Standing strong against the harsh wind and weather, withstanding rapidly fluctuating temperatures and rainfall, bravely surviving the excruciating onslaught of humans, I live to tell the tale of some of the most beautiful creatures that ever walked my branches.
From when I was a sapling up till now there have been numerous spiders crawling all over my bark, creating webs between my branches and leaves. But, the first time I saw these eight-legged miracles I was awestruck. I froze as I witnessed these extremely large, hairy and strikingly coloured spiders climbing up my trunk. It was hard to miss them with their flamboyant pattern filled with grey, black and brown colours. Some of them even had very useful bright yellow-orange markings on their first pair of legs that appeared to help them ward off their predators by warning them of their extremely potent venom!
The aforementioned statement was not said in jest for I have indeed witnessed the bold stealth attack that these spiders use to capture their prey. Unlike most spiders, they do not use a web. Instead, they sit silently and wait until insects, larvae, small birds or even tiny mammals pass by. Then at lightning speed, they follow, catch and successfully paralyze the prey with venom before enjoying their meal. Do not think for a second that their venom has no effect on humans. I can confirm that it is powerful enough to cause severe pain in humans.
Humans arrival in the beginning was welcomed as it meant that I discovered that these spiders are of the genus Poecilotheria from the family of tarantulas. Being a part of Sri Lanka’s lowland wet zone forests meant that I was graced with the presence of Poecilotheria ornata but, there were 5 other species around Sri Lanka as well. P. fasciata, P. vittata, P. smithi, P. subfusca, and P. hanumavilasumica were found all around our island. There were people unearthing these species, figuring out more information about them and informing the public about them. That is when human arrival was definitely not welcome.
One of the most sorrowful events that I had to witness occurred when these tarantulas captivating beauty and large size attracted the wrong community. People with money at the forefront of their minds saw these vulnerable creatures as a popular means of wealth. Humans began capturing all the species to be sold off to the highest bidder. The distribution of these species was already at meager levels and with poor dispersal abilities, these spiders are rapidly decreasing right before our eyes. The populations of Poecilotheria species are also quite structured hence loss of species would drastically decrease their genetic diversity reducing their chances of adapting to the many other changes occurring around the world.
The most horrific part is that the female spiders are heavily targeted for trading simply for their ability to produce young. Many other trees and I are witnesses to the boastful tales of the people or ‘collectors’ who capture the beautiful females, whose main aim is to sell the susceptible females and their unknowing offspring to be reared in captive for the pet trade in Sri Lanka and internationally as well. If only humans realize that if this inhumane act carries on, the future will not have the honour of witnessing these beautiful creatures.
Another situation that I want to urgently bring to people’s attention might initially seem like a trivial situation in the eyes of men but, it has greatly contributed to the increased mortality rate of these invaluable spiders. I have noticed that whenever humans are faced with something large and unknown they automatically think that it is dangerous. And whatever is deemed dangerous is intentionally killed without a second thought. I always wonder why people think in this streamlined manner. Don’t they understand that careless thoughts as such can lead to the unwanted killing of innocent animals? If only humans take a moment and carefully think twice before bringing down the axe on organisms much smaller than themselves.
The next reason for the rapidly decreasing population of Poecilotheria species is simply the direct decrease in the population of my species. While all zones in Sri Lanka are heavily affected, the wet zone of our country, with a very high density of human population, has had a major impact on forest loss and degradation. I am one tree in 3% of what was once lush greenery.
With forests rapidly decreasing these arboreal spiders, who depend on trees as a place of reproduction, foraging and protection, will, unfortunately, be displaced. With their poor dispersal abilities, strong dependency on a structured population and a need for a sedentary lifestyle, anthropogenic activities like deforestation and fragmentation of forests will result in physical trauma, intentional killing and ultimate death of the spiders. I know that plantations, timber, mining for gems, and the building of infrastructure and settlements are important to you humans, but you certainly do not have to cut down millions of trees to achieve your goal. Because of your overwhelming greed, a biodiversity hotspot has become a deforestation hotspot. If only humans can see, acknowledge and understand that nobody and nothing destroys like they do.
A pressing concern that is steadily gaining attention worldwide is climate change and rightfully so. But while the melting of ice caps and rise of sea levels has been addressed, what about the effect the change in climate has on organisms like myself and these spiders? The spiders of genus Poecilotheria, like all other spiders, are ectotherms, unlike humans.
While people have the comfort of controlling their body temperature the spider’s body temperature will change with the environment and finding shade under leaves will only help for so long. Spiders are very sensitive to rapid changes in temperature and to severe exhaustion of their body water sources. These helpless creatures cannot even move to another region to survive due to their low dispersal abilities. Fluctuations in temperature and rainfall also drastically affect their insect prey, who are ectotherms as well. These are just more causes leading to the sorrowful death of these beautiful miracles. If only humans can stop continuously giving reasons for the climate to undergo such extreme changes.
Another threat to the species of Poecilotheria is pesticides. Over 100 active ingredients of fungicides, herbicides and pesticides are used around Sri Lanka, some of them being dangerous neurotoxins like carbofuran, diazinon, and chloropyrifos. These neurotoxins have lethal effects on sit and wait spiders like those of the genus Poecilotheria since actions such as development, movement, capturing of prey, defence and reproduction are controlled by intricate neural interactions.
With a major portion of Sri Lanka still reliant on farming, the use of pesticides is wholly understandable but there is a reason these are killing spiders who live in forests close to crop plantations, who cross plantations when dispersing or who consume pesticide affected prey. If only humans figure out that misuse and overuse of dangerous pesticides will have a negative impact rather than a positive one and it is what is killing the spiders.
The question in my mind is what is being done to protect these liable but beautiful spiders. I have witnessed an increase in the number of good people taking measures to reverse climate change and to reduce the rate of deforestation and I hope the number of people taking part in such ventures increases over the years. I am already playing my role by dispersing seeds for the growth of new plants and providing a home to any animals that require it.
But, among the methods of conservation for the spiders of the genus Poecilotheria the most wonderful one occurred after 19 years of hard work and disappointment. Sri Lanka and the USA co-sponsored a proposal to make this genus a part of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Fauna and Flora also known as CITES in the year 2000 but, the proposal was cruelly rejected at the 11th Conference of the Parties due to lack of information on the distribution and international trade of these spiders. Miraculously, in the year 2019, all the species in the genus Poecilotheria were listed on Appendix II of the CITES and they are now protected from international trading sans the CITES permit.
This success was postponed due to the lack of information on these spiders and there is a plethora of data deficient organisms that are anonymously slipping into extinction.
“We know that our Asian elephant and Sri Lankan leopard are endangered animals but, though we may not be as charismatic and majestic as they are, we are also slipping fast into the spiral of extinction. We would love to be discovered and recorded in your books for your future to read and learn about. If only the humans will hear our message and take steps to make our dream come true.”
Along with the spiders of the genus Poecilotheria, there are numerous organisms that want me to send the people out there this message and I am sure that the required steps will be taken.
My dream is for the forests to once again be used as a peaceful haven for the precious fauna and a library of information for curious humans rather than a location for loss, death and destruction. If only I can live to see my dream come true one day.
By Rtr. Amrah Izadeen
- Infographic Posy By: Rtr. Muditha Nelumi