Rich in flora and fauna, the Segur plateau and the Moyar Valley are among the most fascinating parts of the Blue Mountains. However, not many are aware that among their inhabitants is the Indian Star Tortoise (Geochelone elegans), a rather uncommon reptile, which is of considerable significance in maintaining the ecological balance.
Though seed dispersal is mainly associated with avian and arboreal life forms, it is a fact that there are terrestrial life forms such as the star tortoise which are associated with this useful ecological role. Pointing out that the reptile is so named on account of the star shaped pattern of its carapace, conservationist and wildlife photographer P.J.Vasanthan told The Hindu here on Friday that it was quite rarely seen not only on account of its camouflage, but also due to its habits, being active mainly at dawn and just before dusk.
Not many had the opportunity to see this reptile in its natural habitat though quite a few were aware that it was favoured as an exotic pet. This species preferred dry habitats such as dry deciduous jungles and scrublands and generally avoided wetter habitats. It was mostly herbivorous and fed on a wide range of fallen seeds and berries in addition to other herbaceous matter thus facilitating seed dispersal. The protective shell of this reptile generally prevented it from predation and it had a few natural threats in the wild.
However, humans were the biggest threat to this creature as it was illegally collected for culinary purposes and for exotic pet trade. Other anthropogenic threats were brush fires, cattle grazing, habitat loss, and excess flooding as a result of climate change.
Mr. Vasanthan opined that though it was listed as ‘least concern’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the conservation status needed updating as the assessment was made in 2000. Though trade in this species was banned under Appendix-II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, illegal activities were still taking place. Hence, there was a need for stricter policing.