On the Trail of the Malabar Giant Squirrel

Malabar Giant Squirrel eating. Shot by Ishan Shanavas in Munnar, Kerala, India.

There I was, staring high into the canopy. Above me, an intense chase sequence was playing out. 2 Malabar Giant squirrels seemed intent on solving some quarrel between themselves. One was scurrying up the tree in fright, with a larger one following in tow. The first one called hysterically as it scampered up.

I watched as it reached the end of the branch. I thought that it was done for—there was nowhere left for it to go. 

Little did I know how wrong I was.

With utter confidence, the smaller squirrel hurtled through the air towards a neighbouring tree. With a dexterity befitting its species, it grabbed the closest leaf in sight and pulled itself into the canopy. The larger squirrel sat on its perch in the first tree, keenly observing its quarry. I laughed at what I can only imagine were abuses that poured out of each squirrel’s mouth as they screeched at each other.

2 Malabar Giant Squirrels on a tree looking at each other. Shot by Ishan Shanavas in Munnar, Kerala, India

The Malabar Giant Squirrel (Ratufa indica maxima/malabarica) is a subspecies of the Indian Giant Squirrel, a mammal endemic to the forests of India. This subspecies can be found throughout Kerala and a few southern locations in southern Karnataka. Its cousin subspecies range in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha and Jharkhand.

This animal is of the genus Ratufa, characterised by enlarged incisors which it uses to nibble on fruits, nuts and flowers. Their forelimbs grip their food and roll them around while their teeth bite chunks out of it. They hang their bushy tails down the branch as they feed to maintain balance. These tails appear like commas hooked on branches, an iconic sight of the western ghats. 

Malabar Giant Squirrel. Shot by Ishan Shanavas in Munnar, Kerala, India
Hanging from Treetops

I was in interior Munnar when I saw this feud play out. This is prime Giant Squirrel habitat, with trees reaching a dizzying height of 120 ft. These rodents live primarily in the canopy, seldom coming down to the ground. Everywhere you turned, you’d find them, either browsing or scampering up trees. Or, in this case, fighting.

These squirrels are crucial seed dispersal agents for several tree species. It is intriguing to think that such a small animal plays such an important role, without which the forest wouldn’t exist.

I grew fascinated by these curious little rodents. So whenever I had time, I’d set out into the field with my binoculars and camera, hoping to get a glimpse into their boisterous lives. I spent all my free time observing them early in the morning or at midday. Over the course of a few weeks, I photographed them and noted my observations.

Now there was nothing scientific in my approach. I did not follow any protocol. I merely attempted to understand how they lived as intimately as possible. Then I supplemented my knowledge by reading field guides and journals.

The Malabar Giant Squirrel is diurnal, meaning they confine their activities to daylight hours. They are said to live largely solitary lives, although, on several occasions, they feed together. I’ve seen this several times, with each animal occupying one branch, busy munching. When two individuals tried to go for the same fruit, a conflict would ensue, quickly resolved with the larger animal getting his way. Very rarely have I seen a chase ensue, a marvel to watch.

These squirrels are crucial seed dispersal agents for several tree species. This makes them an integral part of the rainforest ecosystem. It is intriguing to think that such a small animal plays such an important role, without which the forest wouldn’t exist. It’s humbling to see such a small animal shouldering such a huge responsibility.

So how does one go about looking for these animals? 

I relied on one of two methods. One, by scouring the treetops for some movement or maroon spots. Their outline is very distinct against the backdrop of foliage.

If this does not work, I’d keep my ears peeled for their calls. The call of the Malabar Giant Squirrel is a distinctive “click” that echoes through the canopy. They call for various reasons, from signalling the presence of a predator to communicating with other individuals. Some sources say they also make a particular whistling sound, but I have yet to hear it.

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Photographing the squirrel is an interesting challenge. Since they live so high up, the only conceivable shot is from directly underneath. But too often, this angle throws the animal in shadow. Such photos are both unappealing and provide little insight into their lives.

Fortunately, there are occasions when one can bypass the riddle of height. Munnar, specifically Peechad (where we cultivate cardamom; where I observe the animals), is a hilly region. All the trees grow along a slope. Therefore, when I see a squirrel on a tree top, I search for the nearest hill I could ascend and get on eye level with the animals. While it is tedious to trek up, it has resulted in some decent images.

Research says these animals are most active during dusk and dawn, preferring to rest at noon. This matched my field observations. Very rarely did I find a squirrel browsing under the hot sun.

So have my field observations yielded any new insights? No. Have my photographs been of any help to research and conservation? No. But have I gained a tiny glimpse into the life of this curious creature, and has it enriched me?

Absolutely.

Read more about the Giant Squirrels of India.

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

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