Chasing the tail: In search of the rare giant Malabar squirrel in Kerala

It was the multi-coloured squirrel that took us to Wayanad and the Western Ghats, the mountain range that juts up like a backbone through the southern Indian state of Kerala. Most tourists aim for the coast: Fort Kochi for the photogenic Chinese fishing nets; or the backwaters for a trip on a houseboat thatched with palm fronds, lying back on silken cushions to watch the picturesque but hard life of locals at the water's edge. Of course, we were going to do that too, but I wanted to go to Wayanad, an area remote even to Keralans, with its ancient Shola rain forest and high concentration of tribal peoples living in centuries-old traditional ways (the Edakkal Caves near Sulthan Bathery have rock carvings and drawings thought to date back five thousand years). I'd heard about the cool, misty hill stations and unusual wildlife – including the rare giant Malabar squirrel.

Photographs of the squirrel, the size of a large cat, showed its coat of many colours: a creamy underside topped by a glossy pelt of reddish brown or blueish black, worn like a toupee, and a yellowish feathery tail longer than its body. The place to track one down, I was told, was Vythiri Resort, a forest hotel.

Our first night in Mysore in the neighbouring state of Karnataka, which once briefly ruled over Wayanad, was one of ethical luxury at Green Hotel, a small palace owned by a charitable trust and run on scrupulously environmental lines, with solar heating, low-energy lighting and no air conditioning. The wooden ceiling fans proved more romantic, and we could revel in a feeling of virtue as we dined in the restaurant on the lawns, strolled through the graceful public rooms and slept in the four-poster of the Maharani suite.

Before leaving the city, we visited another, rather larger, palace – the grandiose building once occupied by the Maharajah, with turrets and domes, sculpted pillars and silver doors ("Most visitors take three hours," said our driver, Mr Thomas, reproachfully, when we returned after 40 minutes.) As we drove through the Karnakata countryside, he described Kerala, explaining that the trees would become bigger, the fields greener. Strangely, it was true. Across the border, the forest did seem thicker, the ground more fertile.

Then we hit Sulthan Bathery, so named because Tipu Sultan of Mysore established a battery there in the 18th century. The streets were choked by men in red bandanas waving red flags: a political rally. The people of Kerala chose the first democratically elected Communist government in the world in 1957, and has had one, on and off, ever since, alternating with the Indian National Congress Party, now in control.

It took an hour to edge down the main street, so it was dusk when we turned up the track to Vythiri Resort, bumping past tea gardens to the wooden bridge across a pool of carp. After reviving glasses of herbal tea we were shown to our large, comfortable room with its balcony over the river and close to a spreading jackfruit tree. More tea was brought, along with urgent exhortations to close our windows to thwart monkey raids. This is one species that has happily adapted to the human presence.

Elsewhere in the Western Ghats, the wildlife is shyer – and, along with the flowers and trees, exotic and, in some cases, unique. The mosaic of dense evergreen forests and tangled jungle, the remoteness of valleys tucked between high ridges and run through with rivers and waterfalls, ensures a habitat unlike any other. The greenness contrasts with the traditional image of India (it has one of the highest rainfalls in the world); equally astonishing is the apparent emptiness (though there are many tucked-away tribal communities, each with its traditions). Tea and spice plantations have encroached, but hundreds of sacred groves and temple forests survive, with legends to match. One is the "chain tree" close to Vythiri – a banyan tree festooned with chains to imprison a rebellious spirit who took against the building of a new road and caused countless accidents.

Secluded from this, Vythiri Resort has been set around a chasm straddled by a suspension bridge. No trees were cut down to make room for the hotel, so huts and cottages dot the area in a pleasingly random manner, though there is nothing random about the green notices continually exhorting us to consider the environment ("It takes 17 trees to absorb the harmful carbon dioxide from one car every year"; "Forest resources are a treasure; let us not endanger them for our pleasure"; and "Next time you think of buying a cycle for your child, think about recycling the one your father gave you".) The most recent additions are two tree-houses built among the branches of banyan trees – one at 30 feet, the other twice as high.

