The rise of the Travancore tortoise

Though denizens of the wet forest, these 4-kg plodders aren’t easy to locate in their habitat

October 31, 2020 04:16 pm | Updated November 01, 2020 11:47 am IST

 The Travancore tortoise blends with the forest floor to escape attention. Photo: Deepak Veerappan

The Travancore tortoise blends with the forest floor to escape attention. Photo: Deepak Veerappan

Madhuri Ramesh walked all day through the evergreen forest of Anamalai Wildlife Sanctuary, Tamil Nadu, looking in vain for Travancore tortoises. It was an odd pursuit in a jungle where other researchers sought large mammals, such as elephants, dholes, and lion-tailed macaques.

She was on her own in her search for the four-kilogram plodders in the vast forest as no one could guide her. Even the indigenous residents didn’t recognise the species from the photographs she showed them, confusing it with the star tortoise of the dry forests.

Discovering new information about a little-known species thought to be rare and nearly extinct serves to protect it better. But the endeavour puts a rookie biologist at a disadvantage. Ramesh would have to find adequate numbers of tortoises to fill her data sheets to graduate. She may have regretted letting her enthusiasm overrule cautionary advice from her teachers to find a more common species for her study.

With time running out, Ramesh grew despondent. Then she teamed up with Ganesan, a legendary wildlife tracker who had worked with generations of researchers. When he found a few tortoises within a few days, she realised the scientific community had much to learn.

The Travancore tortoise may be a denizen of the wet forest, but it isn’t just found anywhere in the jungle. It prefers the neighbourhood of brook beds, stream banks, and swamps. No wonder Ramesh hadn’t found one in all the days of trekking through the forest. Since the slow plodding reptile can’t outrun predators, it freezes in its tracks. The brown shell with black blotches tricks observers into seeing only dry leaves. It isn’t a creature of the night, nor is it active by day. It emerges from hiding late in the afternoon when the dull light works to its advantage. The combination of locality, colour, and time shrouds the species from inquisitive eyes.

Barely there

Ramesh stared at the spot where Ganesan pointed until her mind re-arranged the dry leaves to reveal the tortoise. It was days before she could locate one by herself. But she discovered she had a better chance of finding them by following their tracks, which were obvious to the naked eye but didn’t register in photographs.

While Ramesh concentrated on finding these reptiles, she also had to have her wits about her to avoid close encounters with elephants, gaur, and sloth bears. On one occasion, she heard a crack like a snapping twig. Then she heard it again and again. She crept up to the sound and found a line of three tortoises, one ramming the behind of the rival ahead of it.

Turning shades

During the breeding season, which Ganesan described as the time when “rain drizzled like fluffs of silk-cotton wafting gently down from the canopy,” adult males spar by retracting their heads and slamming the front of their hard shells against each other. They also advertise their reproductive readiness by developing large pink circles around their eyes, “like badly applied make up,” says Ramesh. Looking around, the researcher found a female nearby, nonchalantly chewing on leaves and paying no attention to her suitors’ shenanigans. The thrill of witnessing this comical scene still delights her.

Ramesh realised the Travancore tortoise has an acute sense of hearing. In the dry season, crisp leaves crackling loudly underfoot gave the creatures plenty of time to hide.

“No one said it could hear so well or that it responds to sounds,” she says.

Ganesan and Ramesh split up and searched separately. She resisted the temptation to stride through the forest and cover as much ground as possible. Walking gingerly and in slow motion, like a tortoise, was difficult. But her patience paid off.

By the end of her six-month field season, after walking an average of 12 kilometres a day, even dreaming of tortoises in her sleep, she had data on 80 tortoises. The number was enough to show the population was large, and the species wasn’t in distress. And Ramesh graduated.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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