Meeting The Marten
Yellow-throated martens are a predator species native to the Himalayas, whose small size deceives their hunting prowess. Usually nestled in trees, it is a rare occasion where one can spot them on the ground. Our contributor witnessed all this and more, and she narrates for us her encounter with the marten in Garhwal, Uttarakhand.
The yellow-throated martens were at it again, chattering in the trees and generally making a nuisance of themselves in the warming morning hours. Up and down the tree trunks they scurried, occasionally pausing to splatter the path – and any unfortunate hikers – with excreta and urine in alarming quantities. Instead of having the grace to look apologetic, as any gently-bred wild creature ought to do, they would chatter merrily with bright little eyes and look generally pleased with themselves.
A yellow-throated marten scampering away
Photo Credit: Tarun Menon
Martens are easily tamed, and have little fear of dogs or humans, though leopards they avoid with alacrity. Many times, I passed an irate Bhutia dog who had treed one of these wily creatures and was barking up a storm, only to find the marten peacefully curled up on a branch just out of reach of the dog’s foaming maw, having a siesta.
Similar in shape and size to a rather healthy stoat, the yellow-throated marten is the species that I was privileged to encounter on a daily basis in the Garhwal Himalayas. These martens – the largest of all martens, I might add – are native to Asia and are rightly awarded minimal protection by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The rolling Garhwal hills in all their splendour
Photo Credit: Priya Ranganathan
Martens are prettily coloured but with less-than-flattering body proportions. The top of the head is a dark brownish-black (or is it more of a blackish-brown?) with reddish-brown cheeks that are often stuffed with its favoured nonvegetarian diet. The fur is brownish-gold, darkening towards the hindquarters, whereas its chest and belly are a bright, eye-catching yellow. One can easily see where this colourful animal got its name. However, the marten makes up for its beautiful coloration with its odd body shape. The head is elongated, the neck is ridiculously long on such a short creature, and yet somehow its tail is even longer! The legs are short and stumpy, with broad feet and sharp nails (you ought to see the gouge marks one angry marten left on a stray dog!). Its ears are broad and have rounded tips, lending it a mouse-like appearance, although this mammal is far closer to a lion in temperament than to a mouse!
The marten and I exchanging uneasy glances
Photo Credit: Tarun Menon
This small carnivore makes up for its ungainly structure with a vicious appetite for anything alive, be it eggs, rodents, snakes, lizards, frogs, small mammals, and even muntjac and spotted deer fawns. They are also, however, fond of fruit and are vital seed dispersers in the Himalayan ecosystem. Yellow-throated martens, being larger than other marten species, are known to kill these intruders, and in parts of China, these animals have been spotted attacking panda cubs! I was alarmed to hear of their hunting prowess, and it gave me a healthy respect whenever I heard their chattering and felt a small hailstorm of acorns raining down on my head as I trudged up the path to Three Sisters Bazaar in the mornings. Martens hunt in pairs, and there was a resident pair near our field station that insisted on engaging in passionate activity in the early morning hours right outside our window. How provocative!
I would like to point out the unappealing odour of the yellow-throated marten, which adds to its prowess as a fearless hunter with few natural predators. The posterior of this vividly-coloured animal has two glands that liberally release a strong-smelling liquid to warn predators away. If I were a predator, I would turn tail and run at the first whiff of that potent toxin!
Once, I chanced upon a marten sniffing at the carcass of a palm squirrel on the path. A marten on the ground is a rare find, and I paused, startled, as the esteemed marten looked up at me. It blinked and raised its white lip, displaying its sharp little teeth just to show me who was the real threat in this power-play. It then turned tail, sauntered a few steps to the right in its typical winding fashion, glanced back at me, and squirted the most disgusting liquid out of its rump in my general direction. I coughed violently and stumbled backward, and the yellow-throated marten chittered (almost as though it were laughing at my stupidity) and leapt easily into the trees, disappearing in a flash of sunlight-gold into the dappled canopy.