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Wild mammals in your monsoon garden

December 28, 2010

Some Thai gardens house surprising numbers of wildlife, and we have earlier written blogs on amphibians, snakes, lizards, terrapins, birds and butterflies. What about mammals?

If you live nearby a national park you will have occasional visiting mammals, and if you live far away from a village you will also have a number of spectacular Thai mammals. The Opkhan national park checkpoint is only 6 km away from Dokmai Garden. The national park still contains mammals such as wild boar, barking deer and civets. However, the locals claim there was much more wildlife about ten years ago before they made the new road, and they claim the Chiang Mai zoo came and caught most wild animals. The zoo claims that if they had not done that, the villagers would have killed all the wildlife. I guess both sides have a point.

One villager claims he saw tiger ten years ago, and he shot the last leopard at that time. There is still a Chinese relationship to wildlife here in northern Thailand, i.e. kill and eat everything you see, while in older Buddhist communities such as Sri Lanka people have a more loving relationship to wildlife. Before Dokmai Garden got its fence to protect us from stray dogs and large snakes, we were visited by the Siamese hare. The day after my joyful discovery the gardeners had killed and eaten it. This was before I realized the gardeners would kill and eat anything. Now we have better routines for protecting the wildlife and the gardeners are happy with buying chicken or fish.

Another occasional visitor, in spite of the fence, is the small Asian mongoose. It killed all of Dokmai Garden’s rabbits twice, but I now realize it would have been better to keep the rabbits free, not in a pen, to allow them to run for their lives. Inside the pen they were easy prey. I often see mongoose around Dokmai Garden when dog-walking Ruben in daytime. They look like dark brown minks, and they usually run like mad, a behaviour that protects them from the stray dogs. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a hero in Kipling’s jungle book, since mongoose can kill snakes, and they should be considered a gardener’s friend. They belong to their own family among the meat-eating mammalian order Carnivora (other families are dogs, cats, weasels and civets). Although I have seen civets in the Opkhan national park, we have never seen them at Dokmai Garden.

Among the honourable residents at Dokmai Garden we count the Burmese striped squirrel, a small and distinctly striped squirrel commonly seen at daytime in the Chiang Mai trees. Another even more common squirrel is the completely brown variable squirrel. As the name implies, it may have many colour forms, but at Dokmai Garden the population is brownish-black.

A species to look out for is the squirrel-like northern treeshrew. Unlike squirrels it is not a member of the rodent order (Rodentia), but of the uniquely Southeast Asian treeshrew order (Scandentia). It is a large arboreal mammal with an elongated head, while squirrels are rather short-nosed. It has a long fluffy brown tail too, and the animal is about 30-40 cm including the tail. We have not seen it at Dokmai Garden, but Ketsanee knows it from other places.

Every garden has numerous bat species, but they are quite difficult to identify unless you catch one, or have access to ultrasonic detectors. Bats (order Chiroptera) constitute 30% of Southeast Asia’s mammal species, and 153 bat species are illustrated in Francis’ book (see below). The ‘cute large-eyed bats’ are the fruit bats which have dog-like faces. The ‘classical small-eyed’ bats are the insect-eating bats. The smallest mammal in the world occurs in western Thailand, the bumblebee bat or Kitti’s hog-nosed bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai). It weighs 2-3 g and has a forearm length of 22-26 mm. Ecologically bats aid to your garden by removing many pests, and the fruit bats pollinate and disperse seeds.  Sometimes, if nectar bats reside near a wall, they may splatter it with sticky brown bat guano. Better move or cut down their sleeping tree, so they find another more suitable place for their droppings. Commercial bat manure is a common garden fertilizer in Thailand.

At night I have seen unidentified grey shades of impressive size (larger than rats) run along the stone walls of the compost. I have never got close enough for an ID, but foot prints suggest Asiatic brush-tailed porcupine. This species is nocturnal and locally common, just a very discrete being. Tropical full moons are so bright you do not need a torch, you can even see colours, so such a night is good for excursions.

All gardens contain other rodents such as rats and mice of various species. Francis’ book illustrates 58 ‘rat-like’ species. They may move inside your house if you have a ceiling, and then you can hear them run around at night. The best way to avoid rats, which also spread disease and may chew electrical cables, is to make sure there are no ‘rat ladders’ near the house (arbours and trees). You can also buy electrical ultrasonic devices which you can not hear, but drives the rats crazy, forcing them to leave your home. A cat would help you too, but like the gardeners they kill anything they can just for the mere fun of hunting, so allowing a harmless house snake a sanctuary is another alternative.

Eric Danell

This book is a good beginner’s book to grasp the conspicuous mammals of Thailand. Bats and rats are omitted, so this is not a complete book. The illustrations are superb! Thai names are included. To promote the interest in Thai mammals, Dokmai Garden offers a 30% discount at the nearby Night Safari, if you come and visit us!

This book includes bats and rats as well as mammals from neighbouring countries. The illustrations are made by different artists and are therefore of varying diagnostic value. Scientific and English names are used. My suggestion is that beginners buy Parr’s book, while people with an advanced interest buy both Parr’s and Francis’ books.

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