Satpura is a magical landscape, the steep valleys and the mountains tell stories of several million years. Stories of its rock formation, of the trees large and diverse, of the human history in its rock paintings, of the pre-Independence era India through Capt. James Forsyth’s notebooks, of its skilled tribes and the very life that thrives in her Rivers and Mountains.
Most visitors to Satpura arrive with an expectation to see its migrant birds, some in large numbers like the Bar-headed Geese and the River Terns or even the rarely seen nesting Indian Skimmers. Many visitors also bask in the hope to see the Leopards that Satpura is well known for.
The soil is rich with termite activity almost all year round and advantage that the cavernous rocks offer make it suitable for dry deciduous habitat mammals such as the Sloth Bear, the rare Indian Pangolin and the even rarer Ratel or the Honey Badger.
The Sloth Bear is the most seen mammal here and this is probably the best place in the country to view its natural history. The Park Management have ensured that the number of vehicles are reduced, the efficient Park Guides track down the Bears each morning and evening, taking pride in knowing what the bears are up to. A rarer animal that also has termites on its mind is the Indian Pangolin.
Once in a while, the naturalists at Forsyth give news of a Pangolin being flushed by Leopards that seek their burrows to escape summer or a curious Bear that would have been startled by a strange scaly animal in the termite mounds.
The Indian Pangolin is an Ant-eater found across the Sub-continent; in its Rainforests, grasslands, and barren hills, in other words wherever they can find ants and termites. The Indian Pangolin is mostly nocturnal, spending the day in burrows, leaving their burrows that are about 2 to 8 metres deep depending on the soil type, and concealing it from predators. Once they are out on foraging trips, they use their very long sticky tongues to take on thousands of ants and termites every night. They walk on the toes of their forelegs and even climb trees, sometimes using their prehensile tail for better grip.
The most fascinating feature of the Pangolins are their scales; made of tough keratin which is the same material as our hair or the Rhino horns. It has about 13 rows of sharp scales that are periodically shed. These scales cover their entire upper body and a Pangolin can roll into its armour when threatened, making itself a tough scaly ball that is hard to get into.
Most Pangolins breed through the winter and a single Pangopup is born after 2 months of gestation. For the first two to three months, the Pangopup is carried on the base of the tail of their mothers! Pangolins are sought after by poachers for their meat and scales which are believed to have aphrodisiac properties.
The Satpura hills are an excellent habitat for these highly nocturnal mammals, the caves provide ideal shelter and the soil, sandy in certain places with shallow bedrock keeps termites a few feet below the ground for such diggers.
Another digger from Satpura, the naturalists at Forsyth among others are very excited about, is a Ratel or Honey Badger. Recently the Forsyth team made news across the country when their camera trap captured images within Forsyth Lodge of not one but two Ratels! They found several pits dug in their nullahs and decided to investigate it. It turned out a pair of Ratel have been paying regular visits to that nullah to look for termites, roots and beetle larvae.
Very few sighting records have been reported from Satpura on the Ratels, but whatever is its frequency, Satpura has given more news on these rare animal than any other parks in India. Although Honey Badgers are usually diurnal, due to human pressures they restrict themselves to nocturnal activity. Most are quite nomadic, traveling tens of kilometres a night in search of food.
Their peak mating period is recorded between September and December, possibly this pair caught by the Forsyth cam-trap could be a mating pair. We will hear more from them as their cam-traps are now busy at that nullah.
Ratels are widely distributed from the Western Cape in South Africa, across the African Continent reaching Morocco and through the Arabian Peninsula up until the Indian Peninsula. For such a wide range, they must be quite cosmopolitan in their diet. In different habitats, however confined to drier regions, they adapt their predatory strategies to prey. From snakes, scorpions, beetles to roots and tubers, they are known to eat them all.
Ratels are known for their savagery especially when they take on venomous snakes and even while defending their burrows from predators such as Lions, and for their brave raids to honeycombs to feast on the larvae. Interestingly, a bird called the Honeyguide leads the Honey badgers to honeycombs for them to raid, and then feed on the left overs. The Borana community in East Africa, follow both Honeyguides and Honey Badgers to find the honeycombs!
The Satpura landscape hosts such specialists that depend on its varied habitat, its diverse prey base, and its valleys that are quite inaccessible to humans. Here the rarities thrive among Tigers and Leopards, among the community of different people, around the rivers that bring life to one-third of the country’s population.
PC: Surya Ramachandran