Western Ghats: Lion-tailed Macaque, Brown Palm Civet and other endemic mammals, a trip report

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

A brief, mammal watching oriented guided tour, with a focus on endemic primates, to the Anamalai mountains of the southern Western Ghats, produced all primates of the region (including Lion-tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Langur and Slender Loris), Brown Palm Civet and Nilgiri Tahr among 21 species of mammals. While birding was decidedly incidental, we did manage to see regional specialities like Painted Bushquail, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Malabar Trogon, Malabar and White-cheeked Barbets, Malabar Parakeet, White-bellied Treepie, Nilgiri Flycatcher and Blue-faced Malkoha. Notably the forests were largely devoid of Phylloscopus warbler activity, as is otherwise typical of this time of the year – a reflection of subdued bird migration to the broader region, in the winter of 2019-20? It was great to host Mark and Andreas on this productive, albeit, brief leg of their respective trips and to learn about some lesser known wildlife from their travels to far-flung wildernesses in southeast Asia and around the world.

 Lion-tailed Macaque, a Western Ghats endemic and flagship for rainforest conservation, from one of the forest patches in Valparai

Dates

18th to 21st February 2020

Participants

Mark Spence and Andreas Jonsson, both keen mammal watchers. Mark had a pre-travel target list to observe and photograph all the primates from South, and further on, in Northeast India (trip report). Andreas has specific interests on the wild cats of the world and was looking to add to his already considerable list of sightings in a visit to the Eastern Himalayas, between his travels with us here in south India and Gujarat (report in subsequent post). I joined them after their rather productive, 3 day, unguided portion of the trip to the wildlife rich forests of Kabini and Bandipur, which produced a handful of Tiger and Leopard (almost unsurprisingly these days!) among other megafauna typical to Peninsular India.

Tour Locations

Sethumadai, Top Slip & Valparai

Detailed Report

Day 1, Sethumadai

An uneventful drive to Sethumadai, after lunch at the charmingly peaceful Silver Tips Cafe near Kotagiri, where I joined Mark and Andreas enroute from Bandipur, to arrive at Serenity, Top Slip – our well located (on the fringes of the forested foothills of the southern Western Ghats) host for the night at – around 1730. A brief, pre-dusk foray along the mixed forests, laden with vines and woody liana, produced the ubiquitous (typically outside forests in peninsular India) Three-striped Palm Squirrel and a nesting Crested Hawk Eagle among a handful of commoner birds.

Cynopterus sp, active on a fruiting Singapore Cherry tree, soon after dusk

Later, at dusk and beyond, the Singapore Cherry trees within the resort compound attracted some bat activity, of which at least one species seemed to be either Lesser or Greater Short-nosed Fruit Bat. Jerdon’s Nightjar and Spotted Owlet added to the list of flying (or perching) large vertebrates within the resort premises. An after dark foray into the forest edge produced the first regional speciality mammal – a Slender Loris barely showing its face (initially only to Mark, though we were all looking) through dried leaf and a dense network of vines in the canopy. Despite a patient wait for the animal to show better, we remained luckless (including on a second attempt on the way back). The early hours of the night also produced Asian Palm Civet, Gaur, Brown Fish Owl (along a canal with copious water) and Jerdon’s Nightjar.

Day 2, Top Slip and Drive to Valparai

At the entrance to the Anamalai Tiger Reserve at 7 AM, when the road to Top Slip opens for traffic in the morning. Surprisingly a handful of vehicles waiting to enter already – uncharacteristic for a non-holiday season weekday – lowering our hopes for cats or Sloth Bear on the 10 km or so drive through the forest to the Top Slip Reception Centre. As per expectation, turned out to be a quiet drive with only commoner mammals, including South-eastern Langur, some hybridised troops (with former and Nilgiri Langur – common on this route), Indian Giant Squirrel, Bonnet Macaque, Munjtac, Chital and Wild Pig.

Reached the Top Slip reception area around 8 AM and after about 30 mins or so with the formalities associated with trekking permits (which we luckily managed, despite a general ban due to a recent forest fire) we set out into a nearby patch of evergreen forest, led by a couple of tribal guides (the real experts of the forest, especially significantly, on the art of avoiding head on encounters with elephants inside these dense jungles!). Entering this dark grove, we were immediately transported into another world of tall buttressed trees, bird sounds from high in the canopy, much mammal scat/spoor (civet, porcupine, gaur, elephant, leopard, tiger, dhole, sloth bear … varying from recent to days old) and spiders, ants and skinks on the forest floor. Despite evidence of diverse mammal life, we only saw Indian Giant Squirrel, some fast disappearing shapes of Nilgiri Langur and some unidentifiable bats flying out the hollows in fallen logs. Birdlife was typically healthy including a mixed flock of Orange Minivet, Ruby-throated and Yellow-browed Bulbuls, Verditer Flycatcher, and Greater Racket-tailed and Ashy Drongos, a large flock of Malabar Grey Hornbill, White-bellied Treepie (nest building evidence), a pair of very vocal White-bellied Woodpecker, both male and female Malabar Trogon (thanks to the sharp eyes of Mark!) and Black Eagle. We exited around 1120, as the heat of the day put paid to the morning activity, even within the shade of the evergreen forest patch.

