We’ve all noticed them at some point: Scampering down tree trunks, nibbling on fruit, or tight-rope walking along telephone wires. But few of us have given the three-striped palm squirrel much thought. Sure, they live in close proximity to us, but for all practical purposes, they exist in a world far removed from ours.
It’s a different story for the Irulas, the indigenous community from Tamil Nadu that is known for snake hunting, venom collection and conservation work. Like most tribes in the world, the Irulas have a deep-rooted relationship with their habitat and the knowledge they possess of their ecosystem is unsurpassed.
To them, squirrels aren’t just rodents that occasionally pick through their trash. They are alarm systems of sorts that alert them when danger approaches. Danger, such as snakes. The Irulas are able to identify the specific call a squirrel uses when it sees a snake and use this high-pitch sound as a tracking aid to locate the reptile quickly, averting a potentially perilous situation. This is particularly useful in the monsoons, when greenery is lush and spotting a snake is much harder.
The Indian Palm Squirrel has a long history of helping out. According to Ramayana, it earned its stripes for assisting the Monkey Army in building the bridge to Lanka. The squirrel worked tirelessly, the story goes, gathering pebbles and small stones for the bridge’s construction, never mind that it’s contribution was minimal. Rama was so impressed with its dedication to Sita’s rescue mission, that he caressed the little creature’s back with three fingers, leaving behind three prominent white stripes.
There might be some truth to this tale, if only to illustrate how hard squirrels work. They are serious seed dispersal agents, crucial to the wellbeing of any environment. They are also fiercely protective, constantly foraging for food, and always on the lookout for twigs, leaves and, a sign of our changing times, bits of plastic and paper, to make their nests more secure from predators like cats, bats, and crows. There might not be too many snakes in the big city, but there is enough cause for alarm.