The tails of two squirrels

The Malayan Giant Squirrel , or Black Giant Squirrel, Ratufa bicolor, is a squirrel on steroids. Far above in the canopy it looks more like a monkey, being a total of 1.2 meters long, half of which is tail. This one’s tail looks just like a long ponytail, still wet from the shower


They live in forests from eastern Nepal and northeast India (where I photographed this one) all the way through southeast Asia to western Indonesia. They are almost entirely arboreal, rarely descending to the ground.

Malayan Giant Squirrel

They eat seeds, fruits, and leaves, and have ear tufts like our British red squirrel:


Like most solitary squirrels, they are polygynandrous (a new word I learnt while researching this); not only do the males mate with multiple females, but when the female is in season she mates with five or six males, and a litter may have several different fathers. Despite the orgies, numbers are thought to have dropped by 30% in the last ten years because of habitat loss*, and it doesn’t help that until recently they were sold in large quantities in the food markets in Vientiane in Lao.

More familiar in scale, but quite cute, is the Hoary-bellied Himalayan Squirrel, Callosciurus pygerythrus, so called because each hair has two light yellow rings, giving its coat a hoary or grizzled look.

Hoary-bellied Squirrel

Although it is a smallish squirrel, about 40 cm from head to tail-tip, its tail is also impressive, and nearly as long as the rest of its body. Unfortunately it has arranged its tail behind the tree trunk, but if you look carefully you can just see the tip emerging in the top right-hand corner of the next photo:

Hoary-bellied Squirrel

It is common and not threatened, despite also being widely eaten in some areas of Lao. The ones in the foreground of this photo look like Hoary-bellied squirrels to me:

*The Malayan Giant Squirrel is classified as Near Threatened, mainly due to deforestation, since they live high in the canopy of tall trees.

A reader asked me what the huge tail is for, since it seems more of a liability than a plus. I have poked around to find an answer, and as I suspected it is probably mainly used as a counterweight when leaping through the canopy, but it may also attract mates (a lot of them!), and in other species of squirrel it is known to be used in communication.

The Takshak

The Tokay Gecko, Gekko gecko, is a sizable lizard, whose eyes I discussed in a blog last year. I had never seen one in the wild. Our guide pointed to a tree trunk, and said “Look!”. We gazed blankly at some nice bark, apparently devoid of life.

Tokay Gecko

Eventually, deep in the tree, we saw what he was pointing at:


But he kept pointing, to a different crack a foot or two away, and then we saw the really wonderful thing:


There were three babies and several eggs, deep inside the tree. The freshly laid eggs have a sticky surface that adheres to the tree, and both adults guard the eggs through 2-6 months of incubation. They will grow as large as 35cm, with a ferocious bite.

Tokay geckos show this blue-grey coloration in low light, becoming grey with red-orange spots in bright light.

They are called takshak in Assam, where we saw them, after sounds they make in the mating season.. you can I hope hear it if you click on the link below:


Buffalo romance

[Like my last post, this concerns an animal whose descendants are common farm animals. But it is also a Brief Encounter for the New Year!]

Water buffalo, Bubalus bubalis, have been domesticated for around 5000 years,  but their progenitor the wild water buffalo, Bubalus arnee, is now rare. The IUCN Red List considers them Endangered. The global population is estimated at 3,400, and 90% of these are in Assam, especially in Kaziranga.

We saw them in Koshi Tappu in Nepal, which has around 400, and of course in Kaziranga. They are huge, the males weighing up to 1200Kg or 2600lbs.

In Koshi Tappu, we followed one along a park road and you can get a sense of his size and power, and those horns, which can spread up to 2 meters, the largest of any living bovid:

Wild Water Buffalo

In Kaziranga, a male is scenting to see if a female is receptive.

Wild water buffalo, scenting

He follows her out into the lake, still checking her perfume. The Greater Adjutant Stork is unimpressed, but then he is nearly five feet tall, up to the shoulder height of a smallish wild water buffalo.

Wild water buffalo, scenting

The female buffalo’s pheromones seem to be sufficiently fragrant to win his approval..

Wild water buffalo, scenting

But they will go somewhere more private for consummation. And months later (about 320 days gestation, and a few months more) this will be the result; they are brown at birth and don’t start to darken till about 6 months of age:

Wild water buffalo

One of the threats to the wild water buffalo is interbreeding with the domestic population, and indeed we watched them wandering in amongst domestic herds, but these are all wild.

PS Note the cattle egret following the baby around, hoping for insects disturbed by its hooves.


Have you ever pondered on the origins of the domestic chicken? I thought not.  Read on..

