The Battering rams of Travancore

On a warm, quiet evening at the zoo in Chennai, life was suspended in a state of limbo.Even the noisy permanent residents; egrets and pond herons, were quiet, obviously feeling the heat. It was my first summer at the zoo, and that’s when I heard it!

I wandered around the zoo later that night with a flashlight searching for the source of this constant, slow hammering sound.

It sounded like someone trying to break a wall down but was too bored to actually do it.

A compact scavenger. Photo credit: Sandeep Varma

I didn’t find it that night, but when I heard it a few days later, I realized it wasn’t a bored man hammering a wall! It was actually an interesting spectacle to watch. Picture two small, really small, shoe-box-size battle tanks constantly ramming into each other. These small-sized tanks I’m talking about are the Travancore tortoises; a species found only in the Western Ghats.

A red-faced tortoise!

Why was this forest tortoise so angry? Why was he trying to hammer his friend back into his shell? What did his friend say that enraged him? Was it the heat that was getting him all red in the face? Well apparently, it’s the way these guys settle on breeding rights. It’s simple in their world. If I am bigger than you, I just hammer you till you can’t take it anymore and then, take whatever I like. By the way, being red in the face means that the tortoise is ready, ready to breed. These tortoises might be an angry species, but they are an important one! Considered ‘vulnerable’ according to the IUCN, this species is protected by the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, Schedule 4.

A treasure of the Western Ghats that needs to be hidden from all; Photo credit: Sandeep Varma

The tortoise and its responsibility!

Why does one need to protect something like a slow-moving tortoise? What is the role of a tortoise in our ecosystem? Why is this species vulnerable?

This tortoise is known for its omnivorous diet which includes scavenging on animal carcasses. Imagine a forest that stinks of decaying dead animals.

In some forests of India there are vultures and jackals that clean up after the death, but in the Western Ghats, we have the angry Travancore Tortoise.It’s like having a garbage collector with an OCD who takes his job very seriously, but the sad part is this guy has many things to worry about 🙁

It is hunted by man for its meat, though forest fires pose a more serious threat and, being slow here is not helpful! If the risk of being cooked in their shells is not enough, habitat destruction and species fragmentation are other worries. The Madras Crocodile Bank is an organization that is helping them fight back. Their successful captive breeding program for the Travancore Tortoise gives this species a little bit of hope for the future.

 

Edited by Dominic D’Cruz