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close this bookBiodiversity in the Western Ghats: An Information Kit (IIRR, 1994, 224 p.)
close this folder8. Reptiles, birds and mammals
View the document8.1 Snakes
View the document8.2 Crocodiles
View the document8.3 Birds
View the document8.4 Mammals
View the document8.5 Animal diversity in prehistoric rock-art

8.1 Snakes

Snakes, lizards, crocodiles and turtles are all reptiles. Snakes appeared during the Cretaceous period, about 125 million years ago. They became more common when their main food source-small mammals-became widespread.

India has 218 species of snakes. Although they are widely distributed, they are not often seen because of their living habits.

Snakes of the Western Ghats

The most important snake in the Western Ghats is the King Cobra, Cophiophagus hannah. The longest poisonous snake in the world, it feeds on other poisonous and non-poisonous snakes. It is the only snake to build a nest of decaying matter to lay its eggs. The decaying matter generates warmth which incubates the eggs.

Many species of pit vipers, such as the Bamboo Pit Viper, the Humpnosed Viper and the Malabar Rock Viper, are common in the Western Ghats. A majority of shield tails (uropeltids) live in the region, as do the larger specimens of the Indian Rock Python.

Cophiophagus hannah

Value of snakes

Rodent control

Snakes are often feared and persecuted. But they play a very important role in the ecosystem by controlling rodents. A pair of rats can produce nearly 800 descendants in one year. India's estimated 8,000 million rats cause a loss of Rs 50,000 million a year by eating and damaging crops. Even large, concrete cereal godowns are not rodent-proof. The Rat Snake (Ptyas mucosus) has proved very effective in controlling rats in these godowns.


Researchers have found that a solution of cobra venom is useful in treating intractable pain due to cancer, neuritis, migraine and other disorders.

Snake venom itself is used to produce anti-venom for treating snake bites.

Food and skin

Snakeskins have been used since time immemorial to make various products. Snakes are a source of food for many people of in Indochina. In the USA, canned rattlesnake can be found for sale. In the past, using snakes for food and skin has not upset their numbers. But modern commercial use and illegal trade may result in over-exploiting the resource beyond its natural ability to recover.

Snakes play a vital role in the ecosystem. Instead of being feared and persecuted, they should be appreciated, treated with respect, and conserved.

Myths about snakes

· Snakes such as cobras can recognize an individual and take revenge.
· Cobras live for 125 years.
· Old cobras have hairs.
· Snakes drink milk from cows' udders.
· Snakes can hypnotize their prey.
· Snakes are slimy.
· The John's Earth Boa has two mouths.
· The bite of the John's Earth Boa can cause leprosy.

All these popular beliefs are false. They show the lack of accurate knowledge about snakes among the general public.

The truth about snakes

· Snakes do not have eyelids.

· Snakes do not have an efficient sense of hearing. They lack external and middle ears. They hear mainly by detecting vibrations carried through the ground.

· Snakes use their forked tongue for smelling.

· The sensory pit (a thermal detector on each side of the head) helps the snake find warm-blooded prey.

· Snakes are exclusively carnivorous.

Cobras and religion

In India the cobra is intimately associated with Indian folklore, religion and art. The Nag (cobra) is worshipped on two days each year-Nagpanchmi and Anant chaturdesi. The Vedas refer frequently to snakes. Lord Krishna used Mount Meru for churning the ocean using the coils of the great serpent "Shesh Nag" to obtain the "Nectar of Divinity".

Snakes are worshipped in many temples in South India. The cobra is considered the Goddess of Fertility. Many childless couples come and pray by making cobra carvings on granite stones.

Ways to increase the snake population

· Conserve wildlife.
· Preserve rare species.
· Conserve aquatic life.
· Conserve habitats, such as forests.
· Avoid killing snakes.

Prepared by Bhalcandra Mayenka and Srinath

8.2 Crocodiles

India has three species of crocodiles: the mugger or marsh crocodile (Crocodylus palustris), estuarine or salt water crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) and the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus).

The first two species find a home in the Western Ghats. The gharial is confined to the rivers of northern India.

In Goa, a wild population of marsh crocodiles inhabits the mangrove-lined Cumbarjua Canal. It is the only type of crocodile found in this part of the Western Ghats.

