Encounter: Indian Giant Squirrel

Fluffy and tubby, the Indian Giant Squirrel is a treat to watch anywhere you may wander in the forests of peninsular India from the Western Ghats all the way to Madhya Pradesh

The first tell-tale giveaway of its presence is a crashing and rustling of treetop branches followed, sometimes, by a glimpse of a ruddy brown shape scampering through the high branches. Occasionally, you might hear a loud, percussive call that you can’t match to any bird you know of. There’s your culprit — the Indian Giant Squirrel (Ratufa indica).

Popularly called the Malabar Giant Squirrel in the south, it is the largest species of squirrel in the world. Placed in the family Sciuridae in the order Rodentia, these furry mammals can grow up to 3 feet long (including the extremely long tail) and weigh up to 2 kg. This arboreal creature is found in deciduous, moist deciduous and evergreen forests of peninsular India.

Though the squirrel is fairly common throughout the Western Ghats and its foothills, until my trip to Dandeli in northwestern Karnataka I’d had only two fleeting glimpses of the giant squirrel. At the Kulgi Nature Camp (where we Ogres stayed) and at the timber depot in the town centre, the squirrels were so unafraid that they went about their activities without a second look at us. After a while I grew getting tired of their antics. Showoffs!

The Indian Giant Squirrel is usually found in the upper canopy and rarely leaves the comfort of trees. It moves along the canopy from one tree to another through interconnecting branches and, in situations where there are gaps in the canopy, it leaps from the end of one branch to a neighboring tree. They have been known to leap 5 to 6 meters from one tree to another. It uses its long tail for balance. When frightened, this squirrel has the habit of lying flat on a branch, motionless, or hiding behind the trunk. These squirrels are mostly active during morning and evening, avoiding the heat of the day. They can be seen lying flat on a branch catching up on their siesta. They are also known to sleep in the nest if the weather is too cold or rainy.

The Indian giant squirrel is heard more often than seen. Its call is a loud and penetrating series of chucks. Thanks to the other Ogres, I recognized the call for the first time inDandeli. although I had heard it before.Indian giant squirrels are omnivorous, feeding on fruits, berries, flowers, bark, eggs, insects etc. Adults are solitary and sometimes found in pairs. The female gives birth to two pups after a month’s gestation period. The nests are large and spherical, made with twigs and leaves, and are built on the thin branches for safety from larger predators. According to Prater, an individual squirrel may build several nests within a small area and use them as sleeping quarters.Two individuals we saw at Dandeli perched low on a (barely) leafless tree and fed on berries. They did not appear to be disturbed by us standing directly below and observing them. They seemed oblivious to aerial attack as well. It was amusing to watch them grasp the berries in their front paws and chomp away while they clung to the branch with their hind-paws.

The squirrels’ coats may vary from red to brown to black on the upperparts while underparts may be light cream or white.  Their populations are so fragmented and isolated that several races can be distinguished by colour schemes. This has also given rise to disagreement among biologists regarding subspecies. Even though the giant squirrel is fairly common in our forests, the most immediate threat to the species is habitat degradation due to logging and encroachment of forest land for agriculture. Sensing the threat, the 130 sq km Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary was created in 1984 at Ambegaon near Pune, Maharashtra.

As we left the squirrels to eat in peace, I couldn’t help but imagine that, with their paws clasped together, they were imploring us to help save their kind.

Text and photos: Arun
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