Indian star tortoise
The Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans ) is a threatened tortoise species native to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka where it inhabits dry areas and scrub forest. It has been listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List since 2016, as the population is thought to comprise more than 10,000 individuals, but with a declining trend. It is threatened by habitat loss and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade. It was upgraded to CITES Appendix I in 2019 by full consensus among all member states, giving it the highest level of international protection from commercial trade. Conservation group TRAFFIC found 6,040 were seized globally that were intended to be sold in the pet trade.
The Indian star tortoise is of medium size for a tortoise and is found in the arid and dry forests in India and Sri Lanka. Its name comes from the star-like patterns that feature on its high-domed shell. Because of these very distinctive patterns and its highly rounded shell, the Indian star tortoise is popular in the world's trade in exotic pets. The attractive markings on its shell, aside from looking very pretty, serve to help this tortoise more easily blend in with its surroundings, by breaking up the hard edge of the shell, so when the tortoise is grazing, it is not so obvious to predators passing by.
This species lives in three separate parts of the Indian subcontinent: western India and the extreme southeast of Pakistan (e.g., Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan in India, as well as the Thar Desert in Pakistan), in southeastern India (Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu), and on Sri Lanka. They occupy a wide variety of habitats, including semi-arid lowland forests, moist deciduous forest, thorn scrub forests, semi-desert and arid grasslands. This species has a high tolerance for habitats that are seasonally wet or dry, many populations inhabiting areas with a monsoon or rainy season followed by a long hot and dry period. Sometimes they live in agricultural areas.
Indian star tortoises are generally crepuscular, which means they are active in the early morning and the late afternoon during dry, hot weather. The rest of the time, they shelter under vegetation or some other cover. In the rainy season, they are much more active, moving around and feeding for much of the day. They become inactive in western India and Pakistan during the colder months of winter. These solitary animals do not hibernate, but when it is very dry and hot, or very cold, they stay inactive. Perception and communication appears to be mostly visual, though tactile and olfactory senses are also used during feeding, courtship, male competitive behavior, and nesting, and a male tortoise will vocalize to a female during mating.
Indian star tortoises are mainly herbivores (folivores and frugivores) and mostly eat grasses, herbaceous leaves, flowers, and fruit, and sometimes insects, carrion, and dung.
These tortoises are polygynandrous (promiscuous), with multiple males and females all have mating relationships. Males compete for females by ramming rival males or flipping them onto their backs. In comparison to many other tortoise species, courtship is rather more subdued, often with minimal or no butting, shoving, or biting of females - which in this species are often are much larger than males. Breeding starts when the rainy season arrives. (In south India this is mid-June to November.) About 60 - 90 days after mating, typically in the evening, females start to wander around and sniff the ground. When an acceptable nest site is found, a female will begin to dig a flask-shaped nest, using her hind feet. After laying her eggs, she fills in the nest, and, with her plastron, flattens down the soil. Each year females lay 1-9 clutches, with 1-10 eggs in each. Incubation is for 47 - 180 days. Once the eggs are laid, there is no care given to eggs or hatchlings. Females in the wild may reach maturity in 8 - 12 years while male are mature within 6 - 8 years, but the time may be much shorter for captive tortoises.
Natural threats to this species are predation and flooding, but humans have drastically reduced their numbers through loss of habitat and collection for food and for the exotic pet trade. In much of India, Indian star tortoises are important as a food source. They are also an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, and they are susceptible to disease, particularly pneumonia, respiratory diseases, and overgrowth of parasites when stressed by handling, collection and shipment, often under inhumane conditions. Many specimens caught to be sold as pets will die from unsuspected disease.
The IUCN Red List and other sources do not provide the Indian star tortoise total population size. Currently this species is classified as Vulnerable (VU) and its numbers today are decreasing.
Being herbivores in their habitats when abundant Indian star tortoises may act as dispersal agents for various plants via consumption of seeds and fruit.