The status of R. i. dealbata, the palest cline of giant squirrel has been surveyed in Gujarat Western Ghats by Dr. Sejal Vorah and Dr. Muni (unpublished) and Mali et al. (1998). The local people reported seeing the species last during 1970s and Borges et al (1998) could not locate any individuals of the species. Extensive hunting for meat by tribal’s, extreme habitat fragmentation, conversion of natural forests in to teak and bamboo plantations, and lopping of trees were identified as factors responsible for extinction of R. i. dealbata from Gujarat (Borges et al 1998). Kumara and Singh (2006) reported complete absence of R. indica coastal plains and eastern plains of Karnataka. The reasons were attributed to increased deforestation, increase in monoculture plantation, and hunting of squirrels for domestic consumption.
Recent extinction of R. i. dealbata from Northern Western Ghats indicates that the Malabar Giant Squirrel is an extremely vulnerable species and needs to be monitored regularly to assess its status. Information on status and distribution of the Malabar Giant Squirrel from Southern Western Ghats has been contributed by many studies mentioned above while the same information from Western Ghats of northern Maharashtra is available only from an earlier survey carried out twenty years ago between 1992 to 1993 by Borges et al (1998).
After the disappearance of R. i. dealbata from Gujarat Western Ghats, the northern-most distribution range of R.indica starts from Maharashtra Western Ghats. The moist and evergreen forests Western Ghats of Maharashtra have the required floristic composition and structure required for conservation of Malabar Giant Squirrel. However, of late this area has been witnessing expansion of agro-industry based plantations and developmental projects which are rapidly modifying the forests in this region.
Hunting for giant squirrels was reported to be prevalent throughout its range, with intensity of hunting being more outside the Protected Areas than inside the Protected Area (Borges et al 1998, Kumara and Singh 2006, Srinivas et al 2008). Hunting was for mainly for meat but trade of the squirrel as pet and for body parts is also reported (Borges et al 1998). Most commonly used hunting methods were using guns, catapults, slicing the nest, catching the pups with the help of domestic dogs and capturing from the nests.
A 30 % decline in the population of R. indica in Bhimashankar Sanctuary owing to habitat degradation and fragmentation was an alarming report considering that Bhimashankar is a Protected Area and biotic pressures are expected to much less here. Another perturbing finding of their survey was hunting of squirrels for meat and also for making pinnae necklaces by the local tribal’s in northern region of Maharashtra Western Ghats.
In spite of strong recommendation by Borges and Borges et al (1998) to afford immediate protection to the Malabar Giant Squirrel in Northern Western Ghats, no active measure to protect the species or even re-assess its status has been attempted in Northern Western Ghats.
In light of the threats that are endangering its existence and the fact that the squirrel is an excellent indicator of undisturbed closed canopy high diversity forests (Borges 1989, Borges et al 1998), WRCS initiated a survey to assess the status and distribution of the Malabar Giant Squirrel in Western Ghats of Maharashtra.
1.7 Project Objectives
The following objectives were established for the project
To carry out a distribution survey of the Malabar Giant Squirrel in the Study Area
To estimate the population of the Malabar Giant Squirrel in the Study Area
To identify threats to Malabar Giant Squirrel in the Study Area
To identify vulnerable populations of Malabar Giant Squirrel in the study area in immediate need of conservation action
The Western Ghats of Maharashtra, also known as Northern Western Ghats lie roughly between 15° 60' and 20° 75' N and between 72° 60' and 74° 40' E, covering about 52,000 km²area. The Northern Western Ghats are characterized by 3 distinct geographical regions: Konkan is the western low-lying region which is about 40 to 60 km wide and rarely rises above 400 masl. The Ghats are mountain tops in the east with average elevation up to 900 masl and have highest peaks rising up to 1400 masl. Mawal is the easternmost portion of the Ghats at an altitude of 600 to 800 masl. The average elevation varies between 2000 ft and 3500 ft above mean sea level, with occasional peaks over 4000 ft. There are only three peaks namely Kalsubai, Salher and Ghannachakkar over 4000 ft. The region is dominated by high altitude plateau such as Koleshwar, Raireshwar, Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar (about 5400 ft) (Ghate et al 1993, Ghate 1994). The deeply dissected terrain has created localized variations in rainfall and habitat types which is responsible for differences in species distribution between the northern and southern region. From north to south there is a slight increase in rainfall. (Mani 1972).
Basaltic and barren hill tops and evergreen forests in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra
Although the entire Northern Western Ghats support tropical moist forests, the Ghats have primarily evergreen forests while region south of 190 has semi-evergreen forests. North of 19 0 are mainly deciduous forests. Because of severe biotic pressure, the semi-evergreen and evergreen components are confined in some areas with relatively better protection while large areas of forests are fragmented to a considerable extent. Moist deciduous forests with teak are present at lower altitude of about 600 m. Evergreen forests are present in Ghats section while in the foothills it is mostly semi-evergreen (Ghate et al 1993).
There are totally twelve Districts in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra. The giant squirrel survey was carried out in seven districts namely Ahmednagar, Pune, Thane, Raigad, Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur. The coastal districts of Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri could not be surveyed due to shortage of time. The survey was carried out in six Protected Areas and intervening Reserved Forests. Keeping with the objectives of the study, our survey was carried out only in tall and dense forests in the area.