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Thorns and thistles

Researchers and naturalists overlooked the South Indian hedgehog, while residents confused the insectivore with rodents. Photo: Naveen Joseph  

A mystified Brawin Kumar turned the three-centimetre-long thorn over. It didn’t come from a plant. According to the villager’s description, it belonged to a small rodent-like prickly creature covered with thorny spikes like the one he held. Nothing about the animal was familiar.

Kumar had come to this village near Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, to conduct a wildlife awareness programme. Residents regaled him with descriptions of various animals and birds they saw in their environs. But none had stumped him like this mysterious creature.

Later, experts at the Zoo Outreach Organization, Coimbatore, determined the spines he had collected belonged to a South Indian hedgehog, also known as Madras, or bare-bellied, hedgehog. An intrigued Kumar dug through biological literature but found little.

The nocturnal species inhabits grasslands, pasture lands, and open scrub of all five South Indian states, but except for a few old records, it hasn’t been seen outside Tamil Nadu in recent years. Naturalists and researchers overlooked the South Indian hedgehog, while residents, by calling it mulleli [thorny rat] in Tamil, confused the insectivore with rodents.

Dried skins

If Kumar wanted to learn more about the creature, he’d have to study it himself. He conducted a questionnaire survey throughout its range.

Some respondents not only knew about it but brought out dried skins they used as a cure for a range of medical complaints.

Kumar encountered his first live hedgehog scuttling along under a hedge. At his touch, it instantly curled up, tucking its head into its belly, resembling a sea urchin. He sat still in the magical glow of the setting sun.

Like a shrew

“For seven or eight minutes, I watched its spines rise and fall with its breathing,” he recalls. “A pair of legs emerged and then the other pair. Then its nose appeared, quivering like a shrew’s. That individual changed my life.”

A few residents even reared the animals at home, no doubt charmed by their ability to roll up into a prickly ball. One left his pet locked in his house by mistake when he undertook a 35-day pilgrimage. On his return, the animal seemed none the worse for wear, since in the arid heat of summers, the species goes dormant, neither eating nor drinking for weeks.

With the help of respondents, Kumar slowly gathered more information. Three kinds of burrows form the hedgehogs’ daytime refuge, summer retreat, and nursery to rear young. The animals exploited streets, hanging out under lampposts and hogging the bugs drawn to the lights. The asphalt surface warmed their bellies on cool nights. Wind power companies created a dense network of pathways across the countryside, not to conjure a hedgehog paradise but for their vehicles to access their infrastructure. The creatures’ tummy-warming habit turned these roads into locations of carnage. Unlike rats, insectivores can’t scurry fast enough to outrun automobiles and motorbikes. The researcher estimated over 1,000 hedgehogs were killed every monsoon.

Only 16

By interviewing residents, conducting fieldwork, and scouring media reports, Kumar discovered the species in several previously unrecorded areas. From 12 known locations, he reported its presence in 156 places in 19 districts of Tamil Nadu, although he encountered only 16 wild hedgehogs in real life. One was a mother with two newborn hoglets that had yet to grow their thorny defence.

“The spines grow only after a week,” he says. “And they aren’t sharp.”

His surveys showed these shy, solitary animals were not having an easy time. In hamlet after hamlet, he met elderly people who remembered seeing them decades ago, eating peanuts and millets in fields, but not anymore. The hedgehogs had become locally extinct in many places, he feared. Their preferred terrain of soft soil was fast becoming cotton fields and mango groves.

The hedgehog strategy of pretending to be land urchins in the face of danger is hopelessly futile against today’s threats.

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


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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 6:17:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/thorns-and-thistles/article37001681.ece

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