Nilgiri Marten – two personal sighting records of the elusive mammal

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

The scenic montane forest landscape in the vicinity of the Pampadum Shola National Park – one of locations from where I had seen the Nilgiri Marten. PC: Ravi Kailas

Why are there Martens in south India

Six of the world’s seven species of Martens – reputedly pugnacious mammals, in the same family as weasels and otters (among other mid-sized carnivores) – have a largely Eurasian distribution, with one of their kind in the Americas. All species either occur in temperate or colder climes, except the Yellow-throated and Nilgiri Martens, which are also distributed in tropical latitudes. Three species are known from India – two in the Himalayan region and one, the most elusive and threatened among them, endemic to south India’s Western Ghats, a range of mountains that run parallel to the west coast of Peninsular India.

The relatively easy to see (unlike its south Indian cousin), Yellow-throated Marten. Especially bold, when their snouts are buried inside seasonally bountiful Rhododendron flowers. Binsar WLS, Kumaon, March 2013. PC: Ravi Kailas

What is an animal doing 3000 kms (the approximate distance between the Western Ghats and the Himalayas) from its nearest relative? The same question can be asked of a handful of other species, notably the Nilgiri Tahr (closely related to the Himalayan Tahr) and a species of Rhododendron endemic to the Western Ghats (again a group of plants for which the centre of diversity are the Himalayas). For the answer, we turn to biogeography – a story, told over geological time, of the distribution of animals and plants elegantly correlated to the Earth’s geology and climate. In this case, the predominant explanation for this odd distribution is that these largely Himalayan residents are relicts from past Ice Ages – when suitably temperate habitat for these species, extended all the way from the Himalayas to the mountains for southern India. When the Earth warmed, it is hypothesised, the once widespread species, were restricted to suitable habitat only found in the highest mountain ranges in tropical peninsular India (which happen to be the Western Ghats of South India). It is possible then, that the Yellow-throated Marten, would have had a distribution as far south as southern India during the Ice Ages, and, in long periods of isolation in mountain tops, during the warm phases, evolved into a new species – the Nilgiri Marten. 

The Nilgiri Marten is known from just a handful of hill clusters in the Western Ghats – from a couple of locations north of the Palghat Gap and largely, south of it – favouring high altitude (above 1700m) montane habitats and adjoining wet evergreen forest. From the modest records of sightings, the species is known to be diurnal and arboreal, and we also from Martens from other parts of the world, likely quite bold. However, the animal is nowhere common, and sighting records are few and far between. Why is an animal, that is diurnal and likely bold, so difficult to find? The answer is, probably a combination of factors – its restricted range in a narrow, altitude specific habitat, fragmented by human landscapes, potentially low density of occurrence, the dense nature of the evergreen and montane forests it favours and its arboreal habits. Not surprising then, that a sighting of the species – even among several endemic mammals (Nilgiri Tahr and Lion-tailed Macaque for example) and charismatic megafauna (Tiger and Elephant for example), that the Marten shares space with in south India’s hill forests – often creates a buzz of excitement among natural history enthusiasts. 

And the couple of times I crossed their paths

My own quest to see the Nilgiri Marten was triggered serendipitously. I was driving around the vast montane landscape in the High Ranges of the southern Western Ghats, scouting interesting natural locations to explore. On one of those forays, I chanced upon a lovely patch of montane forest, tucked away from other proximate, touristy locations – my first experience of Pampadum Shola National Park. This rather modestly sized patch of forest – loosely connected to montane habitats in adjacent hills – is located about two hours East of Munnar town, just off the tourist trail to Top Station (a view point looking down into the plains of Tamil Nadu from a height of 2000m – emminently avoidable for  nature enthusiasts, despite the beautiful views it affords. You will know why, if you you visit anyway!). At the entrance to the NP, at a check-post, is a display board, with a picture of the Nilgiri Marten. For me, a conversation starter with the staff manning the post, since any possibility of seeing the animal had to be explored further! A few minutes of chitchat (language barrier and all) and it appeared that the animal in question was sighted on and off in this landscape and most sightings were during the monsoon, when the mist descends into the forest. That done, I still vividly recollect the refreshing pristine forest, typically dense, misty, moisture and lichen laden, replete with bird, frog and insect sounds, on the cusp of the summer monsoon, in mid-May. This was a forest worth visiting again, and not just for the Nilgiri Marten ….

The rare Dusky Striped Squirrel are endemic to the montane forests of the Western Ghats. PC: Ravi Kailas

I went back in June, after the onset of the Monsoon, on a three night visit, in a focussed effort to the find the Marten. I stayed in a tent, in private land adjacent to the forest and commuted to the check-post from where the forest department offered guided walks into the forest, for a fee. I had no luck in the first few times looking, though the walks were productive for superb birdlife, including endemics like Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, Nigiri and Black and Orange Flycatchers, Nilgiri Thrush, White-bellied Sholakili (formerly Shortwing), flocks of Brown-cheeked Fulvettas, Oriental White-eyes and Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and even a Malabar Trogon. Interesting mammals showed up as well, like the rare Dusky-striped Squirrel, an unexpected sighting of a pair of Dhole, among locally common Nilgiri Langur, Indian Gaur and Indian Giant Squirrel. The walks followed variable forest paths, with opportunities to both amble wider paths, with a broad, light-filled perspective of the forest and its denizens as well as through narrow, dark, damp, sometime slippery slopes, cutting through the Shola, for an up-close experience of the sights, smells and sounds hidden within. Luckily, the weather, while generally wet, had long enough breaks in showers to allow me to explore, largely unhindered. 

