Yes, there are flying squirrels in Nepal, too

A Hodgson’s Giant Flying Squirrel baby nesting on a rhododendron tree. Photo: BASHU BARAL

A baby flying squirrel nesting in a rhododendron forest is not something one sees every day in Nepal. The thrill of this recent close encounter with a rare Hodgson's Giant Flying Squirrel in Ilam was indescribable.

As a young student of the conservation biology, I am always looking for excuses to be out in the wild. In March, just before the lockdown, I was part of a biodiversity field survey organised by Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation in eastern Nepal.

A three hour bus ride north from Ilam Bazar along rough roads brought us to Maimajuwa, next to the Mai River tumbling over big boulders. We set off with team members Dibya Dahal and two local guides Man Prasad Rai and Birbal Rai.

We were on our way to a spot to set up camera traps. Passing a rhododendron forest at an elevation of 1,920m, a nest high up on a tree caught my attention.

We went closer, but this alerted the animal in the nest. Getting closer, it was clear that it was no bird. But what could it be?

One of the local guides said it could be what the Rai people here call a ‘Phepasa’. And indeed, it was a baby Hodgson’s Giant Flying Squirrel (Petaurista magnificus), looking like a cuddly teddy bear atop its nest.

To take a closer look, I climbed a nearby tree and noticed that the baby squirrel was not unduly perturbed by my presence. But it was alert, and watched me with its dark eyes wide open. The drey was built of clumping twigs, dried leaves lined with fur and moss for cushioning. The mother squirrel might have gone somewhere to search for food, leaving the kitten-sized baby home alone.

Eventually, I got to within 2m of the nest and felt a surge of excitement being so near such a rare and angelic looking baby of the least-known squirrel species in the world. I took some photos, and climbed down.

Squirrels fall under the Sciuridae family in the Rodentia order, meaning that in the evolutionary past rodents and squirrels branched out from the same order. Squirrels are quite common, and in some cities are even regarded as pests. They have a slender body, long bushy tail and arboreal habits that make them good tree climbers.

Flying squirrels are from the same family, and evolved as their ancestors, instead of scurrying down a tree to climb another one, found it easier to glide over. Eventually, they evolved the distinctive membrane air foil (called the patagium) between their front wrists down to the ankles.

Flying squirrels are nocturnal, as opposed to the daytime habits of other wingless tree squirrels. Their size can range from the tiny pygmy flying squirrel Petaurillus (24g), to the giant flying squirrel Petaurista (1.5 kg). Like their flightless cousins, the diet consists of  acorns, chestnuts, other hard fruit and insects, particularly termites.

Our baby Hodgson’s Flying Squirrel was found in a rhododendron forest, but according to Gliding Mammals of the World (2012), the general habitat of flying squirrel comprises of evergreen, deciduous to coniferous forests at elevations of up to 4,000 m.

There at 49 species of flying squirrels in Asia, Europe and North America, and Nepal is home to six of them. Among them two species (Hylopetes alboniger, Petaurista petaurista) are categorised as ‘Least Concern’ and four species as ‘Data Deficient’ (Belomys pearsonii, Petaurista elegans, Petaurista nobilis, Petaurista magnificus).

In Nepal, flying squirrels are mostly found outside protected areas, ranging from the Tarai to the Himalayan foothills. Their population is not known, but they are declining due to poaching for bushmeat and habitat loss. Some local people believe it is inauspicious to have a flying squirrel nesting near the house, and it is unlucky to see one in the air. They are then killed or chased away with slingshots.

Although listed, fling squirrels are not protected by law in Nepal, and are the least studied mammals in the country, probably because of their cryptic and crepuscular habits. Flying squirrels play key role in predator-prey relations, seed dispersal to pollination, but they never harm humans.

Hodgson’s Flying Squirrels are listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and The National Red List Series of mammals in Nepal. According to the Red List Series, besides the local Rai name, the Nepali name for flying squirrels is सुन्दर राजपंखी लोख्रके.

Every day after the first sighting in Ilam, I checked up on the baby flying squirrel and was glad to see it doing well up in its nest. I am now back in Kathmandu, but often wonder where it is now, is it gliding from tree to tree, or has it been brought down by a slingshot?

Bashu Baral is a zoologist with the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation in Kathmandu. 

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