by Geetha Ramaswami
Shekru the giant squirrel sees a massive plume of smoke rising from the far side of the forest. He can sense waves of smaller creatures living in the soil fleeing impending doom…
Shekru is very content hanging upside down from a teak tree branch, decimating his loot of newly procured seeds, his rich coat of rusty-brown glistening in the sun. Shekru is a squirrel, but at 2 kilograms, he fully deserves his name – the Indian Giant Squirrel. With a swish of his luxuriant tail, he hauls his sleek body back on the big branch and sniffs the air. He senses a commotion nearby and with an uneasy pang, leaps further up the tree to investigate. Shekru lives in a kind of forest that becomes very dry between the months of January and April, what with the winter monsoon long gone and the summer monsoon very far on the horizon. This is the time when all the leaves have been shed from most of the trees he knows personally – the ones which he eats from and the ones in which he makes nests to sleep in. This is time when the air is hot and dry and whooshes by in loud gusts. This is the time when the dry dead grass and leaves on the forest floor easily catch fire. It is the time when the angry winds carry the fire far and wide into the thirsty forest.
Surveying the forest from 20m above the ground, he catches flashes of red in all directions. But those are just the flame-of-the-forest trees who have exchanged their green, leafy monsoon appearance for a red, flowery summer dress. Their bright red flowers are attracting swarms little insects and an army of small insect-eating birds has congregated to partake of the insect feast. But wait, what are those birds doing? Swooping from the sky, foraying in groups? They are picking out insects from the sky, not from the trees! That’s when Shekru sees a massive plume of smoke rising from the far side of the forest. There is indeed a fire over there, and it is forcing the insects to take to the skies!
Shekru knows that he is safe, all the way up in this teak tree, but he can sense waves of smaller creatures living in the soil fleeing impending doom. Though he has seen many fires sweeping across the forest floor, they have never climbed up the juicy barks of his beloved trees. The fires eat away the grasses and dead shrubs. In the monsoon, he has seen the plants sprout from the ground again, green, tender and juicy. There are humans under his tree now. Did they create these fires? They seem to be a mischievous lot, always pottering about in his forest. But no, these humans seem to be doing something else; clearing patches of grass, sweeping away litter? Thankfully, they are creating a barrier to the fire. Once it reaches this bare patch without leaves to burn, the fire should fizzle out on its own. Shekru decided he has better things to do than to watch his beloved forest burn. He hurriedly bounds over the canopy, and rushes far away from the mayhem.
Tropical dry forests in India have many deciduous tree species – they shed their leaves in the driest months of the year between January to April. In this season, many grasses and herbs growing on the forest floor also dry up and easily catch on fire.
Fires are common occurrences in these forests in the dry season and are almost always human-made, mostly accidental, but some are deliberate.
Staff employed by the State Forest Departments help prevent fires from occurring and spreading by taking a number of precautionary measures like creating fire-lines, clearing litter and making fire breaks. They also try to control any small outbreaks that may occur.
Indian giant squirrels are found all over peninsular India, living high up in the canopies of trees feeding on the seeds of large trees. They have a very distinct, loud call.
Photo: Indian Giant Squirrels are very comfortable hanging upside down. Credit: Manoj Ashokkumar (Wikimedia Commons)