Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Documenting endemics- snakes of the Mahdei Wildlife sanctuary.

It has been a busy monsoon. Yes, even though the rains have been less than satisfactory in the coastal areas of Goa, up here in the realms of the Mahdei Wildlife Sanctuary, it has been a downpour of sorts. At 800 meters above sea level, under almost 70 percent tree canopy and a distinct smell of some ethereal floral fragrance that I fail to identify, a fresh deluge brings me and my small expedition to a standstill. It’s been like this for a fortnight now and the rains have laid a carpet of greens on the wet forest floor that I tread on. Life seems to burst from every nook and cranny and large mammals like the Indian Gaur and the Sambhar have taken to the plateaus, as the irritation caused by the larger droplets of water seem to bother them…I note this even as I see a herd of Gaur head to a small clearing in the woods across the other side of the mountain, and I move closer to a Umbar tree in an eternal bid to shield my camera equipment for a while.

The monsoons turn the Mahdei Wildlife sanctuary into a haven for herpetofauna, and being involved in an ambitious project to catalogue this diversity has led to many field trips to various parts of this important protected area of Goa. This monsoons me and pals in the field, that include volunteers, fellow researchers and local guides have set ourselves a target to identify and photo document the endemic species of Snake diversity of this sanctuary and well, it has truly been an uphill task. With just over a month of heavy rainfall and the ever swelling waters of the Surla, Nanoda and Mahdei rivers and their tributaries, the going has been tough in terms of accessibility to some remote forest areas. But yes, the results have been astonishing, and I must admit that every senior herpetologist whose feedback I have received has marveled at the diversity of endemic snake species that this region supports. Yes, endemic species are those species that are confined to a particular region or area and are found nowhere else in the world, and hence have great ecological value!

Amongst burrowing snakes, the Beaked Worm snake (Grypotyhlops acutus), an endemic species to India featured first on our must see and document list, and rightly so…we cataloged quite a few specimens of the same, apart from documenting the elusive Pied belly Shieldtail (Melanophidium punctatum), the Elliot’s Shieldtail (Uropeltis ellioti) and the Large Scaled Shieldtail (Uropeltis macrolepis sp.) all endemic species to the country, all amongst the rich humus of the forest floor which serve as foraging grounds for these burrowing species in the monsoons as they feed exclusively on earthworms.

As we intensified our searches from day treks to night trails and more, we documented the familiar Whitaker’s Boa (Eryx whitakeri) in the cashew plantations that lined the sanctuary and also came across the fabled Montane trinket snake (Coelognathus helena monticollaris), in a small natural cave and was seen eating a bat at that!!

Our night searches coupled with trails alongside existing roads yielded some exciting results, and the Travancore Wolf Snake (Lycodon travancoricus) and the Beddome’s keelback were our main finds, and although we explored and looked for the magical Hill keelback, the search yielded little results. But the find of the fortnight was the rare and endemic Olive forest snake (Rhabdops olivaceus), a semi aquatic snake that has been earlier known from only 4-5 locations in the entire Western Ghats of India.
With heightened spirits and a fabulous forest to explore, the team was able to document the trinity of venomous species of forest snakes- the Malabar Pit Viper (Trimeresurus malabaricus) and the Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus gramineus), apart from the rare Striped Coral Snake ( Calliophis nigrescens) whose find under a moss covered rock made our faces glow even in the pouring rain.

But apart from these species, our eyes saw the other side of these forests too; especially areas where tree cover had dwindled and monoculture plantations had taken over, roads that intersected the sanctuary lay littered with plastic and rivers clogged with silt and other unmentionables. The beginning of an end as someone put it…and well we vowed not to let it happen as these forests were truly home to some of the most magnificent of living forms and their existence and ours too depended on the South west monsoons and the capability of these forests to retain and release the waters of the same to our rivers…a long equation for those who do not understand nature’s web of life.

For us though, the documentation continues, and as I get ready with my equipment to freeze another frame, amidst adjusting my leech socks and pondering about the possible location of another species, another shower sets in….

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