By Murali Krishna
Working on gliding squirrels of the eastern Himalayas, I have always wondered about the evolutionary origins of their gliding, the two most probable hypotheses or explanations are, to minimise the energy required for movement through the canopy and the other being an escape strategy from predators. But this story is not about flying squirrels. Well they are at least not the main players. As a child, I poured over a world atlas we had and in it especially, the map of India. For a budding biologist like me, northeast India always fascinated me as its animal life is more similar to Southeast Asia than to the rest of India. Even the names of the states in this remote hilly region, like Meghalaya (the temple of clouds), Nagaland (Land of Nagas) sounded fascinating to my young mind. But being from a modest background, I never had the resources to explore this intriguing corner of India.
When I graduated college, my older brother gifted me the book “Mammals of India”. Turning its the pages, I read a whole lot about Indian wildlife. In this book, the page on binturongs fascinated me the most. Also called bear cats, they are found in the jungles of northeast India, a place I desperately wanted to visit. The opportunity came when I finished my Master’s degree in Ecology and Environmental Sciences. I was hired to work on project on Hoolock gibbons in Aruanchal Pradesh, the northeastern most state in India that borders Bhutan, China and Myanmar, but the binturong eluded me throughout my time there working on gibbons.
I loved the subtropical evergreen forests of the northeast so much that I decided to work there on gliding squirrels for my PhD. My field site was the remote and mountainous Namdapha National Park where I studied the ecology of red giant gliding squirrels (Petaurista petaurista), rich rufous nocturnal creatures. One night, my team and I were heading out for some routine data collection which includes focal instantaneous sampling for studying the activity pattern of the gliding squirrel. On a lark, my field assistants requested that we do a causal night walk instead of data collection, and walk beyond our study transects to explore the area and its nocturnal denizens a little more. We walked to a huge Ficus (fig) tree by a stream. Since the tree was fruiting, I started scanning the canopy and found, first a Red giant gliding squirrel and then, a Particolored gliding (Hylopetes alboniger) squirrel feasting on the fruits.
As I searched further, I saw the eye-shine of several more animals in the same tree! I could see 5 large animals moving through the tree but they were hard to see through binoculars in the poor light. My field assistant took the binoculars from me and scanned the canopy and excitedly whispered in my ears “they are bears!”. Holding the binoculars steady, I realized we were actually looking at a group of binturongs, not bears, but bear cats. It was a dream come true! As they say, when it rains, it pours. We saw 4 adults and 1 juvenile, a rare sight indeed, all attracted to the bounty of fruits. We watched them to our heart’s content and also started visiting the tree to collect some data on their behaviour. 5 binturongs in one tree was a wonderful and unexpected encounter especially because mammal sightings in this part of the country are overall rare due to the severe hunting pressure.
I will never forget that day, I had actually made behavioural observations of an animal I had always dreamt of seeing in the wild. I watched as they coiled their tail around branches for support and the way they look at the flash lights with a lazy look. They are wonderful and agile canopy dwellers, sharing their space with two other gliding squirrels at night and many any birds during the day. I hope we humans can take a lesson from the binturong and learn to share our treasures.
Murali Krishna is an Assistant Professor in Amity Institute of Forestry and Wildlife, Amity University, Noida. His research interests include the Ecology and Conservation of Nocturnal Mammals in Eastern Himalayas and Southeast Asia. He worked on Gliding Squirrel Diversity in Arunachal Pradesh which is a part of Indian Eastern Himalayas for his PhD. You can read more about his work here.