Marten up close

Published : May 29, 2013 12:30 IST

A Nilgiri marten in the Pampadum Shola National Park.

A Nilgiri marten in the Pampadum Shola National Park.

“THE Nilgiri marten is my passion,” says J. Manoharan, as he scans the forest eagle-eyed for a glimpse of the elusive creature that inspired him to become a wildlife guide in 1980. “I have sighted rare and endangered mammals countless times. But this is more elusive than any of them and it has a totally different behaviour pattern,” he says. Even the tiger, the master predator of the jungles, is shy of men in the forest and often withdraws quietly. Though the Nilgiri marten is much smaller, he says, it snarls, barks and resorts to an aggressive posture when it comes upon humans.

Endemic to the Western Ghats, the Nilgiri marten is a carnivore that looks like a civet or a mongoose.

One of the earliest authentic works on Indian Wildlife, The Book of Indian Animals , published in 1948 by S.H. Prater, former curator of the Bombay Natural History Society, describes the Nilgiri marten thus: “The Nilgiri marten is a large mammal with a proportionally longer tail about three-fourths the length of his body and head. It is found south of Coorg and in Kerala. Its Himalayan counterpart is the yellow-throated marten, found in Himalayan and Assam ranges. The Nilgiri marten, the south Indian species, keeps to the higher hill ranges and is rarely found below 3,000 feet. All martens are restless. They hunt both day and night on ground but more commonly on trees. Ordinarily, they live and hunt alone. On treetops, they are extremely agile, leaping from branch to branch. Movements are speedy. They show greater boldness in attacking small creatures like squirrels, birds, snakes, lizards, etc. On the ground, they prey upon rats, hares, pheasants, etc. They are bold enough to attack larger defenceless animals like young deer. Thrusting their pointed snouts into the great scarlet blooms of silk cotton trees they suck up abundant nectar. Their body is black or deep brown. Throat has a distinctive yellow patch down the nape.” The marten is called chitrola in Garhwali, and maranai in Tamil and Malayalam

Wildlife biologists agree that there is not much authentic information available on the Nilgiri marten’s habitat or behaviour. There is a paucity of reliable information on the distribution and status of the mammal. It is categorised as a threatened mammal by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of the Government of India. Habitat destruction and fragmentation are the major obstacles to its conservation. Poachers have hunted the animal for its meat, which is said to have medicinal properties.

Sightings of the mammal have been rare. Nirmal John, a former Divisional Forest Officer, says he once saw three martens in the Highwavys mountains preying on a small mammal. M.D. Madhusudan, director of the Mysore-based National Conservation Foundation, says that he saw a marten in the Rajamalai Tourism Zone of the Eravikulam National Park in 1995. He says, “It was not unduly perturbed by my presence. For about 90 minutes it was on a tree branch and later disappeared into the canopy and did not descend.” P.V. Karunakaran, a scientist with the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore, was with Madhusudan when he saw the marten.

Divya Mudappa of the National Conservation Foundation says that she has had only 12 sightings in three and a half years in the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. The Forest Department staff at Rajamalai Checkpost (Eravikulam National Park) saw a group of three martens, in a playful mood, in February this year. Kannan, a watcher in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, saw a newborn marten being held by its mother some six months ago. P.U. Saju, wildlife warden of the Eravikulam National Park, who is in charge of the Pampadum Shola (“shola of the dancing snakes”) National Park, says that there is a sizable population of Nilgiri martens in the park.

Though sightings of the marten are rare even for forest guards on patrol and tribal people who go deep into the forest to collect minor forest produce, Manoharan, aged 56, stumbles upon the mammal often. He says smilingly: “God sends it to me.” He lives on the periphery of the Pampadum Shola National Park, which is 40 km from Munnar. The Periyar Tiger Reserve is just three hours’ drive from Munnar. The Eravikulam National Park, which is home to the Nilgiri tahr, is also close by.

When I met Manoharan in January in his little mud hut in Pampadum Shola, he said: “I remember my father showing it to me for the first time when I was seven years old.” He said it is popularly known as maranai because it spends a lot of time up in the trees of the shola. Manoharan’s father, Joseph, had migrated to Pampadum Shola in 1948 from Kodaikanal in search of a job in a tea plantation.

The wildlife photographer N.A. Naseer has been Manoharan’s friend for the past three decades. They often trek together in Pampadum Shola and Kodaikanal. Naseer first saw the Nilgiri marten near Manoharan’s hut in 1989. He had heard about it from his mentor, T.J. Thomas Nelson, a retired wildlife assistant of the Kerala Forest Department. With his vast field experience and reading, Nelson had enlightened Naseer about the highly elusive mammal, saying, “So far no wildlife photographer has got a good photograph of the animal. Very few have seen it. If you strive hard and get a photograph of it, a close-up preferably, it would be a prized catch.” Nelson’s words stirred Naseer. When he first saw it in 1989, he could not photograph it and was disappointed. He had to wait for 20 long years to get its bright close-ups.

After 1989, Naseer grew restless, like the Nilgiri marten. He started trekking in many parts of the Western Ghats, including Pampadum Shola. Though he was able to get excellent photographs of wild tuskers, great Indian hornbills, white bison, lion-tailed macaques, tigers, leopards and colourful birds, there was no sign of the Nilgiri marten. But he did not give up the search.

Finally, in 2006, in the Thannikudy area of the Periyar Tiger Reserve, Naseer could capture a Nilgiri marten on his camera. Though it was not a clear picture, Naseer was jubilant. The mammal was at a distance in a shola. He gave a copy of the photograph to Manoharan, who started to look out for it whenever he went trekking. Says Manoharan: “Normally, when trekking, I am fascinated by trumpeting tuskers, majestic tigers and bison. I never cared much for the Nilgiri marten though I have seen it on many occasions. Only in 2006 did I start watching out for it.”

Between 2006 and 2009, Naseer spent an average of two weeks every month searching for the mammal, until he struck it rich on January 2, 2009. On that day Manoharan and Naseer were trekking in Pampadum Shola. Naseer recollects: “It was early morning. There was an icy wind blowing. We saw a mongoose-like mammal with an incongruously long tail rubbing its head and neck against a rock. The golden patch on its neck shone like a golden bar in the early morning sun. There were two martens on a tree and one had come down to the trekking path.” It stood erect on its hind legs, barking. Naseer swung into action with his camera. He got a clear close-up of the mammal. He was euphoric.

Even as Naseer was taking the photographs, the animal advanced towards them and tried to claw at Manoharan’s shoes. He wielded the stick he carried to keep it away but it did not look frightened. It started barking and running around them. And then, after a sharp stare, it disappeared into the bushes. Manoharan and Naseer waited for two more hours hoping to catch another glimpse, but it did not come back.

Naseer was ecstatic as he had a beautiful close-up of the mammal, snarling and swirling its long tail. “I continue my treks so that I can get more photographs of the Nilgiri marten. How I wish I could get a group of them preying on an animal or engaged in arboreal exercises,” says Naseer. The wildlife biologist and author Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh says: “Naseer’s photographs are brilliant, because he ‘lives’ in the forest.”

Naseer’s most recent sightings of the Nilgiri marten were in December 2011 and January 2013. Both were in Pampadum Shola. But the animals could not be photographed as they were at a distance. Altogether he has had only 11 sightings, but photo opportunities were available only in 2006 and 2009.

G. Shaheed is Chief of News Bureau, Mathrubhoomi, Kochi.

N.A. Naseer is a freelance wildlife photographer and yoga instructor based in Udhagamandalam.

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