitary, generally arboreal, and prefers nocturnality. It feeds on rodents, lizards, birds, snakes, fruit and roots. Camera traps have shown that it also comes down from trees to hunt.

The mouse deer is rarely sighted in the core zone. It is regarded as the smallest deer in India. Neither sex has antlers, but it has long canines. The animal usually makes its den in a tree hollow and is very shy, with no vocalisation. The Indian, or long billed, vulture has been categorised as “critically endangered” because of its rapidly declining population. These birds are important scavengers and are an essential part of the food chain. Carcasses of domestic animals treated with certain veterinary drugs are reported to be responsible for its decline. Consequently, Indian vultures have disappeared from many of their traditional natal areas in the country.

The honey badger, also known as ratel, is an omnivore that feeds on honey bee larvae, roots, scorpions, snakes, eggs, birds and small mammals. It also scavenges. The animal has very sharp teeth and tough body skin and is active during the day and the night. It digs burrows in the ground to rest in. The Indian giant squirrel is a canopy dweller that feeds on a wide range of plant parts and comes down only to drink water. It builds multiple globe-shaped nests, or dreys, for sleeping in and as nurseries. These amazing mammals are seriously threatened outside protected areas.

Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer , Kanha Tiger Reserve.