When the government announced a lockdown at the height of the second wave in the summer of 2021, our plans to visit eastern Nepal were put on hold indefinitely. Wildlife surveys must be conducted at a specific time of the year. The monsoon is the worst time in the field, whereas during the breeding season researchers can cause undue disturbances to endangered species.
So we were able to resume our plans to monitor small cats in the remote villages of Jhapa and Ilam districts only in October of 2021. Nonetheless, I was excited to be back in the field, and there was a possibility of new discoveries but also of disappointment. I was prepared for both.
After flying from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur and an hour-long bus drive later, with team member Amir Basnet we reached Budhabare of Jhapa. This was our second field targeted at finding elusive small cats in Nepal’s Eastern Himalaya.
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The next day, we ventured into the forest with local guide Binod Dahal to install 14 camera traps with their GPS points. Then, as we were traversing a dense sal forest, my eyes caught two graceful figures emitting a unique but harsh crackle from the upper canopy.
This was the largest squirrel in the world, the Black Giant Squirrel (Ratufa bicolor) in its natural habitat. The two squirrels watched us from their perch atop a branch high up in the tree, and we did the same from the ground.
They had a black body and buffy yellow in ventral pelage at the neck region — exactly like a photograph of a Black Giant published by the group Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF) in its field guide Squirrels of Nepal (2016).