The Travancore Tortoise

The Travancore tortoise, native to the Western Ghats, is a unique species with a brown and black shell resembling leaf litter, allowing it to hide from predators. These tortoises live a quiet life in the forest but become more active during the breeding season when males engage in non-harmful wrestling matches to win a mate. However, their biggest threat is habitat loss due to deforestation and dam construction in the Western Ghats.

The Travancore tortoise is a medium-sized animal with a brown and black shell that resembles leaf litter. This helps the tortoise stay camouflaged from predators such as leopards and dholes. It is a species that is endemic to the hill forests of the Western Ghats (i.e. it is found only in that region and nowhere else in the world). This species feeds on small grasses, herbs and mushrooms, as well as fruits that have fallen on the forest floor. They sometimes eat snails, crabs and even scavenge on other dead animals.

Like most tortoises, Travancores live a quiet life: they spend much of their time hiding under the leaf litter, fallen trees or between rocks and are active only in the evenings. However, during the breeding season which sets in during early summer, the male tortoises acquire patches of pink colour around their eyes and mouth (like smudged make-up), and they begin to walk longer distances in search of a mate. If two males come across each other, they begin a tortoise wrestling match – they will rock back on their hind legs, pull their heads in and ram into each other’s shells with a loud crash that can be heard far into the forest. But their shells are so strong that this wrestling does not cause any injury. The winner will simply move forward while the loser will hide in his shell or move away. Female Travancores dig small nests in the mud, lay around 3 – 5 eggs in it and cover them up again with mud and leaf litter. The young tortoises are the size of a small potato and they will tear open the eggshell with the help of a special tooth on the tip of their nose, called the caruncle. 

Many hill tribes such as the Kadar, Malai Malasar and Pandaram have traditional stories about this long-lived but secretive animal. In earlier times, they sometimes hunted tortoises for food or kept them as pets. To the biologists, the Travancores are now known as Indotestudo travancorica but earlier, they were confused with a population of a similar-looking tortoise in the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, and were called Indotestudo forstenii. Another of their cousins, the Indotestudo elongate or Elongated tortoises, are found in the hill forests of Tripura, Mizoram and Southeast Asia. The biggest threat to the survival of the Travancore tortoise is the loss of habitat. This happens either when large expanses of forests are converted into fields, villages and towns or when they are flooded to build dams and reservoirs over the rivers of the Western Ghats, to generate hydroelectricity. 

About the author:

Madhuri Ramesh is part of School of Development at the Azim Premji University.