Clues for identification

The marsh and the estuarine crocodile rarely occur together in nature. It is difficult to distinguish the two. Look at the shape of the head and the arrangement of scales on the neck.

Mugger or marsh crocodile, Crocodylus palustris

· Amphibious reptile

· Lives in a wide variety of habitats: hill streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, swamps and even estuaries.

· Olive-black coloured back and yellowish-white belly

· Distinguished from the estuarine crocodile by its broad snout and presence of four distinct sharply raised scales behind the head.

· Timid but can be approached closely.

· Both the sexes look similar.

Crocodylus palustris

Estuarine or saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus

· Confined to estuaries and coastal sea water.
· Striking resemblance with mugger, but the two rarely occur together.
· Snout is more pointed than mugger.
· Distinct ridges in front of eyes.
· Very irritable and attacks people habitually.
· Believed to be extinct on the west coast of India.

Crocodylus porosus

Causes of decline

Attitude. Folklore and religious scriptures have fortified myths. Fisherfolk regard crocodiles as a threat to their traditional fisheries. The reptiles' ecological role is not understood. All crocodiles are thought to eat people. Religious scriptures, such as the story of Gajendra Moksha of the Vishnu Purana, project crocodiles as being in league with evil spirits. In the Bible, the crocodile has been depicted as a fire-spitting evil creature called the Leviathan.

Habitat loss. Mangrove forest is a vital part of crocodiles' environment in some parts of the Western Ghats. But the mangroves are steadily disappearing as they provide fuelwood and fodder. Browsing pressure and expanding human settlements also reduce the crocodiles' habitat.

Agricultural activity. Local people collect the fertile, alluvial soil of mudflats to enrich the soil in their fields. Embankments built to reclaim land interfere with crocodile breeding.

Traditional fisheries. Fishing nets are death traps, especially for juvenile crocodiles. Angling and catching crabs and mudskippers can disturb crocodile habitat.

Nest poaching and predation. Both people and water-monitor lizards predate on crocodile eggs. Tribal people, in particular, relish the eggs.

Hunting for trade. Nomadic tribes hunt crocodiles and trade the skin, meat, viscera and eggs. Some tribals use various parts of the animal to treat human diseases. Such claims have not been experimentally verified.

Accidents. Crocodiles can be wounded or killed by boat propellers. They may stray into nearby rice fields or even houses and be killed by the alarmed farmer or resident.

Unplanned development. Construction work causes siltation of the water and blocks light, affecting biological productivity. Construction noise can disturb the crocodiles. Poorly planned wildlife tourism, particularly by the private sector, can also disturb the reptiles. Pollution from industrial effluents and fecal contamination due to inadequate sanitary facilities can degrade the habitat.

Causes of decline

Crocodile myths and facts

Myth: Crocodiles harm fisheries

Fact: Crocodiles are at the apex of foodchain in their habitat and play the ecological role of a predator as well as that of a scavenger.

· Crocodiles hunt predatory fishes which feed on shoals of commercially important fish. By keeping these predators in check, they can actually increase the fish catch.

· Crocodiles scavenge on dead animals and fishes that otherwise would pollute the water and depress fish numbers.

Food chain for crocodiles

Myth: Crocodiles have no commercial value.

Fact: Crocodiles are a valuable natural resource with immense potential for commerce if used on a sustainable basis

· Crocodile farming and crocodile ranching can generate employment-especially for tribals who have field knowledge of their behaviour.

· Crocodile skin can be made into bags, belts, wallets and shoes, and has a good export potential.

· Crocodile tourism: Crocodile habitats have a tremendous potential for wildlife tourism.

Food chain for crocodiles

Crocodiles in religious rites

In many parts of the world, the fear of crocodiles has been supported by religious rites and beliefs.

A stone crocodile is worshipped at the Sun Temple of Konark in Orissa.

In Gujarat, three tribal communities worship Mugger Dev.

In Kathiawar, a crocodile is the mount of the deity Khodlyar Mata.

Crocodiles in warfare

Historical literature shows that almost 40 years before the Portuguese conquest of Goa, crocodiles infested the "Island of Tiswadi" and that they had been defending the island.

Soldiers used to keep crocodiles to help defend land.


It is possible to manage the environment to conserve crocodiles. Indeed, the reptiles have returned to many formerly disturbed habitats.

