The Lesser Known Wildlife of India

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Photo Description:

a. Cane turtle being studies by fixing a radiotelemetry device on the back for tracking its movements in the rainforests of the Western Ghats. Photo: Karthikeyan Vasudevan

b. Himalayan Salamander was described in 2015 and it is found in sub-tropical forests in Darjeeling hills. Photo: Karthikeyan Vasudevan

The estimates of the total number of species on the earth is now put at 5 million ± 3 million, as per a recent work by Mark Costello and his colleagues. Number of species described and assigned names, range from 1.5 to 8 million (Wilson, 2000). There exists a huge gap in our understanding of the biological diversity and enormous effort is required to bridge the gap. It is well known that current rates of species extinction are 100-1,000 times greater than the pre-human rates (Lawton and May, 1995). Our activities have already caused extinction of 5-10% of the species in many groups of organisms (Pimm et al., 1995).

Studies on the ecology of species play a crucial role in identifying factors that cause their rapid decimation and suggest measures to prevent it. However, there has been an uneven distribution of effort and allocation of resources for the study of biological diversity. Large, charismatic flagship species often get a more attention than small and uncharismatic species. However small or uncharismatic a species might be, its unique role in the ecosystem cannot be undervalued. They can drive ecosystem productivity, enhance succession and serve as indicators global climate change. The onus of gathering information on many of the lesser known taxa lies with institutions that are engaged in research and exploration in our biodiversity rich areas.   

The scenario in India

The Indian sub-continent owing to its unique biogeographic position, it has a range of habitats that harbours diverse and endemic fauna. The Botanical Survey of India established in 1890 and the Zoological Survey of India established 1916 have strived over 100 years to make inventories of flora and fauna in the country. Their surveys have now covered about 65% and about 35% of India’s geographical area for flora and fauna respectively. Even today, for many of the faunal and floral groups in the country, the only available authentic information is a century old. Revision of taxonomy and updating of species inventory is an ongoing work. It is an enormous task, that too, at a time when species and their habitats are being lost rapidly.

Studies on the ecology of lesser known species in India

I highlight below some of the early studies on lesser known species in India. A study on the ecology of aquatic mammals in the Chambal River in 1990 implanted a radio-transmitter inside the European otter (Lutra lutra) and monitored its diel activity and characterized its habitat use. The Malabar civet (Viverra civettina) is large and terrestrial but rampant hunting and habitat fragmentation is thought to have forced this species to extinction in the lowland evergreen forests on the west coast of India. Intensive surveys did not reveal any signs of the species, but found pelts of the species with hunters. The study on the ecology of snow leopards (Unica uncia) and its associated prey species in hostile Trans-Himalaya, in 1988 revealed the habitat used by the species. Hybridization of wild with domesticated animals is known to cause genetic contamination that result in loss of some important recessive alleles in the population. A study on the ecology and population genetics of the Asiatic wild buffalo in Kaziranga National Park addressed this issue in1990. The study on the ecology of the endangered grizzled giant squirrel (Ratufa macrura) recommended the creation of a Wildlife Sanctuary for the species and it led to declaration of Srivilliputur Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu in 1989. Studies on other mammals include wild ass (Equus hemionus khur), Ladakh urial (Ovis vignei vignei), hangul (Cervus elaphus), hog deer (Axis porcinus), barasingha (Cervus duvacelli duvacelli), Manipur browed antler (Cervus eldi eldi), Malabar giant squirrel (Ratufa indica), Phayre’s leaf monkey (Presbytis phyarei), Hoolock gibbon (Hylobates hoolock), Nilgiri langur (Seminopithecus johnii), brown palm civet (Paradoxurus jerdoni), binturong (Arctitis binturong), caracal (Caracal caracal), clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), Travancore tortoise (Indotestudo travancorica), cane turtle (Vijayachelys silvatica), and Himalayan salamander (Tylototriton himalayanesis). 

More recently there has been a spurt in ecological research on terrestrial, freshwater and marine invertebrates; aquatic vertebrates and forest birds. While a large proportion of studies are some lesser known fauna, the lion share of the research fund is spent on few charismatic, large mammals in India.  A project that highlighted the role of such non-charismatic, but ecologically important species is “Ganga Action Plan”. In 1984, the project brought out for the first time, sound ecological data on five species of freshwater turtles in the River Ganga. This formed the basis for massive ‘hatch and release’ and ‘head starting program’ in Ganga and its tributaries. Following this, a nationwide survey on the status of freshwater turtles that brought out important information on the levels of exploitation they face in different parts of the country. A slew of awareness campaigns were taken up to make the enforcements agencies aware of the trade of freshwater turtles and tortoises in the country. This has averted extinction of some of the turtle species in our rivers, so that we might be able to say proudly that India is host to 28 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises.

These efforts and those of several other that are ongoing form an important part of our nation’s conservation efforts. The support received for the study of these lesser known species highlights the importance that our society perceives on their role in maintaining our fragile ecosystems.


Wilson, E.O. (2000). The future of conservation biology. Conservation Biology, 14(1): 1-3.

Lawton, J.H. and R.M. May (1995). Extinction rates. Oxford University press.

Pimm, S.L., G.J. Russel., J. I. Gittleman and T.M. Brooks (1995). The future of Biodiversity. Science  269: 347-350.


Article by:

Dr. Karthikeyan Vasudevan

Senior Principal Scientist

Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES)

Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB), Annexe I

Hyderabad 500048


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Posted on : 25-02-2018 11:58:22