In the forests of the Eastern Ghats (a chain of very old and highly eroded mountains) running between the towns of Giddalur (Prakasam District) to the northeast and Gooty (Anantapur District) to the southwest is found one of the most stunning arachnids of Asia, the Gooty Tarantula (Poecilotheria metallica). Also known as the Gooty Sapphire or Peacock Tarantula, it has become famous all over the world, especially among tarantula collectors who love raising these hairy spiders as pets.

The reason? Its dazzling metallic blue colour (during adulthood). Mature spiders can fetch several hundred US dollars in the international market. However, its popularity has come at a price. Given the extremely small geographical range occupied by the species (estimated to be some hundred square kilometers between the two urban centers mentioned), and the degraded condition of the deciduous forests it occupies (on account of harvesting for timber), it has been classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Collection of wild specimens for the pet trade might very well drive it over the edge.

This is what the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species has to say about the Gooty Sapphire:

The species is found in a single location, which is severely fragmented. The extent of occurrence is less than 100 sq km (India: Andhra Pradesh: Reserve forest between Nandyal and Giddalur). The type description stated the species as occurring in Gooty, which is wrong since although the animal was caught in the railway timber yard in Gooty, the specimen could have come from the Eastern Ghats, which is at least 100 km away. Molur et al. rediscovered the species after 102 years in 2001 in a highly disturbed forest between Nandyal and Giddalur. Other surveys have not indicated the presence of this easily-identifiable species in any other locality. However, traders have put up this spider on sale after collecting some adults from the said area or nearby. Since information on their collection area is not available, it is presumed that they could have collected only from the nearby location and not from the protected Gundlabrahmeshwaram Wildlife Sanctuary. Habitat loss and degradation are major threats. From our understanding, if the habitat is under similar pressure of degradation, the species might be extirpated from the known location in the near future. An additional threat to the species is collection by international pet traders, which could have an impact on the population. The two threats in tandem could result in the species’ extinction from the known location in the near future. An incident of smuggling was recorded in 2002 when two Europeans took a few specimens out of the country and advertised them for sale on the internet. There are also reports available of other such incidents since then.

This makes the Tarantula one of the many species endemic to peninsular South Asia. In fact, the genus Poecilotheria to which it belongs is found nowhere else but in South India and Sri Lanka. They are called ‘tiger spiders’ on account of their striking patterns, bold colors, large size, aggressive temperament and potent venom. They are arboreal by nature, living inside funnel webs and ambushing insects, arachnids, small reptiles and mammals for food. The Gooty Tarantula is no different, capable of growing big enough to span 20 cm.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons is a photograph of the Gooty Tarantula. It was taken from the ‘Critically Endangered Animal Species of India (2011)’ and uploaded by Søren Rafn.