Some evidence of Brown Palm Civet, among several such signs of various mammals during our walk at Top Slip

Post lunch, we once again entered the Anamalai Tiger Reserve around 1530, this time towards the plantation-forest matrix around Valparai. In the initial series of hairpin bends, is a regular site for Nilgiri Tahr and we found a pair grazing, nonchalantly, by the roadside. While not an especially satisfactory sighting of a wild animal, a significant endemic species of the Western Ghats nonetheless. This relatively busy road also produced some good views of Nilgiri Langur, as well as Indian Giant Squirrel (feeding on a copiously flowering Cullenia tree), and Bonnet Macaque, but no Lion-tailed Macaque in their regular haunts. A detour to a plantation forest, however, ended up productive, for a troop of Lion-tailed Macaque winding down for the evening. Soon after dusk, this tiny patch of forest came alive with Indian Giant Flying Squirrel, a Brown Palm Civet trotting across the road into tea bushes, Sambar, Munjtac and Gaur. Highlights from the incidental birding from the late afternoon, into the night, included a Crested Goshawk, uncharacteristically immobile, sitting on the edge of a busy main road, Large Hawk Cuckoo and Blue-faced Malkoha.

A very brief post dinner walk around our accommodation for the night, Puduthottam Annexe, located within a plantation forest, produced one more Brown Palm Civet, briefly appearing out of tea bushes and a couple of Indian Giant Flying Squirrel, ending quite a productive day in the Western Ghats.

Day 3, Valparai

The day started off with a 2 hour walk inside the forest-plantation matrix of Puduthottam Estate, on an unusually windy, but clear morning. While the hope was to observe the habituated Lion-tailed Macaque troops that are known from here, the walk proved rather unproductive except for Munjtac, Stripe-necked Mongoose, Indian Giant Squirrel and the endemic Jungle Striped Palm Squirrel. Birdlife was also somewhat subdued, possibly by the windy conditions, and included Grey-fronted Green Pigeon, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Blue-capped Rock Thrush and Malabar and White-cheeked Barbets plus a backlit raptor confounding ID between Oriental Honey Buzzard and Bonelli’s Eagle.

A dominant male Lion-tailed Macaque of a troop very habituated to people

A little later, while exiting the Puduthottam Estate, we came across a 16 member troop of Lion-tailed Macaque, busy raiding the food waste around a small settlement – the bane of wildlife habituated to humans and macaques are especially inclined towards the easy food around humans. Sadly, despite best efforts by conservation groups, this is a routine affair here. Later, some of the macaques seemed to balance their junk diet with Avocados, from among several non-native trees planted in this heavily human modified landscape. After an hour or so watching the macaques and an Indian Giant Squirrel, Black Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Grey Jungle Fowl we decided to wait out the heat of the afternoon until the next foray.

We left Monica Bungalow, our accommodation for the day, at 1500 towards slightly higher ground at Iyerpadi Shola (on the Pollachi-Valparai Road). This lovely patch of forest is connected all the way to high altitude montane habitats of these ranges, but we were here just for better views of Nilgiri Langur (of specific interest to Mark). A relatively cooperative troop of Nilgiri Langur allowed healthy observation and photo ops, and we also saw Lion-tailed Macaque here (not a regular patch for them), Indian Giant Squirrel and the superb Mountain Imperial Pigeon, while a Malabar Grey Hornbill played hide and seek. Later we moved towards the Anamalai Club in hope of seeing Ruddy Mongoose – a regular in the vicinity, but no luck this evening. There were, however good views of Jungle Striped Palm Squirrel, a pair Sambar Stag, Painted Bushquail, Rufous Babbler and Booted Warbler while waiting.

We were back at the plantation-forest site (same as last evening for Lion-tailed Macaque) at dusk, for the creatures that emerge in the dark and were immediately greeted by a smallish dark shape disappearing into the forest (Brown Palm Civet? Brown Mongoose?). This was followed by general commotion in the undergrowth and persistent alarm call from Grey Jungle Fowl. An effort towards a closer look was effectively thwarted by the thick vegetation, but we could hear an animal, of considerable size, very close, and very restless. After few moments pondering, it struck our collective consciousness that it was wiser to not hang around so close to this unknown creature, and momentarily, we found ourselves on ‘safer’ ground! A bunch of mystery animals to kick off the evening, followed by one more orangish animal zipping across the road (Stripe-necked Mongoose?). Everything was easier to recognise later that evening though, including several Indian Giant Flying Squirrels, Sambar and Gaur.