The next morning the hunt for the squirrel was on. The resident naturalist, Ajith, a slight young man, strode ahead into the forest, holding back curtains of vegetation as we scrambled through the undergrowth, with giant hostas towering over our heads. Ajith interpreted the birdcalls and pointed animatedly to a leaf, which eventually turned out to be a hornbill. We saw scarlet minivets (except they were yellow, being female), drongos with forked tails, and an Asian fairy bluebird – gloriously and aptly named. Ajith showed us cinnamon, coffee and tea, and reeled off lists of trees: coral, with furled red blossoms; an umbrella tree wound round a jackfruit trunk in permanent embrace; a 500-year-old tiger tree, 30 feet in circumference.

We even saw a Southern Birdwing, the biggest butterfly in southern India, and black eagles, circling and calling kee kee kee, an oddly insipid sound for a bird of prey. But not even Ajith could find a squirrel.

On our way back we met Mr Thomas. He'd seen a squirrel, he said. Well, said Ajith reassuringly, sometimes they gather round the restaurant at dusk. As consolation, he led us a little further and pointed to the network of nests in the treetops: squirrels move from one to another to escape predators – mainly eagles. Ajith put everyone he met on squirrel alert, and at dusk we hung around the restaurant. But no luck.

Then Anil, the manager, returned from a pilgrimage to honour his ancestors. He had something to show us. He fished out his phone and searched – for the video of the baby squirrel he had rescued when it fell from a tree. After 10 weeks in his family, Chinnin (it means "little one") was released back into the wild and now had a mate.

We should have come last month, apparently. However, Anil was confident we would see one, and took us to a known hangout. All we saw was a troop of bonnet macaque monkeys, so called because of their furry caps. Another time, I would have been fascinated.

There were plenty of compensatory pleasures: swimming in the pool with its all-round view of mountains; a massage at the pretty stream-side spa, with bowls of floating marigolds and fragrant oils; tussles with monkeys as they tried to snatch food off tables. I began to adjust my expectations.

Then, on our last evening, Ajith took me to the tree houses. I climbed the 39 steps to the lower one and peered into the bedroom and bathroom (simple but with oddly stylish fittings) and out from the platform at the eye-level treetops, still hopeful of a sighting. Just as we turned back to the hotel, he pointed triumphantly: some 50 feet away a long tail was dangling. At last!

We watched the tail for a while. At least, I thought, I have seen part of a squirrel. Then Ajith clutched my arm and, much closer, a squirrel was splayed between two slender branches of a coral tree, outlined against the dimming sky as it reached to pluck blossoms. It retreated to a fork where, safely ensconced, it delicately nibbled its supper before pattering back along the branch for more.

It wasn't quite as colourful as the photos, but I was not inclined to protest. Tomorrow Mr Thomas would drive us down the hairpin-bended escarpment road to the Malabar Coast and the more familiar delights of Kerala, but I had found my squirrel and I was content.

Travel essentials: Kerala

Getting there

* The closest airport, Kozhikode, is served by Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com/uk ) from a range of UK airports via Dubai, Qatar (0870 770 4215; qatarairways.com ) from Heathrow via Doha and Etihad (0870 241 7121; etihadairways.com ) from Heathrow via Abu Dhabi.

Kerala Experience (0845 612 1330; keralavoyages.co.uk ) provides tailored itineraries to the Western Ghats and elsewhere.

Staying there

* Green Hotel, Chittaranjan Palace (00 91 821 425 5000; greenhotelindia.com ). Doubles from Rs3,080 (£45), including breakfast. Vythiri Resort, Wayanad, Kerala (00 91 493 625 5366; vythiriresort.com ). Doubles start at Rs5,650 (£83), half board.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup