Chasing the tail: In search of the rare giant Malabar squirrel in Kerala
Saturday 27 March 2010
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
* 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.
* 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.
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