Chickens seem have been domesticated by around 7,500 years ago, most probably from the wild Red Junglefowl, Gallus gallus.  We saw this one in Kaziranga: just look at him:


In close-up he is draped in blazing orange feathered locks, just like Lizzie Siddall*:


And he is equipped with spurs that are not to be trifled with; they have a bony core and an outer horny layer, and are formed for the vestiges of the former fifth toe, which most birds have lost completely:

Male Red Jungle Fowl

Our domestic roosters just can’t compete.

There is some fear that truly wild Red Junglefowl are becoming rare because of contamination of the gene pool by domestic chickens. Let’s hope not.

*Lizzie Siddall was a pre-Raphaelite artist, and also the wife, muse and model for her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She was famous for her red hair:


Or if you prefer you could imagine The Red Woman, Melisandre, from Game of Thrones, played by Carice van Houten!

Heard but not seen: The White-browed Gibbon

[Something warm and cuddly hanging from a tree, as Christmas approaches!]

Of all the apes, gibbons are the hardest to see but the easiest to hear: listen to this troop calling, and imagine hearing it deep in the forest:

Seeing them is another matter.

We were at the Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary two hours east of Kaziranga, which has a stable and even  increasing population of White-browed Gibbons, more properly known as Western Hoolock Gibbons, Bunopithecus hoolock.

They move around high in the canopy, brachiating*:


But getting a clear view let alone a close-up is hard. This is either a male or a juvenile: both are black with dramatic white eyebrows, just visible in this photo, most of which is a picture of his/her bottom.

Western Hoolock Gibbon

But every now and then you get lucky: look at the astonishing length of those arms.


Their arms are almost twice as long as their legs, and when they descend to the ground (rarely) they have to hold their arms above their heads. On the ground, they are about a meter tall, the height of a small child.

The mature females are naturally blonde (so teenage gibbon girls don’t need peroxide) , and note the bulging biceps that come from doing chin-ups all day long:

Western Hoolock Gibbon

Here is a closeup of the female and baby:

Western Hoolock Gibbon

Hoolock gibbons are thought to mate for life, and a family group has an adult pair and 1-4 juveniles of varying ages. They are considered endangered, numbering around 100,000 globally, and 90% of those are in Myanmar. Their population has fallen by about 50% over the last 40 years (three generations), largely due to habitat loss, and this decline is forecast to continue.

*Brachiating is using only your arms to move around, like a gymnast on the horizontal bar.

PS: Apes, unlike monkeys, have no tails. Gibbons are Lesser Apes, as opposed to the chimps, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, and humans, all of which are Great Apes, aka Hominids.


Grey-headed Swamphens Porphyrio poliocephalus are a species of Purple Swamphen found from the Middle East through Nepal and India to Northern Thailand. In the 1990’s some got loose in southern Florida, where they are now established. They are a sort of rail, and wade around in marshes and shallow ponds. Their bill is bright red, very large, with a shield on top that covers part of the head.


These ones must I think have been nesting, because a cormorant came near (right foreground), and they attacked it fiercely:

Purple Swamphens, attacking cormorant

One of the swamphens kicked and pecked it:

Purple Swamphens, attacking cormorant

And eventually they fully submerged it, or perhaps it dived and fled:

Purple Swamphens, attacking cormorant

Either way, Swamphens 1 Cormorant 0.

Bird substitutes

My two travel companions are birders, so one morning at around 6.30am I found myself standing in Chitwan, in the wet reeds, in the mist, trying and failing to see various very small birds. So I wandered around looking for other interesting things. First, the aptly named Toothpick Grasshopper (our guide’s name for it; I think it is a member of Atractomorpha, which means ‘arrowhead’):

Toothpick Grasshopper

And then, a small snail on a blade of grass. It turns out that if you watch a snail for 18 minutes and 30 seconds, it reveals itself to be a remarkably agile mountaineer. It started wrapped around one blade of grass:


and then moved sideways to an adjacent one, without letting go of the first..


Next it fully committed to a single blade:


I was then distracted by an elephant (which is much easier to see than a bird), and when I returned my gaze to the snail it had lunged sideways onto the dried stalk next door, stretching its body so it could still stay attached to the safety of its launching pad.


In this last shot, the dead leaves rather mess up the view, but if you look carefully you can get a good idea of how elongated the snail can be at full stretch, with its rear end still attached to that dried stalk in the previous photo, and its shell carefully balanced halfway along:


In that 18 minutes it traveled about six inches, which by my calculations is an average speed of 20 inches per hour, or about .000031 mph.

Why would anyone watch birds when there are snails to be had?