· Retain and manage habitat. This is the ideal way to manage all wildlife. For crocodiles, mangrove cover should be monitored and laws banning mangrove clearing enforced. Alternative fuels should be sought where mangroves are used for firewood.

· Generate funds. To support conservation if crocodile farming could be encouraged. Farming could be done by the Forest Department or tribal cooperatives.

· Restock the wild population by rearing animals in captivity and releasing them in suitable environments.

· Assess environmental impacts of development activity.

· Organize wildlife tourism.

· Promote traditional conservation. The tribal practice of crocodile worship could be promoted as a way of creating public awareness and seeking compassion for the animal on spiritual grounds.

· Generate public awareness through the mass media and signboards near the crocodile habitat.

· Research and monitor wild and captive crocodile populations.

Crocodile farming: Captive breeding of crocodiles

Crocodile ranching: Collection of eggs and juveniles from the wild and growing them to an exploitable size.

Crocodile worship: Mannge Thapnee

The villages of Bhoma and Durbhat on the

Cumbarjua Canal in Goa observe the tradition of crocodile worship with unshakable devotion. A fowl is sacrificed to a crocodile dummy made of clay. This ceremony is known as

Mannge Thapnee.

Mannge Thapnee

Prepared by Manoj Borkar

8.3 Birds

Some 1,200 species of birds have been recorded in India. The Western Ghats region has about 500 species. Some birds, such as the Bluewinged Parakeet, are found only in the Western Ghats. Others are also found elsewhere in India.

There are currently 44 species of birds considered "threatened" in India.

Mixed hunting party

A "mixed hunting party" is a peculiar phenomenon of the Western Ghats. There may be no bird sound or activity for hours; then suddenly, the observer may be surrounded by birds of all descriptions: bulbuls, drongos, minivets, flycatchers, warblers, woodpeckers and cuckoo-shrikes, to name a few. They are foraging at all levels in the forest, from the ground to the tree canopy. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, they fly off-together.

The mixture of species in the hunting party increases the number of insects that are flushed into the open- meaning more food for everyone.

30 birds of the Western Ghats

Rufous Babbler, Turdoides subrufus

Small Green Barbet, Megalaima viridis

Bluebearded Bee-eater, Nyctyornis athertoni

Fairy Bluebird, Irena puella

Yellowbrowed Bulbul, Hypsipetes indicus

Common Hawk Cuckoo or Brainfever Bird, Cuculus varius

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Dicrurus paradiseus

Crested Serpent Eagle, Spilomis cheela

Tickell's Flowerpecker, Dicaeum erythrorhynchos

Paradise Flycatcher, Terpsiphone paradisi

Great Pied Hornbill, Buceros bicornis

Grey or Sonnerat's Junglefowl, Gallus sonneratii

Threetoed Kingfisher, Ceyx erithacus

Scarlet (or Orange) Minivet, Pericrocotus flammeus

Hill Myna, Gracula religiosa

Indian Jungle Nightjar, Caprimulgus indicus

Brown Fish Owl, Bubo zeyonensis

Bluewinged Parakeet, Psittacula columboides

Common Peafowl, Pavo cristatus

Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, Columba elphinstonii

Indian Pitta, Pitta brachyura

Jungle Bush Quail, Perdicula asiatica

Malabar Shama, Copsychus malabaricus

Shikra, Accipiter badius

Red Spurfowl, Galloperdix spadicea

Yellowbacked Sunbird, Aethopyga siparaja

Malabar Whistling Thrush, Mylophonus horsfieldii

Whitebellied Tree Pie, Dendrocitta leucogastra

Malabar Trogon, Harpactes fasciatus

Indian Great Black Woodpecker, Dryocopus javensis

For more information, see the Handbook of the birds of India and Pakistan by Dr. Salim Ali.

Mixed hunting party

Microhabitats in the forest

Forest opening

Openings in the forest generally have no large trees and are covered with grass and small shrubs. Birds like Junglefowl, Peafowl, Spurfowl and Quails often come to an opening to feed on grass shoots, grains and insects. Birds of prey such as the Shikra and Hawk Eagle keep an eye out for such birds venturing into a clearing. They usually perch on outstretched branches of lofty trees or trees with dense foliage.