Indian Giant Flying Squirrel
Day 4, Valparai-Coimbatore Airport

An early start to the morning to reach the Coimbatore Airport in time for flight transfers. The hour and half through through the forest road, in the dark, bereft of traffic, was surprisingly quiet, with only Indian Hare, Sambar and some early stirrings from South-eastern Langur at the break of dawn. We reached the plains around sunrise and stopped for a very decent cup of south Indian style coffee and vadai at a conveniently located Gowrikrishna outlet, close to the entrance of the Reserve. From there it was onto Assam (for Stump-tailed Macaque, Western Hoolock Gibbon, Gee’s Golden Langur, Indian Rhino among its other wildlife riches) for Mark and me, and, for Andreas an adventure in the Eastern Himalayas, looking for some of the most elusive wild cats in the World, before he joined me again in Gujarat (for Striped Hyaena, Indian Wolf, Desert and Indian Foxes and Jungle Cat among others)

List of Mammals Seen* 

Three-Striped Palm Squirrel Funambulus palmarum
Jungle Striped Squirrel Funambulus tristriatus
Indian Giant Squirrel Ratufa indica maxima
Indian Giant Flying Squirrel Petaurista philippensis philippensis
Nilgiri Langur Semnopithecus Johnii
South-eastern Langur Semnopithecus priam
Lion-tailed Macaque Macaca silenus
Bonnet Macaque Macaca radiata
Grey Slender Loris Loris lydekkerianus
Indian Flying Fox Pteropus giganteus
Lesser/Greater Short-nosed Fruit Bat Cynopterus sp.
Indian Hare Lepus nigricollis
Spotted Deer Axis axis
Indian or Red Munjtac Muntiacus muntjak
Sambar Rusa unicolor
Gaur Bos gaurus
Stripe-necked Mongoose Herpestes vitticollis
Brown Palm Civet Paradoxurus jerdoni
Common Palm Civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus
Indian Wild Pig Sus scrofa
Nilgiri Tahr Nilgiritragus hylocrius

Nomenclature as per Menon, V., 2014. A Field Guide to Indian Mammals. Hachette India. ISBN 978-93-5009-760-1

*This list could have been realistically bolstered with Ruddy Mongoose, Dusky Striped and Grizzled Giant Squirrels, but for a specific focus on primates, which did not allow for extra time to look for these species.

Logistics Etc. 

Sethumadai

Accommodation Serenity Top Slip: Very well located on the edge of the foothill forests of the Anamalais. Very quiet, rustic and semi-rural charm with home style local meals and comfortable accommodation in spacious rooms. Please note that while the surrounding forests are easily accessible from here, there are some restrictions on movements, especially after dark. Elephants are frequent visitors to the landscape at certain times of the year, so best to take adequate note of their whereabouts in the landscape before venturing out.

Top Slip

Located well within the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, protecting evergreen, deciduous and bamboo dominated forests. Among the few places where one can walk through a tiger reserve, although with several restrictions on timings etc. imposed by the forest department. A tribal guide, arranged by the forest department, will accompany on the walks and permits have to be arranged at the reception centre at Top Slip. There are a handful of stay options offered by the Forest Department, but none are well maintained. However they do offer the option of easier access to these forests, rather than coming in from the plains …..

Please note, that as with most reserves through India, entrance and camera fees for foreigners, their cameras and the vehicles they travel in are considerably higher (here it is, currently, INR 500 for each of those) than those for Indians. Please be prepared with cash/for the associated rude shock! Trekking permits are INR 1000 for upto 5 persons for upto 2 hours.

Valparai

Accommodations:

Puthuthottam Annexe: Located within a relatively large patch of plantation forest, and home to a large troop of Lion-tailed Macaque among a cross-section of the typical wildlife of this landscape. Two rooms in a single building, offering comfortable accommodation and hearty meals (largely local/Pan Indian, but also some continental options)

Monica Bungalow: . Located within a small forest fragment, with some regular wildlife visitors. Well furnished Swiss Tents and amply spacious rooms within the plantation bungalow. Meals as per Puthuthottam.

Do get in touch with reservations for Briar Bungalows for more information.

The Valparai landscape is dominated by tea and to a lesser extent other plantations. However this plantation dominated extent is surrounded by the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and adjacent forests in Kerala, making it a thoroughfare for large wildlife, while several smaller endemics of the Western Ghats also find refuge in the modest forest fragments within the landscape. As with Sethumadai, exercise caution while exploring the area for wildlife, since frequent human conflict with Elephant, Gaur, Sloth Bear and Leopard are known from this area. 

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