I had spoken about the occurrence of endemic species in the Eastern Ghats. One of these has a very interesting history. It combines elements associated with two famous literary characters, namely Rip Van Winkle and Sherlock Holmes. I am talking about the Jeypore Ground Gecko (Geckoella jeyporensis) that is found in around the same area as Hemidactylus sushilduttai. It was discovered by Colonel Richard Henry Beddome (1830-1911) who was working as a Chief Conservator in the Madras Forest Department. Beddome obtained his first and only specimen from the forests on the Patinghe Hill near Jeypore (a city in southern Odisha’s Koraput District, surrounded by the mountains of the Eastern Ghats). That was in the year 1877, and this is how Beddome described it in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London:
Of stout form. Body covered with large hexagonal or nearly square scales in only about eighteen rows across, a few about the vertical line being a little reduced in size ; scales of the belly smaller and rounded behind, in about thirty series across. Head covered with small, bead-like, rounded scales ; upper labials ten, the last two very small ; lower labials seven, the last minute ; median lower labial large, pointed behind, with a large pair of chin-shields behind it; subcaudals larger than the scales of the belly. Tail with two tubercles on each side close to the vent; pupil elliptic; opening of the ear subhorizontal. Colour of a light grey, irregularly blotched with dark brown ; head with small blotches ; nape with two large lunate blotches, one behind the other; body with three 8–shaped blotches, which, however, do not meet, and smaller intermediate markings ; tail irregularly blotched.Length 3.5 inches; no femoral nor praeanal pores.
As the reptile had been discovered on Patinghe, it also came to be known as the Patinghe Gecko. But that was it. Having been seen once, the little critter did a disappearing act a la Rip Van Winkle. The fictional Dutch American villager living in New York’s Catskill Mountains famously wandered off from his home after being nagged by his wife, met a bunch of silent bearded men playing nine-pins, had some of their wine and fell asleep. By the time he regained consciousness, twenty years had passed, the American Revolution had taken place, his wife had passed away and his country was no longer a colony of Great Britain. The rediscovery of the Jeypore Ground Gecko has a similar ring to it.
A further 135 years passed by before it would be seen again. By that time, the British Raj had become history, India was hurtling through the Internet Age and the world was no longer a stomping ground for characters like Colonel Richard Henry Beddome. Instead of British conservators, it was a team of Indian scientists who got their hands on the elusive creature. A feat reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes’ forensic skills. They had nothing more than the description given by Beddome, and sketchy information about his route through the Eastern Ghats. The first attempt in 2008-09 was a failure. The second clicked. They found the Jeypore Ground Gecko in two locations – Deomali (a mountain 50 km from Jeypore) and Galikonda (another peak, across the border in Andhra Pradesh’s Vishakhapatnam District). This is how the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species describes the range, ecology and conservation status of the gecko:
Geckoella jeyporensis is endemic to the Eastern Ghats, India. The type locality is probably Patinghe (Potangi) Hill near Jeypore in Orissa. The species had not been collected since it was originally found in 1877, and there were fears that it might be extinct. However, it was recently recorded (September 2010) from Deomali, Jeypore in Koraput District, Orissa about 10 km from the type locality. A further collection was also made in October 2011, 40 km away from the type locality at Galikonda, Visakhapatnam District, Andra Predesh. Its known extent of occurrence is probably under 100 sq km. Within this area, its occurrence appears to be highly restricted at the two known sites, with a recent two-day survey failing to locate it in nearby areas, and the area of occupancy is provisionally estimated to be around 20 sq km. There are, however, other high peaks in this hill range where this species might be found. It occurs at elevations between 1,200 to 1,300 m asl.
The type specimen was collected in a wood on top of Patinghe hill, near Jeypore. For the more recent collections, one individual was collected from under a rock in a patch of semi-evergreen forest at Deomali and one from a coffee plantation at Galikonda which still had many native shade trees. It therefore appears that this species is confined to semi-evergreen high altitude forests. All recent specimens were collected during the day and no animals were observed at night. Nothing else is known about the ecology of this species. The forest habitats where this species occurs are under extreme pressure. Neither of the new localities is in a protected area and both are severely deforested. Galikonda and the surrounding hills have been converted to coffee plantations and at Deomali there are grazing and fuel wood collection pressures. The hills in the Koraput District also face pressure from bauxite mining. Generally semi-evergreen forests in this region have been converted to plantations (with exotic species), agriculture or grazing lands and the remaining forest patches are impacted by fuel wood collection and occasional forest fires.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is an illustration of the Jeypore Ground Gecko from the Catalogue of the Lizards in the British Museum. It was drawn by R. Mintern and dates back to 1885.