On the Penultimate evening of looking, while walking back on the forest road (and not expecting any luck) a pair of animals appeared on the edge of the road. A couple of seconds and it dawned – Nilgiri Marten! The animals looked back too, as though curious, for a few moments, and then one of them bolted across the road, into the forest on the other side. The other, almost disconcertingly, took a few steps toward me, perhaps upto within 30 feet of me, before deciding to follow its partner into the thickets and not to be seen again. In-between all this, I managed to make a hasty picture of an individual, but could not keep a steady enough hand (cannot blame it entirely on the primitive image stabilisation tech of the day!) in all the excitement. The entire sighting lasted about 45 seconds. It was a cool and cloudy (but dry) evening, around 5 PM (well before sunset) on 25th June, 2009. Notably, the animals in this instance, crossed a moderately busy road, sometimes plied on by buses (and other heavy vehicle), connecting nearby villages to the outside world.

A (barely) record shot of the Nilgiri Marten, from my visit in June 2009 to Pampadum Shola. PC: Ravi Kailas

My second sighting was entirely unexpected, on a family picnic in the Upper Nilgiris (this time North of the Palghat Gap). We were on a day excursion to the Upper Bhavani Dam, on the fringes of the lovely Mukurti National Park, which protects an area of largely pristine montane forest (locally Shola) and grassland matrix (typically above 2000m, in these parts). We had to take the long route from Ooty via the private estates of Korakundah before reaching a forest check-post, beyond which entry is prohibited without permits from the DFO in Ooty (which we had). The 60 kms or so drive from Ooty is largely through human-modified/dominated landscape, except in the last few, when wilderness makes its presence felt – a large Shola first and then, after crossing the check-post through high altitude, swampy meadows and grass-covered slopes (akin to Moors), peppered with crystal clear streams, various wattle (all exotics), and a thick undergrowth of bracken. It was in this habitat that Nilgiri Marten zipped across the narrow road, into the abutting thick undergrowth. It was a fleeting glimpse, but satisfying nonetheless, since none of us were looking for it! No chance whatsoever for a photo though. This sighting occurred along a rarely used forest road, on a partly cloudy (late) afternoon, around 3 PM, on 29th July 2015.

The ethereal ‘Shola-Grasslands’ landscape of the Mukurti NP, in the Upper Nilgiris. PC: Ravi Kailas

Useful Travel Information

Pampadum Shola National Park

While accommodation options were limited during my first visit to Pampadum Shola NP, there are now several private options and a handful of Forest Department managed rooms. I recommend the following: 

Bison Log Huts:
These are a pair of superbly located, double occupancy huts in wilderness, on a hillock, with panoramic view of a boggy grassland (a hotspot for Gaur in late evening) and the forest all around. They are compact, with basic, but comfortable furnishing and attached toilets. Simple, local style meals are included in the tariff. Please note, unless you have a 4×4, you would have to hike 15 minutes to get to the accommodation from the main road. 
For bookings (online access via forest department managed portal)

The Only Place:
This is a privately run homestay accommodation, located in the general vicinity of the Pampadum Shola NP. What sets apart this option from others is the lovely location in a quite niche, interesting architecture, large airy rooms with modern facilities, charming hosts and excellent, home-cooked meals. Ideal for larger groups and families. There is some wildlife and bird potential in the immediate vicinity of the lodge as well (I saw a few endemics, including the Nilgiri Pipit, which is probably difficult in Pampadum Shola). 
Please follow this link for more information, or call Mr. Giridhar +91 85476 42363

Mukurti National Park

Mukurti NP and surrounding reserve forests, offer limited (or no) access for the general public. To visit the Upper Bhavani Dam area, we had to get permission from the DFO (South Division), whose office is located in the hill station town of Ooty. One could, potentially, also get permission to visit other areas in the vicinity, such as the Avalanche RF and Parsons Valley Reservoir from the same office – locations with potential for Nilgiri Marten and other wildlife associated with the montane habitats of the Western Ghats. 
For accommodation, while non-existent for general public, there is the very basic, but superbly located (on the fringes of Mukurti NP), trust owned Mukurti Fishing Hut, which might be available for use if interested persons approach the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association (who own the place). 

The privately owned Red Hills Resort, near the Emerald Reservoir, while located well within a rural landscape, shares a boundary with the reserve forest protecting Shola-Grasslands contiguous with Mukurti NP. 

When you plan a trip here, please be aware of the climate in the upper reaches of the Western Ghats – notably a prolonged rainy season (April through December peaking in the middle) and typically, dry, clear and cold (at nights, and prone to ground frost at times) winters (January through March). South India’s wildernesses abound with other attractions and a ten day to two week itinerary can unravel an average of about 180-200 species of birds (including nearly all local specialities among, potentially 400 plus species) and 30 plus mammals (including bulk of the larger endemics such as Lion-tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Tahr and Brown Palm Civet) and megafauna (with excellent potential for Tiger, Leopard, Elephant, Sloth Bear and Dhole among others). 

Here is a report from one of our earlier trips, which is an excellent basis to build a South Indian Bird and Wildlife Itinerary. 

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