The bond between a Malabar giant squirrel and the shopkeepers around the Sims Park in Coonoor has become a source of great interest among locals as well as visiting tourists.
The squirrel, which has been visiting the fruit shops around the park for the last two years, has become a much-loved visitor among local residents, who have gotten accustomed to seeing the animal in close quarters.
S. Vidhyashree, a local Coonoor resident, said that she had first seen the animal collecting fruits from the shopkeepers around the park. Since then, I have seen it a few more times, right next to the fruit shops, and many people now come to the Sims Park to catch a sight of the animal, she said.
Nazeema, a local shopkeeper who sells fruits around the Sims Park, said that she used to hand-feed the animal. However, it was explained to me that I should not be encouraging this behaviour and so I have stopped, said Ms. Nazeema, who had to close her fruit shop for the last six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As there were no tourists coming to the park, and all the shops had closed down, I thought that the squirrel would have moved somewhere else or would not recognise the shopkeepers. To our surprise, the animal returned the very first day it saw us, said Ms. Nazeema, adding that shopkeepers no longer actively feed the animal any fruits to discourage it from getting close to humans.
Even though we have stopped feeding it, the squirrel still seems to like to hang around the shops, and we are extremely pleased to see it every day and know that it is safe, she said.
Forest officials said that it was uncommon for the Malabar giant squirrel, which usually inhabits pockets of Shola forests in the Nilgiris and are known to be shy and reclusive, to strike up such a close bond with humans. They said that they are actively discouraging the shopkeepers from encouraging the animal to stray out of its habitat.
The problem with encouraging this kind of behaviour is that the animal might get too close to humans and come to harm as it becomes an easy target for poachers or even for stray dogs. As a result, we have told the people to not feed this animal or any wildlife so that they do not become habituated to humans, said an official.