The colorful panels from Brawin Kumar’s comic book tell of how two children saved a hedgehog from an unlicensed healer. The hedgehog mother is delighted to be reunited with her baby, as she has lost most of her offspring to road traffic.
Kumar, an Indian researcher and environmentalist, came up with the idea of writing the book in Tamil to educate children who live in and around the Madras hedgehog habitat. Many of these children will never have seen the nocturnal creature which, unlike the British hedgehog, summeres (is in a state of torpor or dormancy) in summer instead of hibernating in winter.
Kumar’s first encounter with the Madras hedgehog (Paraechinus nudiventris), also known as the Bare-bellied Hedgehog, arrived in 2013 while working in the field with the Zoo Outreach Organization. In a small town near Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, he heard stories about a kind of rat with thorns that had been spotted on nearby farmland and found dead on the road.
It took several visits to the city before finally seeing one, curled up in a ball of thorns under a bush and looking like a small bunch of twigs, he recalls.
“In India, little is known about the behavior of these solitary and elusive animals and they are not even mentioned in folk tales,” Kumar says.
“They are named Mul Eli in Tamil – mul meaning thorn, and eli which means rat. An adult can weigh up to 300 grams, ”he adds.
The Madras hedgehog is endemic to southern India and is one of three hedgehog species found in the country and 17 worldwide. The Madras hedgehog lives in the dry and semi-arid lands of Coimbatore, Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari and Thoothukudi (formerly Tuticorin).
Inspired by this first encounter, Kumar began to study hedgehogs. Reports from local newspapers on sightings and conservation groups were good sources, and people also shared pictures of camera traps. He compiled a lot of data using questionnaires. His fieldwork identified 136 locations in 16 districts where the hedgehogs were found.
In 2018, he and his fellow researchers published an article based on their findings. They found that the creatures made their home not only in arid areas, but in other habitats, such as pastures and meadows, towns and sand dunes. They also discovered by analyzing their droppings that besides insects, hedgehogs also ate grass and plant material and were omnivorous. “I even found a lot of them under streetlights, because they eat insects and that’s where they find their food,” says Kumar.
Although the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) places the Madras hedgehog in the “least concern” category, over the past two decades the population has declined dramatically due to habitat changes and the hunting for meat, traditional medicine and as pets. “The nomadic community of Narikurava collects and markets these animals. Many stores in Nagercoil sell hedgehog oil even now, ”says Kumar. “Hedgehog spines are dried and used as a ‘medicine’ for whooping cough, arthritis and other ailments.”
Like their counterparts around the world, they are also susceptible to traffic. “These tiny creatures head for asphalt roads during monsoons to try and catch the sun and become road killers,” Kumar says.
Kumar and his team recently submitted a policy document to the government of Tamil Nadu calling for the conservation of the Madras hedgehog. Meanwhile, Kumar’s collaboration with his artist friend Venkatesh Babu to create the 20-page comic Mullikkaattu Ithigaasam (Legend of the Scrub Forest) helps educate a new generation about these little creatures.
“I realized that today’s kids didn’t know anything about local animals like this and there was no mention of them in textbooks. That’s why I created the comic, ”says Kumar.
“Babu is primarily a cartoonist who loves nature and frequently conducts wildlife-related programs in schools in southern Tamil Nadu.”
In 2018, Kumar started distributing the book to a few schools in southern Tamil Nadu and was overwhelmed with the response. “When schools reopen after the pandemic, I will start reaching out to more areas of the hedgehog habitat to make people aware that these insectivorous creatures are in fact the farmer’s friends. We also prepare other kits with posters, booklets, stickers and coloring books.
“Researchers and local NGOs need to work together to save these little creatures before they become extinct, and I think that by appealing to the next generation through comics, their interest will be sparked,” Kumar said.