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The variety of India’s unique wildlife

Posted in Animals, Geography, Nature, Wildlife on Monday, 29 October 2012

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This edited article about Indian wildlife originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 773 published on 6th November 1975.

Indian animals, picture, image, illustration

Some animals of India by A Oxenham

Millions of years ago our world was much warmer than it is today. Most of the land was covered with great forests and steaming jungle and inhabited by the ancestors of the animals which are now native only to tropical countries.

Even throughout Britain, which was then literally part of Europe, lions and tigers, jackals and hyenas, roamed the woodlands hunting their prey. In the rivers and swamps of the low-lying ground, crocodiles lurked, while elsewhere the ground thundered and shook under the feet of a charging rhinoceros.

Then, as countless centuries rolled away, the world’s climate slowly got colder and there began the series of Arctic weather periods called the Ice Ages. Vast sheets of thick ice crept over Europe, freezing most forms of life in their path.

Europe did not suddenly become ice-bound; it occurred slowly and in several stages. The whole process lasted for tens of thousands of years. But the Ice Ages brought about a complete change in the European climate. The tropical jungles, forests and swamps shrivelled and disappeared for ever beneath the masses of ice.

Unable to withstand the cold and deprived of their food resources, most animals were forced to retreat before the advancing ice. A few bigger animals of the elephant and rhinoceros species survived for a time by adapting themselves to the changing conditions and growing woolly coats to keep out the cold. But they, too, were to disappear in time.

For most animals, however, it meant a slow retreat towards the equator. There the climate was still warm and the jungles flourished.

Many species successfully established themselves in India and other parts of south-east Asia. That is why you will find in India, particularly, wild animals which are descended from those which once roamed free in Britain and northern Europe.

Biggest of India’s native animals is the elephant. Unlike its African relative, the Indian elephant is easily trained and thousands of them earn their keep as beasts of burden.

Although both the Indian and the African elephant are descended from the same ancestor, there are a number of differences between the two species. The Indian elephant is smaller than its African cousin and does not have such enormous ears. Also its forehead is flatter and more sloping and it is lighter in colour.

Only the male Indian elephant has tusks and these are much shorter than those of the African species. The trunk is also different: the Indian elephant has a single opening at the end of the trunk, whereas the African has two finger-like lips at the end.

For thousands of years lions and tigers were to be found throughout India. But as with so much more of India’s wildlife, man is proving as serious a threat as did the Ice Ages to their European ancestors.

The cutting down of forests and jungles to make way for agricultural land and the hunting of animals for their skins have brought India’s lions and tigers almost to the verge of extinction.

Until the 17th century the Indian lion roamed throughout the sub-continent. Then with the development of ever more powerful firearms they were relentlessly hunted and shot for their skins and for sport.

By the middle of the last century only about 50 were left in the whole of India. The survivors of this remnant were then protected by law and their descendants are now in a national park established in the Gir Forest in Gujarat. These are the only Indian lions outside zoos.

There is very little difference between the lions of India and Africa. The Indian lion has a shorter mane, though its head is longer. It has thicker tufts on the tail and elbows.

India’s most magnificent animal is the tiger. The tiger is one of the most dedicated and expert of killer animals and at one time terrorised India’s villages as it attacked and carried off men, women and children.

Like the Indian lion, however, the tiger is rapidly dwindling in numbers. Relentless hunting of the animal and the ever-expanding human population turning forests into agricultural land have brought the tiger near to extinction. During the past 50 years India’s tiger population has been reduced by 90 per cent.

So serious has been the decline in the number of tigers that efforts are being made to confine them to nature reserves. Unfortunately, this can be a very expensive business. Tigers are solitary animals and each needs some ten square miles of territory in which to hunt for its prey.

One of the oddities of the Indian tiger family is the albino. This is a tiger with a white or near-white coat and dark, sometimes almost black, stripes.

Along the banks of Indian rivers you are likely to see a strange reptile called the gavial. This is a species of crocodile with exceptionally long mouth and jaws.

Unlike the ordinary crocodile which opens its jaws to snap up its prey, the gavial catches fish with a side-to-side sweeping movement of its jaws.

As with so much of Indian animal life, the rhinoceros is nearing extinction through relentless hunting. High prices are paid for its horn throughout Asia because of its supposedly magical properties. The rhinoceros is now found only in remote parts of north-east India.

A common sight in Indian villages and market places is the snake charmer with his hooded cobra seeming to sway in time with the music from a flute. In fact the music from the flute has nothing whatever to do with the cobra’s swaying.

Like all snakes, the cobra has little, if any, sense of hearing. It sways simply in response to the movement of the flute in the charmer’s hands.

Wherever there are plantations of palm trees, you are likely to find the toddy cat. This animal is a species of civet and is one of the oldest animals native to India. It gets its name from its habit of raiding the palm trees which are tapped for the juice used to make a drink called toddy.

Then there is the mongoose, which despite its name is a mammal and not a bird. In spite of its relatively small size, about three and a half feet long, half of which is tail, the mongoose will flight and kill the most poisonous of snakes. Its lightning-quick movements and thick fur prevent it from receiving venomous bites from its victims.

India is the home of the biggest species of squirrel. The Indian giant squirrel is about half a metre long and its tail is as long again. It lives in the hollows of trees and its colour varies from district to district.

Probably the fleetest of India’s wild animals is the jackal. It belongs to the dog family and can run at a speed of some 50 kilometres an hour.

In spite of its name, the sloth bear is not slow moving and it does not hang head down from trees. It is just under two metres long with a long muzzle and a thick shaggy coat.

Sloth bears are expert climbers of the trees on which they search for their food of fruit and insects.

Of the many species of monkey native to India, one of the most interesting is the langur. Langurs are forest dwellers, but unlike most monkeys which spend most of their time in trees, they are more often seen on the ground during the day. They only climb into trees at night to sleep in safety.

India’s champion animal jumper is the black buck. This species of antelope stands half a metre tall and the males have long spiralled horns. When pursued, a black buck can leap to a distance of 6 metres or jump to a height of more than two metres.

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