Overhanging branches of bushes and trees on the banks of a forest stream are favourite haunts of Flycatchers, Warblers, Babblers and other insectivorous birds. The Malabar Whistling Thrush is often seen on boulders. It feeds on snails, worms, crabs and frogs.


A small pond or a waterhole in the forest is an important source of water for birds, especially during hot, dry summer days. Flycatchers, Robins, Pigeons, Hawks, Eagles, Orioles, Bulbuls. Junglefowl and many other forest birds visit the waterhole to drink and bathe. A small bush or a bamboo thicket around the waterhole can be used as a natural hide to observe birds without disturbing them.

A dry, standing tree

Even a dead standing tree in the forest attracts a number of birds. Drongos and Bee-eaters are often seen on such trees, keeping watch for flying insects. Green Pigeons basking and preening their feathers in the early morning hours are a common sight in forest areas. Barbets and Woodpeckers find such trees ideal for digging their nests. Such trees give the observer an unobstructed view of the birds.

Flowering trees

Flowering trees like Silk Cotton, Flame of the Forest, Bauhinia and Indian Coral offer excellent opportunities to birdwatchers. These trees lose their leaves at certain times of year, making it easy to observe birds. Bearing attractively coloured flowers, such trees come alive with the chirping and fluttering of Drongos, Bulbuls, Mynas, Rosy Pastors, Barbets, Minivets, Babblers and a variety of other birds which feed on nectar and insects.

Birds as indicators of biodiversity

Monitoring biodiversity can be difficult. So instead of counting every species in a given area, it is often preferable to use proxies or substitutes. One such method is the use of indicator species, such as a particular bird. Some birds are found only in certain habitats or ecosystems. If we see one of these birds, we know that its habitat and its associated diversity exists. And if we know how big a territory each individual bird occupies, we can make a rough estimate of the habitat area.

The Malabar Pied Hornbill is a good indicator of healthy mature, deciduous forests along the Western Ghats.

Malabar Pied Hornbill

Ecological role of birds

Some endangered birds of the Western Ghats


Deforestation destroys the habitat of many birds and is a major threat to birds in the Western Ghats. Trapping of birds for the pet trade and hunting them for food add to the decline. Cattle grazing and man-made forest fires inhibit regrowth, making it difficult to restore degraded forests.


Plants, which attract birds

Scientific name

Common English

Part of the plant used by birds

Ficus benghalensis


Fruit, cavities: Bulbuls, Mynas, Barbets, Owlets

Ficus religiosa


Fruit, cavities: Owlets, Mynas, Parakeets

Ficus glomerata

Cluster fig

Fruit: Bulbuls, Hornbills, Barbets, Pigeons

Bombax malabaricum

Silk cotton

Flower nectar: Sunbirds, Rosy Pastors, Orioles

Erythrina indica

Coral tree

Flower nectar, petals, branches to dig into for nests

Butea frondosa

Flame of the forest

Flower nectar: Babblers, Bee-eaters, Bulbuls

Mangifera indica


Fruit, thick foliage to hide and nest: Mynas, Oricles, Shikra

Psidium guajava


Fruit: Parakeets, Koels, Barbets

Moringa oleifera


Pods, flowers: Sunbirds, Parakeets

Lantana camera


Fruit, flower nectar, thorny branches to nest: Bulbuls

Eugenia jambolana

Black plum

Fruit: Barbets, Hornbills, Bulbuls

Caesalpinia pulcherrima

Peacock flower

Flowers, pods: Parakeets, Flowerpeckers, Sunbirds

Callistemon lanceolatus

Bottle brush

Flower nectar: Flowerpeckers, Warblers, Tits

Acacia nilotica

Babul tree

Pods, branches to nest: Bayas, Doves, Parakeets

Trachelospermum fragrans

Hill jasmine

Branches to nest, flower nectar: Sunbirds, Doves

Jasminum grandiflorum

Spanish jasmine

Flower nectar, branches to nest: Sunbirds, Sparrows

Russelia juncea

Corai plant

Flower nectar Sunbirds, Warblers

Tamarindus indicus

Tamarind tree

Branches to nest: Herons, Egrets, Ibises, Crows

Spathodea campanulata

Tulip tree

Petals, watery flowers, pods, branches to nest

Samanea saman

Rain tree

Branches and foliage as day roost and nest, flower nectar: Pigeons, Crows, Mynas

Polyalthia longifolia

Ashoka tree

Branches and leaves to nest: Munias

Boswellia serrate


Fnuits, branches to nest, papery bark as nesting material: Minivets

Carvia callosa


Flower nectar, seeds as food, branches to nest

Bndelia retusa

Fruit: Bulbuls, Hornbills, Mynas, Barbets

Eucalyptus sp.


