Saturday, July 26, 2008

Vanishing Species - Binturong

An Article by Mohan Pai

Arctictis Binturong

What's a Binturong?

A Binturong, or Bearcat, is a mammal of the order Carnivora, found in the southeastern parts of Asia, from far eastern India through southwestern China, Thailand, Laos,Burma, Viet Nam, Malaysia, and parts of Indonesia (Sumatra and Borneo). The westernmost island of the Philippines, Palawan, also has a few. They are plentiful nowhere, though not yet extremely endangered. But their habitat is constantly shrinking, and therefore so are their numbers. The word binturong is of Malaysian origin, but the animal is commonly called "bearcat" in English, never mind the fact that it is neither a bear nor a cat, but from an older lineage than either.

But what are they? They have one of the cutest faces in the animal kingdom, shaped like a sea lion's. They can hang by their tails like some monkeys. They walk flat-footed like a bear, not on tiptoe like dogs and cats. They can crawl around upside down in trees like a sloth, and come down headfirst like a squirrel, even though they weigh about 40 lbs. They live in the tropics, but their coat looks as long and thick as a grizzly's. They can balance on their hind legs and tail like a kangaroo. They have the typical carnivore teeth, but they love fruit above anything else. Its long fur serves more as a rain repellent than for warmth. It will eat meat with those teeth if it can catch some, but fruit is a lot easier for a tree animal.

They are highly endangered in parts of their range and threatened/ vulnerable in others due to habitat destruction and poaching for use as a delicacy and in medicine.

They are arboreal -- living in the dense forest canopy of the rain forest. Relatively slow-moving and inoffensive, binturongs are mainly nocturnal. They spend the day curled in branches and basking in the sun. Awkward on the ground they are skilled climbers and move through the canopy from branch to branch searching for food. They can also dive, swim and catch fish; and they kill small animals like ducks by jumping on them!
They range in size from 4 - 5 feet including the tail which is almost as long as the body. Weight is 30 - 40 pounds. Binturongs have thick, coarse, glossy black fur, white whiskers and black ear tufts. The prehensile tail is covered with very long thick fur. It is used as an extra hand, holding on to branches or hanging by it to reach food. A scent gland under the tail produces strong-smelling musk oil which is used to mark their territory. The scent resembles popcorn or warm corn bread. They can make loud howls, low grunts, and hisses and when happy, chuckling noises.
Binturongs are fruit eaters, especially of strangler figs in their native habitat. Eggs, young shoots, leaves, birds, rodents and other small animals may also be eaten. They function both as critical seed dispersers and pest controllers in their habitat!Reproduction is non-seasonal but usually peaks during January to March. Gestation is around 91 days; litter size can vary from 1 to 6 but 2 is typical. Although usually tame, they can be aggressive when cornered and bite. They can be easily domesticated and kept as pets. Lifespan in captivity is 20 + years.

Pic 1 by Tssilo Rau

Vanishing Species - Indian Giant Squirrel

An article by Mohan Pai

Indian Giant Squirrel
Ratufa indica

Largest of the arboreal squirrels, they are under sever threat in degraded forests.

The Indian giant squirrel, Ratufa indica, is a large-bodied diurnal, arboreal, and herbivorous squirrel found in South Asia. Also called the Malabar giant squirrel, the species is endemic to deciduous, mixed deciduous, and moist evergreen forests of peninsular India, reaching as far north as the Satpura hill range of Madhya Pradesh (approx. 22° N)The Sqirrel has a conspicuous bipartite (and sometimes tripartite) colouring pattern. The colours involved can be creamy-beige, buff, tan, rust, brown, or even a dark seal brown. The underparts and the front legs are usually cream coloured, the head can be brown or beige, however there is a distinctive white spot between the ears. Seven different geographical races, each distinctive in the colouration of its upper-parts, have been identified. Among these are the buff and tan Ratufa indica dealbata of the tropical moist deciduous forests of the Surat Dangs; the seal brown, tan, and beige (and darkest) Ratufa indica maxima of the tropical wet evergreen forest of Malabar; the dark brown, tan and beige (and largest), Ratufa indica bengalensis of the tropical semi-evergreen forests east of the Brahmagiri mountains in Coorg extending up to the Bay of Bengal coast of Orissa; and the rust and buff Ratufa indica centralis of the tropical dry deciduous forests of Central India. The Indian giant squirrel is an upper-canopy dwelling species, which rarely leaves the trees, and requires tall profusely branched trees for the construction of nests. It travels from tree to tree with jumps of up to 6 m (19.69 ft). When in danger, it often freezes or flattens itself against the tree trunk, instead of fleeing.

