Munnar is known as the land of tea estates. But higher up in the Idukki district lie boundless acres of cardamom plantations. These farms extend all the way to the lush rainforest belts of the Western Ghats, with the odd village sprinkled here and there, creating a unique mix of forest, farmland and human habitation.
I first visited this landscape as a child in early 2010. I still remember the mist curling up from the treetops as the sun climbed higher into the sky. And drooping down from these treetops, like ripe fruit ready to drop, were the bushy tails of the ubiquitous Malabar Giant Squirrel.
The Malabar Giant Squirrel (Ratufa indica) is a large arboreal rodent endemic to India’s forests. One of the three giant squirrel species found in the country, the Malabar Giant Squirrel or Indian Giant Squirrel is characterised by its rufous-brown/purple colour and its ability to quickly jump from one tree to another. They can be seen either hanging down from the canopy, flat against the tree trunk, or scuttling about the branches, their tails bobbing as they do so.
In Idukki, these squirrels seem to thrive in this shared human-wildlife landscape, navigating the plantations as quickly as their rainforest homes. Many people think of Malabar Giant Squirrels to be purely solitary animals. But I’ve even seen groups of up to five all foraging together. Apart from the odd squabble, they seem perfectly tolerant of each other.
But when they do fight, it is an adrenaline-pumping experience. They scamper through the canopy at frightening speeds, with the chaser biting curiously at the runner’s tail. When they reach the edge of a branch, the fleeing squirrel propels itself into the air, soaring for several metres before finally grabbing hold of the adjacent tree. It is a few seconds of tense, squirrelly anticipation that is breathtaking to watch.
I’ve been visiting this landscape for several years, following this curious species through the trees. And out of all the encounters, one in particular stands out.
I was up at 5 AM for my usual survey, waking to the warbling calls of the Malabar Whistling Thrush. The sun broke crimson over the forested hillside, but was soon eclipsed by moderate cloud cover. I spotted my first squirrel of the morning. The little rodent was calmly browsing, utterly unconcerned as I ogled from a hundred feet below. I settled onto a large rock from where I could comfortably observe the animal. But as I got comfortable, I realised that there was another squirrel perched a couple of branches above. This one was larger. Excited, I pulled out my camera and waited in case some action transpired.
Looking through the viewfinder, I realised my angle would not yield a good shot and sprinted up a nearby hill to get in the line of sight of these rodents. Luckily, nothing had transpired in the 10 minutes it took me to get into position.
Then, prompted by some basal instinct, the squirrel slowly climbed up to its partner. The movements were calculated, almost as if in slow motion. My camera hand hurt as I held it in place, but I didn’t budge. I knew something special was going on. The squirrels came within centimetres of each other. For a brief second, I thought a fight would break out. My finger hovered over the shutter as I anticipated the action. Instead, the larger squirrel lifted its paw, almost as if to stroke the other squirrel’s face. It lay there suspended for a few tender seconds. Were they siblings? Were they lovers? Or were they just friends? I wondered as I froze the moment on camera.
There was something so human about the scene, so emotional. It remains with me to this day as my favourite encounter with these enigmatic rodents.
In a world where tigers and elephants get all the attention, I find it imperative to showcase these so-called lesser animals. They are equally fascinating. I hope that, by giving them the spotlight, they will receive the same admiration.
How do these “plantation squirrels” compare to their forest brethren? Do they prefer these landscapes to undisturbed forests? How do their populations vary? These are some of the many questions I wonder about as I explore the cardamom plantations of Munnar. I hope my subsequent adventures will unearth at least some of the answers.