It was yet another tiger safari, but it was back in December 2014. I can’t say if what I saw was the tail, or a leaf, or my eyes playing tricks to satiate my wish. But our naturalist and our driver at BR Hills told us that a Madras Tree Shrew had run across the dirt track. After a few desperate glances to get a better look at the tree shrew that our naturalist had mentioned, we got distracted by a Square-tailed Bulbul and an Asian Fairy Bluebird.
I had been eager to see the tree shrew on that trip. I had digested pages of information about tree shrews from the internet. Every time I’d think of the tree shrew, I’d be reminded of the Besant Nagar beach in Chennai. I soon realized why — the Madras Tree Shrew goes by the name Anathana ellioti and the Besant Nagar beach in Chennai is called Elliot’s Beach. While the beach is named after Edward Elliot, a former chief magistrate of Madras in colonial India, the tree shrew is named after the noted ethnologist and naturalist Sir Walter Elliot; both had served notable stints in the erstwhile Madras Presidency.
During the peak monsoon of 2016 we hosted a friend visiting Bengaluru and then headed off to Galibore, hoping to see the Kaveri (Cauvery) river in spate. As the monsoon was a weak one, there was no gushing river to walk along and we chose to explore the scrub. My vigilant spotter sensed a movement in a tamarind tree and said, “There is something furry in that tree and it is not a palm squirrel.” Our naturalist homed in and declared, “Indian Tree Shrew — very rare sighting.”
It was rare for two reasons: one — the race of tree shrew we had seen was rarely seen; two — within ten seconds of our spotting the tree shrew in the shadows of the tree, it slipped into a hollow and made itself sparse. The tree shrew made another fleeting appearance on another tree after we had moved a hundred feet. That was the last we saw of it.
“We saw the tail of the Madras Tree Shrew, but at least we got a glimpse of the Indian Tree Shrew!” I consoled myself.
I returned home and read about the Indian Tree Shrew. While doing so, I pictured the vivid imagery of Karl Schmidt’s memorial, that whitewashed relic on Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar, Chennai. I re-read the zoological name of the Indian Tree Shrew — Anathana ellioti — only to realize that it was the same species of the tree shrew revealing its anatomy in installments: the tail at BR Hills, the torso at Galibore…
Cut to Tigerland, 2017. On our third safari, our guide wanted to go after the less-seen tiger in the Wagdoh area along the Andhari river. We saw pugmarks and waited for the tiger to show up. The tiger, it appears, knew game theory. It waited, too. It was we who blinked first and moved. Out of Wagdoh and we were on the asphalted road, heading towards Tadoba gate, when something scurried across the road, stopped, raised its furry tail, turned around, moved a few inches, turned around again, crossed the road, and settled atop a bamboo stump.
“Tree Shrew,” our guide and safari jeep driver declared in unison. The light was dull and we stopped far from our quarry. We had a twenty-second sighting but this time I saw the animal clearly, including the distinctive white shoulder stripe. And so, on the third installment we got a clear view of the tree shrew, from its pointed pink nose to the tip of its furry brown tail.
We were on the tail end of our trip to tigerland and on our last safari we had a close encounter with Choti Tara, the tigress of Jamni. After leaving Jamni, we had seen two other pug marks, a male and a female near the Kala Amba water hole. We were following the track when I saw movement in the the bamboo clumps on the right.
“Tree Shrew. Stop!” I called. Our driver stopped almost instantaneously. I got a sighting of two Indian Tree Shrews playing and squeaking. Their movements were swift. And there were those few seconds when they got intimately close to each other. I wondered if they were of the opposite genders and if this was some form of courtship. They frolicked with alacrity, and with alacrity they disappeared too. We waited for them to reappear, but they did not.
As we stopped for the tree shrews, the male among the two tigers we were tracking had crossed a few hundred meters ahead in the full few of a dozen and a half jeep and as we reached and settled for the third row of jeeps, the female tiger crossed the wide dirt track. We waited a lot longer for the tigers to show up again, but they did not. As we returned, it was the tree shrew our guide and safari jeep driver were talking about.
We had fine sightings of the Indian Tree Shrew at Tadoba. And now, when I read the name of the Indian Tree Shrew, I see that vision of the two furry little creatures in the forest of Tadoba. At Tadoba, where the tiger rules, it was the tree shrew that stole the show that day.
Editor’s note: Although Tree Shrews may closely resemble palm squirrels in the field, they are not rodents. Neither are they insectivores, although they were once placed along with terrestrial shrews in the order Insectivora. The Indian Tree Shrew, also known as the Madras Tree Shrew, is classified under the order Scandentia, which includes some 20 species in four genera distributed in Southeast Asia. The order Scandentia is one of four orders of mammals grouped by some taxonomists under a super-order Euarchonta, which also includes colugos, primates and the extinct Plesiadapiformes.
Text and photographs: Andy