Flower nectar, branches to nest, bark as nesting material: Tree Pie

Malphigia sp.

Singapur cherry

Fruit (berries), flower nectar: Pigeons, Koels

Pithicolobium dulce

Manila tamarind

Fruit: Parakeets, Bulbuls, Mynas

Azadirachta indica

Neem tree

Fruit, branches to nest: Crows

Santalum album


Fruit: Bulbuls, Koels, Mynas

Derris indica


Thick foliage for day roost: Mynas, Warblers

Prepared by Kiran Purandare

8.4 Mammals

Endemic species

The forests of the Western Ghats harbour many different mammals. There are about 60 species, including various endemic and endangered types.

Seven species of mammals are endemic to the Western Ghats. Two primates, the Liontailed Macaque and the Nilgiri Langur, are found only in a few forested patches in the Nilgiri area. The Nilgiri Marten (a weasel) and Nilgiri Tahr (a wild goat) are also found in these areas. The other endemic species are the Malabar Civet and the Grizzled Giant Squirrel, which are restricted to a few patches of the Western Ghats. The Small Travancore Flying Squirrel, a highly endangered species, inhabits the forests of Kerala. Porpoises (marine mammals) occur along the west coast.

Causes of decline

Habitat loss

Animals such as the Lion-Tailed Macaque and Nilgiri Tahr are in danger because of expanding grazing grounds, road construction in the primary forests, and destruction of forest cover.

Poaching and smuggling

Various endangered animals in the Western Ghats are hunted for various parts of their anatomy. Tigers and elephants are poached for their ivory, bones and fur. The Slender Loris is hunted for its eyes- due to a misconception that medicine prepared from the eyes can cure certain eye diseases.

Despite legal bans, poaching and smuggling of skin, fur, bones and ivory is still rampant. The Delhi police seized 162 kg of tiger bones and six skins in one raid in 1993.

Human interference

· Cattle grazing in the buffer zones around the forests spreads disease to wild animals like the gaur.

· Human settlements are encroaching on the forests.

· Vehicles, garbage and effluent discharges pollute the habitat.

· Mining in and near forested areas damages the ecosystem.

· Timber contractors clear large areas of forest.


Heavy tourist pressure in and around the forested areas may disturb the animals

What is a mammal?


· are warm blooded
· breathe air using lungs
· have body hair
· produce milk and suckle their young

There are 370 species of mammals in India.

What is a mammal?


Mammals play an important role in the ecosystem. Predators like the tiger, leopard and wild dog occupy the highest level in the food pyramid. The destruction of a single carnivore like the tiger would upset the balance of the entire forest ecosystem.


· The Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 as amended in 1991 defines and restricts hunting, trading or capture of wildlife.

· Alternate sources of income and other appropriate activities should be encouraged to prevent cattle grazing.

· More viable wild areas should be protected by forming biosphere reserves.

· Pollution control laws should be effectively implemented.

· Effective buffer zones should be created wherever activities detrimental to forests are carried out, especially near sanctuaries and national parks.

· Research is needed on the habits and habitats of animals in the Western Ghats.

· Public awareness should be raised through films, lectures, talks, discussions, nature trails and other methods. Interpretation centres could help orient tourists towards conservation.

· Education programmes such as field trips, camps and treks should be organized for students.

· Awareness programmes should be arranged for local villagers to depict how their ancestors co-existed harmoniously with the forest and to show the dangers to their own survival if they upset the delicate natural balance.

Deliberate or accidental?

In Nagerhole National Park, world-renowned as a wildlife habitat, a massive forest fire in 1993 devastated several hectares of primary forest. It seems the fire was deliberately caused by local villagers to spite an overzealous forest officer who was strictly enforcing the wildlife laws.

Deliberate or accidental?

