Endangered Flying Squirrel making a comeback in home-gardens

But now they are falling prey to air guns and household pets
By Malaka Rodrigo

An endangered Flying Squirrel (Petaurista philippensis), indigenous to Sri Lanka, was found dead last week in a home-garden at Meewathura in Panideniya. Ecologist, Indika Paebotuwage found the ill fated Flying Squirrel in a ‘dara maduwa’ (wood shed) at home. There were penetrating wounds on its back and chest, indicating capture by a pet dog.

Mr. Paebotuwage, who is also the Vice President, Research Committee- Young Zoologists’ Association, identified the mammal as a Giant Flying Squirrel, measuring two-and-a-half feet, with full grown large flaps of skin between the front and rear legs, which it uses like a parachute to ‘glide’ from tree to tree. Flying Squirrels take a spread-eagled position to trap air that helps it to ‘glide’. This skin membrane is called patagium, and though the animal does not actually fly like birds or bats, they have great skill in ‘gliding’ short distances. It is said that the direction and speed of the animal in midair, can be controlled by changing the position of its arms and legs, while the tail acts as a rudder.

A Flying Squirrel (Hambawa) killed in a Kandy Home-garden. Pix by Indika Peabotuwage

The Flying Squirrel’s fluffy tail stabilizes the body in flight, like the tail of an airplane. The tail also acts as an airfoil, serving as an air brake, before landing. Conveyance by ‘gliding’ from tree to tree also helps to escape predators quickly.

Flying squirrels are rodents like all squirrels, and feed on fruits and nuts. Sri Lanka is home to two species of Flying Squirrels, of which the Petaurista philippensis or Maha Hambawa in Sinhala, was listed as an endangered species by the “2007 Red List of Threatened Fauna & Flora of Sri Lanka”, published by the IUCN. The other species, the Small Flying Squirrel (Petinomys fuscocapillus) or Heen Hambawa in Sinhala, is on the verge of extinction and is considered ‘Critically Endangered’ nationally.

Small Mammal expert and IUCN researcher Sampath Goonatilake said both these species are at the highest level of threat categories. Most of the Giant Flying Squirrel sightings are from Kandy, while the Small Flying Squirrel sightings are from other areas in the upcountry. Both are nocturnal and hide in the hollows of large trees.

Though the Hambawa is an endangered species, they are hunted in many areas, chiefly for their flesh. Minila Ranaweeka of Doragamuwa, Pallegama- 9 km from Kandy, says that the Hambawa was abundant in his area decades ago, but was decimated by hunting. The Hambawa descends from trees to feed on young coconuts (kurumbatti). People armed with catapults or air rifles shoot at the squirrel, The Hambawa is known to be vulnerable when it panics.

But all is not lost. Minila says the Flying Squirrels are re-appearing in the area and he had spotted one in his home-garden four days ago. According to Paebotuwage’s neighbours, their dog claimed two more Hambawas recentlly, a sign that they are making a comeback to the home-gardens, particularly in the Kandy area.

However, the recent decision to issue air guns to farmers, have nature lovers fearing the worst for the Hambawa. The Giant Flying Squirrels may be a pest, but both species are already in trouble.

Home-gardens important for biodiversity

The closest forest patch to both Paebotuwage’s and Minila’s places are over six km away. Hence, it is clear that these endangered Giant Flying Squirrels didn’t come from the forests, but managed to survive in home-gardens, highlighting the importance of home-gardens as a last refuge for even endangered species such as this Flying Squirrel.

Director- Botanical Gardens Department, Siril Wijesundara also stresses the need to maintain the diversity of trees within a home-garden. He said that this was nothing new and has been practised from ancient days. Villagers plant trees for their usage/consumption, which, indirectly, supports the surrounding biodiversity to survive.

The term ‘Kandy Home-Garden’ (KHG) has now become an established term, where a home-garden is seen as a mini forest ecosystem in which the plants, trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs etc are all economically important. For example, Sapu, Jak, Coconut, Breadfruit etc as trees and Coffee, Lemon, Cocoa, Delum etc as shrubs. So every component has some use as food, timber, medicine, ornamental use etc, which provides different layers, similar to a forest, for many wild organisms to survive. Many rodents, wild pigs, porcupines, mammals, reptiles, lizards, birds etc survive on this.

If properly managed, there is a balance and they don’t have to exit the system, Problems arised only if this balance is disturbed. For example, if you kill rats, then snakes will go for food outside the system, and get into your house in search of food.

Dr. Wjiesundara also said there are similar traditional eco-friendly home-garden models that support biodiversity in other parts of Sri Lanka too. In the Western Province, there is a similar model called Ovita, where water bodies are also incorporated. Even internationally, systems similar to our traditional Ovita have been adopted to protect biodiversity.

The traditional Japanese Satoyama is such a concept, which has taken its name from the Japanese word for landscapes located between villages (sato) and the mountains (yama), which have for centuries fostered rich biodiversity, thanks to continued management of the land. These landscapes vary in use, but all provide a dual service. Paddy fields, and the ponds and ditches which irrigate them, not only provide a staple of the Japanese diet, but also function as wetland habitats for wildlife. Managed woodlands, harvested for firewood and charcoal, also provide ideal habitats for many species of wildflowers, while the vast expanses of pasture and grassland are home to small mammals, birds and insects.

Dr. Kapila Yakandawela, who has conducted several programmes to promote wildlife gardening too, stresses that home-gardens can be the key to the survival of remaining urban wildlife and appeals to make your gardens wildlife-friendly. He said it is not as hard as it sounds, and a proper planning of the landscape is all it needs. He said that, planting selective trees providing food, water, shelter and breeding places, are the cornerstones of a wildlife garden. Breeding places for birds, frogs, butterflies and dragonflies may all be very different. On the subject of the mosquito menace, he said one should avoid plants that collect water.

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