By Avik Banerjee | Illustration by Varnika Walvekar

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Of the 1,382 islands in India, they are the largest group consisting of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal, situated 1,400 km off the south-eastern coast of India. They enjoy warm tropical climates and receive abundant rainfall throughout the year. They possess lush tropical rainforests, thick mangroves, and colourful coral reefs which harbour a wide variety of plants and animals. They are also home to some of the world’s oldest aboriginal tribes. ‘They’ are popularly known as the Andaman and the Nicobar Islands

The islands possess more than 9,000 species, of which more than 1,000 species are endemic. A plant or animal species is called endemic when it is found only in a particular area, such as an island or a country or even a distinct habitat, and nowhere else in the world. Having such great diversity of animals, no wonder these islands are home to some unique species of the world. Be it the cow that can swim in the sea or the monkey that loves to eat seafood, be it the pigeon that carries a grinding stone in its stomach or the fox that can fly, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have numerous species to amaze us all.  

The Nicobar Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis umbrosa). Photographed by Ishika Ramakrishna

One such unique species is the Dugong, a marine mammal that can weigh up to 900 kgs. It is also the state animal of the island group. It is popularly known as the ‘sea cow’, mainly because of its large bulky body and its herbivorous diet consisting of seagrasses. Dugongs have a flattened tail and paddle-like flippers to help them swim and a downward angled snout to ease their feeding on seagrasses. So, you see, we have cows living in the oceans too. And talking about large animals, these islands harbour the world’s largest land crabs, known as robber or coconut crabs which can grow up to 1 meter in width. Another unique endemic monkey species is the Nicobar long-tailed macaque, usually found in the mangrove forests. They have brownish-grey fur and a tail longer than their body length. These macaques are known to feast on small crabs during dry seasons. 

A Nicobar Megapode (Megapodius nicobariensis) is also called as the thermometer bird since its large feet have sensors to test the temperature of the nests it builds on the forest floor. Photographed by Dhritiman Mukherjee

The islands are a paradise for bird watchers as they host more than 250 species of birds, of which many are endemic and possess unique features. One such bird is the Nicobar megapode (mega means large and pode means feet). These birds build mound nests by piling up soil, shells, and plant materials such as leaves and twigs. The mounds can be as tall as 10 meters, and parent birds bury their eggs inside these structures. The heat produced by the decomposition of the plant materials helps incubate the eggs. Young birds hatch out of the mound in their most mature condition, having fully formed wings and are ready to fly. Talking about bird nests, these islands host a species of bird whose nest is edible. White-nest swiftlet is a small blackish-brown bird, weighing only 15 to 18 grams, and has a short tail. These birds build an opaque white nest made entirely of solidified saliva. The nests are edible and are used to prepare ‘bird nest’s soup’, which is a delicacy in China. “Yuck!!!” for many of us, but a tasty soup in a neighbouring country.

The Nicobar Pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica) is considered to be the closest living relative to the now extinct Dodo.
Photographed by Raphael Lebrun

Another bird species found on these islands, known as the Nicobar pigeon, is one of the most spectacular birds in the world. They possess metallic green and blue coloured feathers that have a shiny glitter-like appearance. These birds carry a stone in their stomach, known as a gizzard stone, which helps grind grains and hard seeds. Unfortunately, these birds are under the threat of illegal hunting for their gizzard stones, used in jewellery for their smooth and polished appearance. 

Apart from the species mentioned above, the Andaman and Nicobar Island groups provide shelter to many other exciting and globally important species, such as hornbills, marine turtles, saltwater crocodiles and even dolphins and whales. Some more unique species to look out for in these islands include the bright green coloured Andaman day geckos, Andaman hawk owl, a bat species known as the black-eared flying fox, Nicobar cricket frog and the Andaman spiny shrew, among others. However, these magnificent islands and their wildlife are under threat from habitat loss due to increasing human populations, illegal hunting, animal trade, natural disasters such as tsunamis and effects of climate change. Many animals on these islands have become endangered; some have even become extinct over the last few decades. Therefore, we must act to spread awareness and take up essential conservation steps to protect these beautiful islands from destruction and allow such unique creatures to continue living amongst us. 

About the Author:

Avik Banerjee is pursuing his PhD at the Center for Ecological Sciences at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. His research includes studying behaviour of lizards and their diet. He is a nature enthusiast who loves to travel around and learn new things. Avik also has a keen interest in nature photography.

About the Artist:

Varnika Walvekar is a Master’s in Conservation Practice student at ATREE, Bangalore. She loves art, music and writing and always wonders if she can be a jack of all trades and master of one. YFN’s reach amongst children got her interested in the magazine. She hopes to help expand it further!