Endangered, endemic mammals of the Western Ghats

Lion Tailed
Macaque Macaca silenus
Black, shy, canopy dweller;
has cheek pouches; moves in
troops; endangered due to habitat loss.

Macaque Macaca silenus

Malabar Civet
Viverra megaspila
Grey with black markings;
ringed tail; nocturnal;
restricted to coastal areas;
stink gland.

Viverra megaspila

Nilgiri Langur
Presbytis johni
Black faced monkey;
long tail; leaf eater; most hunted
for medicine due to misconception.

Presbytis johni

Grizzled Giant Squirrel
Ratufa macroura
Brownish-grey colour;
shy, canopy dweller; restricted to few areas
of Western Ghats;
endangered due to habitat loss.

Ratufa macroura

Small Travancore
Flying Squirrel
Petinomys fuscocapillus
Nocturnal; restricted to tropical
evergreen forests;
was feared extinct;
recently rediscovered in Kerala.

Petinomys fuscocapillus

Nilgiri Marten
Martes gwatkinsi
Looks like an otter;
hunts on trees;
predatory in habit;
restricted to Nilgiri Hills.

Martes gwatkinsi

Nilgiri Tahr
Hemitragus hylocrius
Mountain goat;
prefers rocky terrain;
found at higher elevations;
hunted for flesh.

Hemitragus hylocrius

Mammals found in the Western Ghats

Liontailed Macaque Macaca silenus Ed,En

Bonnet Macaque Macaca rediata

Common Langur Presbytis entellus

Nilgiri Langur Presbytis johni Ed,En

Slender Loris Loris tardigradus En

Tiger Panthera tigris En

Leopard Panthera pardus En

Leopard Cat Felis bengalensis En

Rustyspotted Cat Felis rubiginosa En

Fishing Cat Felis viverrina En

Jungle Cat Felis chaus En

Malabar Civet Virerra megaspila En,Ed

Small Indian Civet Viverricula indica

Common Palm Civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus

Brown Palm Civet Paradoxurus jerdoni

Common Mongoose Herpestes edwardsi

Ruddy Mongoose Herpestes smith)

Stripednecked Mongoose Herpestes vitticollis

Brown Mongoose Herpestes fuscus

Striped Hyena Hyaena hyaena

Jackal Canis aureus

Indian Wild Dog Cuon alpinus En

Sloth Bear Melursus ursinus En

Common Otter Lutra lutra

Smooth Indian Otter Lutra perspicillata

Clawless Otter Aonyx cineria En

Nilgiri Marten Martes gwatkinsi En,Ed

Indian Tree Shrew Anathana ellioti

Grey Musk Shrew Suncus murinus

Flying Fox Pteropus giganteus

Fulvous Fruit Bat Rouseltus leschenaulti

Shortnosed Fruit Bat Cynopterus sphinx

Bearded Sheath Tailed Bat Taphozous melanopogon

Indian False Vampire Megaderma Iyra

Great Eastern Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus luctus

Salim Ali Bat Latidens salim alii En

Indian Pipistrelle Pipistrellus coromandra

Painted Bat Kerivoula picta

Indian Giant Squirrel Ratufa indica

Grizzled Giant Squirrel Ratufa macroura En,Ed

Common Giant Flying Squirrel Petaurista petaurista

Dustystriped Squirrel Funambulus sublineatus

Small Travancore Flying Squirrel Petinomys fuscocapillus En,Ed

Threestriped Palm Squirrel Funambulus palmarum

Indian Gerbille Tatera indica

Indian Field Mouse Mos booduga

Whitetailed Wood Rat Ratus blanfordi

Longtailed Tree Mouse Vandeluria oleracea

Common House Rat Rattus rattus

Bandicoot Rat Bandicota indica

Indian Porcupine Hystrix indica

Blacknaped Hare Lepus nigricollis

Indian Elephant Elephas maximus

Gaur Bos gaurus

Nilgiri Tahr En,Ed Hemitragus hylourius

Fourhorned Antelope Tetracerus quadricornis

Chital Axis axis

Sambar Cervus unicolor

Barking Deer Muntiacus muntjak

Mouse Deer Tragulus meminna

Indian Wild Boar Sus scrofa

Indian Pangolin Manis crassicaudata

Porpoise Neomeris Ph ocoenoides

En -Endangered
Ed -Endemic

Prepared by R. Bhanumathi

8.5 Animal diversity in prehistoric rock-art

Since their hunter-gatherer stage of prehistory, people have used rock-paintings, scrapings or engravings-as a major medium to depict their lifestyles, beliefs, dreams, fears and fantasies.

