RED EARTH Environment

Why a Pune zoo is breeding the Malabar giant squirrel

Giant squirrels are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Three rust-brown, bushy-tailed, fluffy-eared squirrels, at least twice the size of the striped squirrels I am accustomed to seeing in the city, leap from bough to bough. From a wooden burrow stuffed with straw, I can see the faces of two younger ones peering out. In the corner lies a broken pot and I am not sure what it’s there for.

The cavorting critters I am watching are Malabar giant squirrels, found nowhere else in the world outside the deciduous and evergreen forests of India, and mostly restricted to the Western Ghats. But these five animals are in a closely-watched, highly controlled environment at the conservation centre of Pune’s Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park, where they are bred. The straw, I am told, is for when the adult female is ready to build a nest. And the pot serves as an isolated nook for the shy creatures.

Not much is known about the population of the Malabar giant squirrel, but it is considered to be declining. While not listed as endangered, the animals face real threats: they are hunted for their velvety pelt, and their habitat is getting increasingly fragmented. It has gone extinct in specific localities. For an endemic animal, these threats cannot be taken lightly, and the zoo’s breeding programme aims to boost their numbers.

Fruit platter

But giant squirrels are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, says zoo director Rajkumar Jadhav. For one, their natural habitat must be replicated as far as possible, and these reclusive animals need to be protected from disturbance. “So, when the squirrels mated and gave birth to two pups, it was a big boost to the project,” he says.

The two pups are from the very first litter at the breeding centre. The male was brought in from Prakash Amte’s Animal Ark, and two rescued female squirrels came in from Lonavala. “It was important that the animals were healthy and compatible,” Jadhav says.

The breeding programme has been undertaken by the zoo in collaboration with the Indian Herpetological Society (IHS), and follows the protocol established by the famed Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in the U.K. The Pune zoo has been chosen as the nodal zoo for the breeding of the Malabar giant squirrel by the Central Zoo Authority, as part of their long-term plan for the conservation of endangered Indian species.

The recent birth of two pups at Pune’s Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park was a cause for much cheer.

The recent birth of two pups at Pune’s Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park was a cause for much cheer.   | Photo Credit: Jignesh Mistry

Other conditions had to be just right for a successful breeding programme, outside of creating the right environment. Nutrition was one. In the forest they feed on tender foliage and wild fruits; at the centre, their diet is a little different: pomegranate, apple, citrus fruits, sunflower seeds. “Glucose, fructose, proteins are essential for these species,” says Anil Khaire, CEO and chairman, IHS.

The zoo is doing more than just breeding. It has undertaken a genetic study, whereby DNA samples (taken from the fur and blood) have been sent to the Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered species (LaCONES) in Hyderabad.

“We wanted to study them genetically. There are plenty of studies on the tiger, but so little is known about smaller animals like this one,” says Jadhav. They are also studying its behaviour to understand how many times the animals mate, the gestation period, their lifespan.

At a new enclosure that is coming up at the zoo, the authorities plan to fit cameras to monitor the animals. “There will be trees with canopy so the squirrels can move between branches the way they do in the wild, and it will be a secluded facility, away from tourists. It is likely to be ready in the next three to four months,” says Jadhav.

There is also some promising news for the animal from the wild: the Malabar giant squirrel’s population is growing in the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra.

A census found that their numbers had climbed 8% in the sanctuary between 2015 and 2016.

At the centre, meanwhile, all eyes are on the straw. “When the female squirrel starts picking the straw, we know she is probably pregnant and ready to build a nest,” says Khaire.

The writer is as happy writing stories as she is crunching numbers.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2021 12:45:58 AM |

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