The size of their body comes to almost 3ft. with only the tail measuring up to 2ft. in length. The long bushy tail helps in balancing their body on the trees. They are deep brown in colour with buff-coloured underparts. Giant squirrels live only in forests. They keep to the branches of higher trees and rarely come to the ground. They move from tree to tree taking amazing leaps with limbs outspread, covering as much as 20 ft. in a single leap. They are active agile animals, mostly active during the early mornings and evenings. They are shy and wary, not easy to discover. Despite its brilliant colouring, the Indian Giant Squirrel is sooner heard than seen. Its loud rattling call, often repeated, usually reveals its presence. Any unusual sound or unfamiliar sight sets these squirrels calling in all directions. They share with monkeys the habit of scolding, barking and raising an alarm when any suspicious object is sighted. When frightened, these squirrels do not dash away; quite a common habit is to lie flattened against a branch or to slip behind a heavy bough or trunk. They feed on fruits, particularly the fruits of 'Terminalia' or 'Ain'.

The 2 feet long bushy tail helps it to balance while climbing trees. They have a deep brown, almost black, coat with buff-coloured under side. It produces an interesting whistling sound, which is often mistaken for a sound coming from an electronic equipment. Interestingly, it rarely leaves treetops, always travelling through trees by leaping a maximum length of 6.5 metres from one tree to another. Being a diurnal animal it is active during the daytime and rests at night. Mainly feeds on fruits and leaves. It lives alone or in couples. These animals build sphere shaped nests of twigs and leaves and keeps them positioned between tree branches. Due to hunting, loss of habitat and trade of parts, the Malabar Giant Squirrels are threatened to extinction. In Kerala, they are protected in the wildlife sanctuaries of Neyyar and Peppara in Thiruvananthapuram, Periyar Tiger Reserve in Idukki, Silent Valley National Park and Eravikulam National Park.

Commonly known as 'Shekru' in Maharashtra (Ratufa indica elphinstoni), the Indian giant squirrel is the State animal of Maharashtra. It inhabits the deciduous or mixed forests, and is abundant in the forests of the Western Ghats of Maharashtra and is protected in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary. Their population here is about 70 animalsThe giant squirrels in Maharashtra are reddish brown in colour, while the ones found in Madhya Pradesh and Kerala are brick-red and black, respectively. The giant squirrels in Maharashtra are reddish brown in colour, while the ones found in Madhya Pradesh and Kerala are brick-red and black, respectively.

Physical Description
Length: 254 to 457 mm; avg. 355.50 mm (10 to 17.99 in; avg. 14 in)The squirrel has dorsal coloration that varies from deep red to brown, the ventral fur is white. They have short, round ears, a broadened hand with an expanded inner paw for gripping, and large, powerful claws used for gripping tree bark and branches. Females can be distinguished from males by their three sets of mammae. Total body length varies from 254 to 457 mm and tail length is approximately the same as body length. These squirrels weigh approximately 1.5 to 2 kg

Gestation period: 28 to 35 days; avg. 31.50 daysLittle is known of mating behavior of the Giant Squirrels. Males actively compete for females during the breeding season and pairs may remain associated for longer periods of time.Reproductive behavior of the giant squirrel is poorly known. There is some evidence that breeding occurs throughout the year, or several times during the year. Litter size is usually 1 or 2 young, but may be as many as 3. They build eagle-sized nests in the branches of trees and raise the young there until they begin to emerge from the nest and gain independence.


Giant squirrels escape predation primarily by seeking refuge in the trees and through their agility and wariness. They are preyed upon by many medium and large-sized predators, such as cats, civet cats, raptors, and snakes.

Pics by Vivek Kale