Flying on wings
Misty mountains, dense vegetation and several rivers and streams – welcome to Namdapha National Park. Come with us on a journey to see the dwellers of the trees, the flying squirrels, gliding from tree to tree in the cover of the night.
Namdapha National Park (NNP) is the largest reserve forest in the Eastern Himalaya biodiversity hotspot. It is located at the Changlang District of Arunachal Pradesh (AP) in Northeast India, near its border with Myanmar. In local Singphoo language, ‘Nam’ means water or river and ‘Dapha’ is the name of a clan of Singphoo tribe. It spans an area of 1985 km2 with 177 km2 in the buffer zone and 1808 km2 in the core area. More than 60 per cent of the reserve forest is virgin and still unexplored. It is the third largest national park in India in terms of area. The park is located between the Dapha bum range of the Mishmi Hills and the Patkai range with a wide altitudinal variation range between 200 m asl and 4,571 m asl. It is bordered on the north by the Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary, Lohit District, AP. To the east and south-east lie the Patkai hill ranges and the international border with Myanmar. To the south-east are unclassified state forest (USF) areas of the Vijaynagar circle, AP. To the west, are Reserved Forests and USF areas of the Jairampur Forest Division, AP. It is named after the river Namdapha originating from Daphabum, the highest mountain peak in the forest, and meets Noa-Dehing river. This river flows right across in a North-South direction of the National Park.
The habitat changes with increasing altitude from tropical moist forests to Montane forests, temperate forests and at the higher elevations, to Alpine meadows and perennial snow. The park has a dense cover of vegetation with high hills, numerous rivers and seasonal streams, and is recognized as one of the richest areas in biodiversity in India. The terrain is steep and inaccessible. Interior and higher areas of the park have not yet been explored, except by hunters from local communities. Spanning over varying elevations, the park harbours many natural habitats, making it one of the richest and most biodiverse parts of the subcontinent. Namdapha’s remote location is the Dapha Range at a height about 5,000 m. It is one of the few parks in the country that must be traversed on foot; indeed after a point, there is simply no road to drive on.
The park is home to about 425 species of flora and fauna. NNP is a home to many threatened, endangered and critically endangered floral and faunal species. Fauna of NNP comprises tigers, common leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, dholes, wolves, Asiatic black bears, red pandas, red foxes, yellow-throated martens, slow Loris, Hoolock gibbons, capped langurs, Assamese macaques, rhesus macaques etc. The critically endangered Namdapha Flying Squirrel (Biswamoyopterus biswasi) and Red Giant Gliding Squirrel (Petaurista petaurista) are found only in this forest. The park is also home to several avian species including white-bellied heron, Snowy-throated babbler, white-winged wood duck, pied falconet, fulvettas, scimitar babblers and five species of hornbills. Namdapha boasts a variety of butterfly species, such as the Koh-i-Noor, red caliph, cruiser, wizard and fluffy tit. Many plants found in Namdapha are rare, endangered or endemic species. A number of rare orchid species can be found in the park including the lady’s slipper, blue vandal, foxtail and dendrobium. Settlements of Lisu, Chakma, Tangsa and Singpho Tribes are also inside the national park. Their villages are located mainly in the community and inside the reserve forest.
Flying Squirrels don’t actually fly, but can glide from one treetop to another. The furry, parachute-like membrane between a flying squirrel’s front and back limbs is known as a “patagium“, which they use to glide. Once airborne, these squirrels use their arms, legs and tail to effectively navigate, and move from one treetop to another. When a flying squirrel wants to reach a tree that’s beyond jumping distance, it just boldly leaps out into the night. It then extends its limbs, including its wrist spurs, to stretch out its patagia and starts gliding. It lands on the trunk of its target tree, gripping the bark with its claws, and often immediately scurries to the other side to avoid any owls that might have seen its glide. Flying squirrels can glide 300 feet and can make 180 degree turns. There are about 44 species of flying squirrels found in the world and they are grouped under one tribe, i.e. the Petauristini tribe. Gliding has evolved independently in at least six groups of mammalian taxa, namely Volitatia, Pteromyinae, Anomaluridae, Acrobates, Petaurus and Petauroides and among them, the most diverse and widespread are gliding squirrels. Gliding squirrels belong to the order Rodentia and family Sciuridae. They are globally represented by 44 species and are placed in 15 genera. India is home to 14 species of gliding squirrels, among which 9 species are found in Arunachal Pradesh. Among these 9 species, the Red Giant Gliding Squirrel (RGGS), scientifically known as Petaurista petaurista, is a widely distributed species in NNP.
In India, Flying Squirrels are known to have great variation in their size and coloration, both seasonally and even between sexes. But, very little is known about these beautiful mammals and most of them are listed as either Endangered or Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This is basically because of their nocturnal habits and because they are dwellers of dense woodlands in remote places. Namdapha Flying Squirrel (Biswamoyopterus biswasi) is one of the Critically Endangered and endemic gliding squirrels found in NNP along with Red Giant Gliding Squirrel Petaurista petaurista and Parti-colored Gliding Squirrel (Hylopetes alboniger). Red Giant Gliding Squirrel is included in the least Concern Red List Category in IUCN, 2016. Namdapha Flying Squirrel has been listed in the schedule II of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Parti-coloured Gliding Squirrel is listed as Endangered Species in IUCN, 2016 and has been listed in the schedule II of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Accordingly, flying/gliding squirrels at NNP are strongly encountered for extinction. Major threats to the conservation of flying/gliding squirrels include hunting for traditional medicine, cultural purposes or bushmeat, and habitat loss due to forest degradation caused by shifting cultivation. Gliding squirrels are hunted along with other rodents during the months of March and November immediately pre and post-harvest of crops, and the hunted squirrels are used as a source of bushmeat. Habitat loss is also a major threat to this species apart from hunting. No detailed information regarding its ecological status, habits, fodder pattern and productive status are available. We know very little about their life cycle, breeding behavior, viable numbers etc. More intensive studies on population, ecology and conservation status are needed in order to design species and site-specific conservation action plans at NNP which represents the highest diversity of gliding squirrels globally.
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