- Bangladesh is home to nine different species of squirrels
- Half of them is threatened with extinction
- Himalayan striped squirrel, a look-alike of palm-sized common five-striped palm squirrel, is critically endangered
- The last known refuge of black giant squirrel is Tarap Hill Reserve, where electric poles are decimating them
- Hodgeson's giant and common giant flying squirrels are the rarest of all squirrels of Bangladesh
Squirrel, a cute and playful creature, has been a big part of my childhood. Whenever I close my eyes, I can picture my younger version running after squirrels at my grandparents' house in Naogaon. But, sadly, a decade later, squirrels have started to disappear from my village, which, for me, is like losing a part of my childhood. For many years, I have been searching for a way to address this issue, and finally my undergraduate research has gifted me with a befitting window of opportunity.
As soon as I have started my research on squirrels in Bangladesh, it became evident how neglected they are across all known perspectives -- not only by international agencies, media, mass people, forest personnel; even researchers regard squirrels as a tertiary interest. People can be counted by fingers of a hand who are actually aware of the mesmerising squirrel diversity of Bangladesh.
A unique branch of rodents
Bear with the astonishing truth--squirrels are distant cousins of rodents, the familiar animals you know as mice and rats. Belonging to the family Sciuridae, squirrels share the same order Rodentia with all mammals that—as a mandate—bear two pairs of continuously growing, open-rooted gnawing teeth, one pair a jaw. Squirrels are cosmopolitan, comprising about 250 species.
According to the 2015 assessment compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh, a total of nine squirrels are documented. In brief, sciurids of Bangladesh form two main sub-groups: the regular, tree-squirrels, and, the special edition, the flying squirrels. There are reports of three different flying—to be precise, gliding—species: Common giant flying squirrel, Hodgeson's giant flying squirrel and Parti-coloured flying squirrel. Only the latter is common in our mixed evergreen forests. The rests, you can say, are the ghost of the jungle.
Of the tree squirrels, we have the Himalayan striped squirrel, Pallas's squirrel, Irrawaddy squirrel, Orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel, five-striped palm squirrel and black giant squirrel. Except five-striped palm squirrel and Pallas's squirrel, the rest are restricted to our remaining forests.
A stark disparity
Surprisingly, despite this unique squirrel assemblage in Bangladesh, the group is not well-studied. According to a recent publication published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa reviewing the status of knowledge on mammalian carnivores, it appears that when tiger magnetises all the research attention and has been a topic of about 50 studies. In a sad contrast, there have been only a handful of studies on squirrel and even those are concentrated on a relatively common species disregarding the super-rare and threatened species like black giant squirrel or flying squirrels.
Complex and myriad issues
I went through several research papers, articles, newspapers, wildlife policies, and approached Shamsunnahar Shanta, Shahriar Caesar Rahman, Hasan Rahman and Sayam U. Chowdhury, who all are leading conservation biologists of Bangladesh. I tried to understand villagers of Naogaon, my study area, to dig deeper into the issues concerning the squirrels and their underneath reasons.
Firstly, rapid urbanisation, agricultural expansion, deforestation as well as an ever-growing population are limiting the natural habitat for squirrels. Furthermore, there are evidences of squirrels being extracted from the wild to be kept as pets.
In addition, Bangladesh has displayed a major dependency on international funding and guidance in most aspects of wildlife management. It also relies on centralised units to function, which generates inefficiency and a lack of accountability.
My research further uncovered that not only is there a lack of expertise within these centralised agencies, but also there is a dire lack of manpower and a rather mysterious drought in funding. The international funding comes with a price to pay; constraints by international agency mandates. These constraints and requirements do not consider the context specific requirements of local, ecological, socio-ecological and cultural settings, and thus impose blatant bias on specific internationally endangered species.
All these seemingly unrelated situations come together, directly or indirectly, to create a negative effect and outlook on the existence of squirrels, transforming the squirrels of Bangladesh into crop pests, being declared so since the 1980s. Human-squirrel conflict is no new issue as a result and so, when squirrels are lethally removed by farmers and other individuals, they are provided with no protection by law because an animal like the squirrel is required to be eliminated under the pest extermination policy (Wildlife Act, 2012).
Besides, although this group of animals can be an indicator of the status of urban greenery, no plan has been undertaken to protect the city population of squirrels. Not to mention, green spaces in metropolises are shrinking every day.
So, if I were to define the problem in one sentence it would be that squirrels are receiving a lack of attention both in terms of research and policy due to a flawed governance system, rapid economic growth and political bias towards popular animal species.
Why is squirrel important?
Every animal in nature plays an important role in ecological balance. Usually, the primary diet of squirrels are fruits, vegetables and insects. While people destroy forests, squirrels work on restoring it by scattering plant seeds and acting as pollinators, complementing nature's effort to maintain sustainability.
In addition, they save our produce by ingesting harmful insects and their eggs, taking the role of a biological insecticide, and thus preventing the use of toxic pesticides in foods as well as the unrestrained proliferation of insects. It is quite possible that the disappearance of squirrels from the ecosystem of Bangladesh, at its extreme, may overturn the delicate balance between humankind and nature. For instance, Africa has been facing locust swarm issues and the most recent locust swarm in Africa has been reported to be covering 2400 sq km (930 sq miles) in northern Kenya, a hazardous situation stemming from the lack of a natural predatory cycle. Similarly, forest-dwelling squirrels are 'forest health indicator'. Knowing that the extremely rare flying squirrels still dwell in our forest can only tell some positive news about our existing wilderness.
Planning is essential
A well-devised plan can only overcome the current ensuing problems. First, the policies and laws for natural resource management practices should start emphasising lesser fauna like squirrels. They have to be more integrative, yet flexible enough to be context specific. Second, the wildlife management agencies have to set up inter-disciplinary researches focusing on lesser fauna. Third, the power of decision making should incorporate the people who live with the wildlife species and inspire citizen science practices. Last, but perhaps most importantly, we must work to create experts who understand the inter-disciplinary nature of wildlife management.
Squirrels have long been intertwined with cultures of Bangladesh, featured in numerous literatures. Needless to say, we all are familiar with the unforgettable poem Khuki O Kathbirali by our national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. The grand work describes an imaginary conversation between a girl and a squirrel, which, in fact, boldly states the harmony between us and nature of a bygone time.
It is heartbreaking to see the squirrels now facing sheer negligence, disappearing from homesteads and forests alike and becoming a targeted product of wildlife trade.
Are squirrels destined to live in books and histories only?