New horrors come my way almost every month. The Bhubaneswar unit of People For Animals has just caught hundreds of porcupine quills being sold in the Khandagiri Mela in Bhubaneswar. The sellers were arrested but there are dozens of such poachers in every village fair.
What could these quills be used for?
In Orissa, they are used for the Bratopayan of Brahmins. This means that they are used to wave about when the sacred thread or janeo is tied on the young Brahmin boy. In other states, they are used by villagers to hide in the houses of their enemies, as these quills create strife in the home. So, for two such senseless superstitions, these animals are being killed.
The Indian crested porcupine (Hystrix indica), is native to southern Asia and the Middle East. Its name in Latin means Quill Pig. Neither sleek nor fast nor majestic, it is the couch potato of the wild. Heavy-bodied, short-legged, and nearly blind, it sleeps in its burrow during the day and comes out to feed at night.
It is 2-3 feet long and weighs 11-18 kg and can live up to 20 years. It has broad hands and feet with long claws used for burrowing. It has a good sense of smell and sharp, chisel-like incisors. It is covered with modified hair in the form of quills, with longer, thinner quills covering a layer of shorter, thicker ones. The quills are brown or black with alternating white and black bands. They are made of flexible keratin and connected to a muscle at its base. The tail is covered with shorter white spines. Among these are longer, hollow quills. These quills typically lie flat until a porcupine is threatened, then leap to attention. They can be up to a foot long.
These quills serve three purposes: the porcupine can use its muscles to raise its quills when it feels threatened and look larger. The smaller quills are used to stab at potential threats. The hollow quills are rattled to produce a warning sound when threatened. (Contrary to popular belief, porcupines cannot shoot their quills) When excited or scared it stomps its feet, growls, grunts or charges backward into the threat. This backward assault, which ends with the attacker being stabbed, is so effective that many animals come away from a porcupine encounter with quills protruding from their own snouts or bodies. Quills have sharp tips and overlapping scales or barbs that make them difficult to remove once they are stuck in another animal's skin. Conservationists have documented that tigers and leopards have become man-eaters after having fought and been injured by porcupines. Porcupines grow new quills to replace the ones they lose.
Traits and life cycle of a porcupine
Indian crested porcupines prefer rocky hillsides, but also live in tropical and temperate shrub-lands, grasslands, forests, plantations, and gardens. They are found throughout the Himalayan mountains, reaching up to elevations of 2400 meters They dig burrows consisting of a long entrance tunnel, multiple exits and a large inner chamber. Because they do not climb or jump well, they spend most of their life on or under the ground. However, they are good swimmers. They come out at night to forage for food. During the day, they remain in their dens, but throughout winter they occasionally emerge during daylight hours to bask in the sun.
They eat plants, roots, bulbs, bark, low quality forage, insects and small vertebrates. They chew on bones to acquire calcium. They mate in February and March and six months later, the female gives birth to one brood of 2-4 offspring per year. The babies are born wide eyed with soft quills that harden in a few hours. The male and female are monogamous and stay together in bonded pairs for life – an unusual trait in mammals. They bring up their children, who leave two years later when they attain adulthood. They are very protective of their young ones and lick them often. Parents teach their young how to forage for food.
The porcupine is eaten by large cats, wolves, hyenas. But, of course, its biggest threat is humans, specially farmers and tribals, who hunt them relentlessly. The animal is easy to catch. It’s a clumsy creature whose top speed is 3 kmph. You can walk right up to it and poke it with a stick – which is what the tribals do.
There exists a large trade of these porcupines for consumption and so-called indigenous medicinal use. A market exists for quills and claws – sellers even offer them on the notorious ebay. These are used for jewellery, fly fishing ties, decorations and religious symbols. The exotic pet trade laps them up.
Vicious spring traps are placed in their habitats. Another way of catching them is to put a noose trap outside the burrow. When the animal comes out the noose tightens round it and it is lifted in the air and then speared. Tiwa hunters, in the hills of Karbi Anglong district of Assam, catch them when they come out of the forests and into the jhum clearings. Porcupine hunting season lasts for nearly two-three months and the entire tribe feasts on hundreds of them every year. Habitat loss, due to construction of dams, livestock grazing, adds to the toll. They are shot by sport hunters (though it would have to be a truly sick mind to hit an almost immobile animal) poisoned and often killed while crossing the road.
Porcupines have a sharp sense of smell and hearing. They are intelligent animals and have an uncanny ability to avoid traps. Till 2008, they were not endangered. In as little as eight years their population has taken a nosedive. Conservationists have estimated that porcupines are reducing by 10 percent every year now. Which means, a genocide is taking place and within ten years they may be none left. When they go they will leave the environment much poorer, because they are extremely important ecologically in spreading seeds and pollen.
The forest department needs to start educating the tribals. 70 years after independence we have not controlled their hunting habits, or banned their forest burning jhum clearances. We allow them to have their hunting festivals, in which thousands of forest animals are killedin one day. We turn a blind eye to their village markets which display all manner of protected birds and beasts. All of India is now hurting due to this negligence and tolerance of “the noble savage.” Every animal that goes takes a toll on the quality of our own lives.