Meet the Madras hedgehog

A Madras hedgehog resting   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

In 2011-2012, when ecologist Brawin Kumar was in the town of Nanguneri, near Tirunelveli, he was told multiple tales about pangolins and peacocks making their way into nearby farmland and windmill offices.

But the most interesting report he got, was of “a kind of rat. At least, it looked like a rat, but it had no tail [or a short tail]. And it has a lot of thorns.” He visited the village again and again, to catch sight of this creature that few in the area could identify. It took multiple visits before he finally saw one, crawling away from him towards a cover of trees. He tried to be quiet, but ended up sneezing. Immediately, the mystery creature curled into a ball of spines.

At the time, Brawin was with the Coimbatore-based conservation NGO ZOO/WILD, with whom he quickly put out questionnaire surveys in Tamil, trying to trace the creature’s sightings. The results told them a lot, but also very little.

The Madras hedgehog, also known as the bare-bellied hedgehog, was discovered in 1851 in what was then known as the Madras Presidency, says Brawin, over phone from Nagercoil. These insectivorous spiny mammals “have been on this land since before human evolution,” claims Brawin, “And yet, there is no mention of them even in our folk tales”.

Neither is there a name assigned just for it: “In Tamil, we call them mul elimul meaning thorn, and eli meaning rat – or irmal eli aka cough rat,” says Brawin, clarifying that the creature is not in fact a rat. Their strongest connection to humans in central Tamil Nadu is an unfortunate one: as an ingredient in traditional medicine, or in household remedies for coughs, rheumatism and the like. “Some shops in Nagercoil still sell hedgehog oil,” he says.

Meet the Madras hedgehog

While the local populace seems well aware of the creature and its behaviour, “the animal is still rare to sight, and in the last 20 years its population may have declined drastically.” The latter, he states, is mainly due to habitat changes, development, illegal collection for meat, and its capture for domestication or sale: “Semi-arid areas were converted to monocrop plantations, arid ones were occupied. People tried keeping these hedgehogs as pets.” Over the last six years of his fieldwork in patches of Erode, Karur, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin, Brawin has managed to spot the hedgehog only 19 times. He has seen more of them as roadkill, in the same stretch of time.

Almost invisible

“Generally, when it comes to wildlife and conservation, people are more concerned with large animals and charismatic mammals: the flagship species,” he says, adding, “But of the 423 animals we have in India, 50% of the diversity are rats and bats. Besides these, we have shrews, pangolins, hedgehogs, tree shrews and other small mammals, each less than two kilograms that are not always looked at.”

life on hold
  • Not everyone hibernates. Different creatures go into a state of dormancy or suspend their biological development at different times of the year, based on a variety of factors
  • Hibernation a state of dormancy that warm-blooded animals go into during winter, preserving energy at a time when food sources are scarce
  • Brumation is similar to hibernation, but practised only by cold-blooded animals like reptiles
  • Estivation is when an animal goes into a dormant state during a hot period, to wait out water scarcity or harsh heat. Many desert creatures estivate
  • Diapause is a time of arrested growth and metabolism in insects, mites, crustaceans and other creatures, most prominently in butterflies

Usually, these smaller creatures end up indirectly benefiting from human efforts to conserve the larger mammals they share a habitat with. But for this hedgehog, the case is different “because it often dwells in urban landscapes: in backyards of homes in semi-arid areas of low elevation,” says Brawin. In fact, some of the creature’s homes might be considered the polar opposite of a protected wildlife area — Brawin has seen them mainly in windmill farm-associated drylands. Newer habitats are still being discovered, adds Brawin: “There are some records and I have also noticed them in some high-elevation areas of the Western Ghats and mostly in the Eastern Ghats.” Things like distribution, body size, and home range of the hedgehogs, he says, directly depends on the availability of food in a habitat.

But the records, he reiterates, fall far short of what they should be. One reason could be that this animal, not being endangered, is not listed in the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act. “There is no preserved specimen of this hedgehog, other than one skeleton in the Madras Museum,” he points out. Even outside a museum, in the everyday world, the Madras hedgehog is not commonly spotted, adds Brawin: “They are nocturnal, and have unique habitats that have only been seen in selected patches.”

Researching other species of hedgehogs would not entirely help — as the hedgehogs in India are distinct in many ways. For instance, hedgehogs in the UK hibernate in winter, but the ones in South India estivate in summer instead.

Of the soil
  • Of the 17 species of hedgehog around the world, India is home to three:
  • Indian Long-eared or collared hedgehog
  • Indian hedgehog
  • Bare-bellied or Madras hegehog

Brawin himself had no idea about this till 2014, when he came upon a Madras hedgehog in Tirunelveli that alarmed him. “It weighed very little, and I thought it was sick or dying. But I read up, and found out that for these creatures go into their burrows and sleep continuously for two months, to reduce their metabolic activity. They are in dormant state.”

They don’t dig much, but instead use burrows previously dug by other mammals, like pangolins. Their home range is long — they keep moving and only stay in one place for long during breeding season.” In Tamil Nadu, they can be found in parts of Tiruppur, Viruthunagar, Ramanathapuram, Salem, Erode, Kanyakumari, Tuticorin, Madurai, Sivagangai, Tenkasi, Tirunelveli, Coimbatore, Karur, and Namakkal, besides a few locations in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.

More research in field and community-based conservation is needed at these hedgehog locations, states Brawin. “This is a rare animal; it is our own and it is endemic to this land. We should know about it, protect and preserve it,” he signs off, adding, “At the very least, we should be encouraging it to live.”

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 5:45:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/meet-the-madras-hedgehog/article33942839.ece

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