Into the remarkable world of reclusive, resilient porcupines


The spine-clad porcupines are evolutionary wonders. They make anyone think twice about crossing their paths. They can burrow, climb trees and live throughout five continents. The story of these spiky mammals in Bangladesh will leave you in awe

07 October, 2022, 10:45 am

Last modified: October 07, 2022, 11:03 am

Porcupines are threatened, being poached for stomach contents called bezoar. Photo Smithsonian Zoo

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Porcupines are threatened, being poached for stomach contents called bezoar. Photo Smithsonian Zoo

For a diminutive, awkward-looking animal – mostly reclusive and somewhat unappealing to the common eye – it is natural to not attract a lot of inquisitive attention. I can recall visitors at zoos darting past the porcupine enclosures. Their smell, enhanced by poor maintenance, was not something to be withstood by all.

There are pigs in Bangladesh. Starting at mere remembrance like ”Porcupines used to live here” or ”I used to see porcupines in my orchards some years back,” the responses about wild encounters with porcupines get only further interesting from a field biologist’s perspective. ”The Santhal people always find one or two whenever they trudge through my village for hunting,” I was told by countrymen living in northern Bangladesh, even where traces of forests are miles away.

”Porcupines are in the south of the Ganges and the Meghna,” Sultan Ahmed, a student of mine, made this shocking remark one day. He was heavily questioned. Then, one day, I received some images of porcupines visiting his place from him – queer, spiny faces peeking out of some undergrowth in Chandpur. Following that, I noticed, from the neighboring district, Shariatpur, someone rescued a porcupine. But this was not the most astounding report of porcupine sightings I noticed.

Prehensile-tailed porcupines are very good at climbing trees. Photo Maryland Zoo

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Prehensile-tailed porcupines are very good at climbing trees.  Photo Maryland Zoo

Prehensile-tailed porcupines are very good at climbing trees. Photo Maryland Zoo

”There are porcupines in settlements around Kurmitola,” the first time I had heard this, I was a fresh undergraduate. You can probably imagine my expression, as I can do yours if you are first time digesting this, given that the rare Bangladeshi porcupines can be found there of all places – an area reputed for an international airport, a golf club, a cantonment and one of the busiest traffic in the capital Dhaka. Then, a couple of years ago, one was actually rescued by the Forest Department from Kurmitola.

Whenever I ask someone about porcupines, I almost invariably receive one of these four generic answers. So, are porcupines omnipresent all over Bangladesh? How do they still manage this feat?

Before delving into this, there is one fact that can make the already raised eyebrows raise further up and the already dropped jaws travel further down. Porcupines are rodents, making them a cousin to rats, mice, and squirrels. They belong to Hystricomorpha, a major branch of the highly successful and most diverse mammal order, Rodentia (named so because of their constant chewing).

Spines in rodents are a kind of defense mechanism to fend off predatory attempts on them. Porcupets, baby porcupines, are born with spines; softer at the moment of birth that get hardened very fast.

In general, the ones with spines live in burrows and roam at night. However, the ones from the Americas are good at climbing and love daylights. In the Old World, there are about a dozen species. How many species live in Bangladesh exactly is shrouded in mystery. That much we do know about our porcupines.

Lead_Does the Indian crested porcupine live in Bangladesh Photo iNaturalist

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Lead_Does the Indian crested porcupine live in Bangladesh Photo iNaturalist

Lead_Does the Indian crested porcupine live in Bangladesh Photo iNaturalist

Safe to say, all of our forests, from the heavily screwed up deciduous forests to the formidable forests of the Hill Tracts and the Sundarbans, have porcupines. Place a camera trap properly in any forest, photos of porcupines are a sure surface. But we have absolutely no idea about their extent of existence outside the forested areas and how they are faring there.

My interest in the spiny lot was fueled by two events of late. I was giving an invited lecture together with Dr Monirul H Khan, professor of zoology, Jahangirnagar University. I was showing some of my camera-trap photos from my study areas to the attendees; porcupines were on the slides.

”These porcupines have no crests,” Dr Khan pointed out at a fact suggesting a different identity. Before Dr Khan’s remarks – for which I am thankful – I never looked much into porcupines and simply followed the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh’s assessment. It said the common porcupines in Bangladesh are the Indian crested porcupine.

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