World rock art dates from about 50,000-5,000 B.C. In India, 36 centres of rock art have been identified. Most are located in central and south India.

Animal and plant biodiversity as depicted in rock art provides a glimpse of ecological resources of the past ages and throws light on paleoclimatic and environmental changes.

Exhaustive studies on animal forms in India's largest rock art complex, Bhimbetka, have provided useful insights. The rock paintings show giraffes, ostriches, rhinos and hippos-animals now extinct from that region.

In May 1993, researchers discovered the first evidence of rock art in the Western Ghats-at Usgalimol-Kevon-Dhandode, on the banks of the Kushavati river, 30 km from Margao (South Goa). This rock art is in the form of engravings on manganese-containing laterite. It is a rich treasure opening a door to our knowledge of macrofauna of this part of the Western Ghats.

These 100+ engravings (known as petroglyphs) have been tentatively dated to 2500-6000 B.C.

Over 90% of the engravings depict wild animals in the foothills of the Western Ghats. Not much is known about this "earth mother goddess" (a primitive form of Durga or Shakti) worshiping society of the prehistoric hunters. However a careful analysis of the rock-art site and the animal forms depicted therein reveals several clues.

· The rock-art appears to show a paleoenvironment which was far richer in ecological resources such as forest and resident fauna.

· People of this period had an intimate knowledge of animal forms, habitats, mating season, locomotion and behavior.

· Some animals (e.g., gaur, wild humped bull [zebu]) were dominant and were widely hunted.

· While no carvings of weapons have been found, some animals are shown bearing wound marks, as if inflicted by composite weapons (i.e., stone + wood).

· Wild asses and horses are absent, as is sloth bear.

· Hunting was done through “mass chase" by trapping the animal in a lagoon-like waterhole, located close to the carving site.

· Carvings of wild dog and jungle cat imply probable efforts of their domestication.

· Some animals, e.g., elephant, Indian wild dog, zebu and wild goat, are not depicted and may not have existed in the area.

· The art includes a puzzling carving: of a look-alike of Rhinoceros deccanensis, known to be extinct about 20-25,000 years ago (i.e., in the late Pleistocene)-well before the art is thought to have been carved.

· Animal fauna may correspond to the environment of the period intermediate to sea-level regression (18,000 B.C.) and the Holocene transgression (6,000 B.C.), as recorded globally and on the west coast.

· Animal diversity depicted at Usgalimol gives useful information when compared with the one found in Bhimbetka rock paintings, and the present diversity of the Western Ghats.

Common Langur

Wild Hare



Significance of animal diversity

Although prehistoric humans faithfully left imprints of familiar animals in rock art, those which provided food for them occupied centre stage. The rock art at Usgalimol gives us insights into the life of the wandering hunter-food gatherer tribes of the pre-historic Western Ghats. The implied purposes of animals as cited show the first steps of humankind's evolution of primitive language and religion. Animal diversity has always fascinated humankind, but this fascination is deeply rooted in the trying and testing periods of human evolution. Besides capturing prehistoric animal diversity, the rock art also provides a useful cultural link to bridge the present with the past in the context of the current concerns about animal diversity.

Significance of animal diversity

Animal diversity through the ages


Usgalimol rock art

Bhimbetka rock art

Presently found in




W. Ghats

Common langur






Wild hare

















Indian wild dog












Jungle cat


+ +









Barking deer


+ + + +




Indian wild bull (zebu)


+ + + +






+ +




Wild goat






Indian wild boar






Striped hyena






























+, ++, etc. indicate frequency of occurrence - indicate absent

Animal diversity through the ages

Animals at Usgalimol

The carvings appear to fall into four categories:

· Animals hunted as game for food: figures 3, 4, 8, 9, 12
· Animals probably domesticated for hunting or pets: figures 5, 7, 11
· Animals with ritualistic uses such as in shamanism or sorcery: figure 3
· Animals used only for artistic purposes: figures 1, 13

Animals at Usgalimol

Prepared by Nandkumar Kamat