Animals do the most amazing things. Read about them in this series by Janaki Lenin.
The killers were cute, cuddly and beady-eyed. They weighed no more than three kilograms each, and together, they killed a seven-kilogram rhesus macaque. In the gathering dusk of a December evening in Corbett National Park, a group of birders came upon the final stage of the attack on the monkey.
For those not on FB this from our Dec India tour. A Rhesus Macaque killed by 2 Yellow-throated Martens. Unsurpassed for me in stirring emotions. Pics taken in poor light don’t do justice as we watched for 30 minutes at 10m as Martens stalked, incapacitated & killed the Monkey. pic.twitter.com/QTCWkwxJWD
— Chris Mills (@Norfolkbirding) January 9, 2018
People trekking and living in the Himalayan foothills often see the weasel-like yellow-throated martens bounding across the road or vanishing into the undergrowth. But pound for pound, they are among the feistiest predators, taking on animals much bigger than themselves. Although small, the species is the largest marten in the Old World.
Yellow-throated martens climb trees after prey. In Pakke Tiger Reserve, Arunachal Pradesh, Aparajita Datta, a biologist at Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, said their field staff watched martens kill a hapless chick of a great Indian hornbill sealed within its tree-hollow nest. But the mammals don’t go after sitting ducks alone. They can shinny up or down straight tree trunks and bounce from branch to branch after more active prey – like pheasants.
They are equally nimble on the ground, racing after fleet-footed prey. Datta and her colleagues watched three martens hunt an adult female barking deer in Namdapha Tiger Reserve, Arunachal Pradesh. They write the predators constantly communicated with each other throughout the chase.
“On first hearing their single-note whistles, an assistant plucked a fresh leaf and made a high-pitched sound: within a minute, the deer almost ran into us, followed by the martens, which came from three different directions separated from each other by 5 m. The deer on detecting us changed direction and was followed by the martens. Whether they caught the deer was not determined.”
The barking deer isn’t the largest animal they go after. S. Sathyakumar, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, observed one pair chasing a full-grown 70-kilogram male Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) at Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Uttarakhand. He writes in the Indian Forester in 2006 that he watched a pair pursue an alpine musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster) in the same area, and later, one solitary marten go after two Himalayan gorals (Naemorhedus goral). He didn’t know what became of the ungulates, but he said in an email that he had no doubt the martens were successful because they can outrun their prey. These predators also sneak into the musk deer breeding centre at Kanchula Kharak, near Kedarnath, and kill some captive animals from time to time.
Yellow-throated martens occupy a broad swathe of terrain from northwest Pakistan, across the Himalaya, to China, Russia, and Korea, equally at home in temperate and tropical forests. Mammals of the Soviet Union, published in 1967, says they thrive on musk deer in winter by driving them on to smooth ice or snow. “In 1936, on the Armu and Nantsa rivers, over a distance of 200 km, the carcasses of 26 musk deer killed by kharzas [Russian for yellow-throated martens] were found (one per 7.7 km); in 1952, along the Sitsa river – four per 30 km.”
In China, rangers in Sichuan Province found an adult giant panda with its stomach ripped open by a pair of these predators, abandoning it because access to the cave was difficult. Although rescued and taken in for emergency medical surgery, it died a few days later.
The yellow-throated marten’s southern relative, the Nilgiri marten, is no pushover either. Several people recount observing a pair or more chasing down and feasting on mouse deer. James Zacharias, a retired Kerala Forest Department officer, recounts an incident observed by one of his field staff in Periyar Tiger Reserve. A mouse deer escaped from a group of three or four martens by leaping into a pool. The predators tried to attack it from overhanging branches and gave up only because some people came that way.
If martens have the gumption to take on such large prey, bringing down a rhesus macaque shouldn’t be a problem. But macaques typically live in troops, and when a predator attacks one of their mates, the rest rush aggressively to its aid. Besides, these primates have canines of formidable size. For all these reasons, few predators mess with these creatures.
Kaberi Kar Gupta, a primatologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, thought the macaque looked sick. It appeared to have no fight left in it nor did it make any attempt to flee.
“I am not sure it was sick,” Chris Mills, who posted the photographs, replied to a query on Facebook. “It was a very determined attack; the Martens took turns. After 15 mins, they had it pinned but had to let go, but I think they knew and they were patient, the Macaque daren’t try & run. The Martens [were] always looking to bite to the back of the neck. It was brutal.”
Since the birders arrived late, they weren’t sure how the attack began or what became of the troop. Kar Gupta estimated it was an older male from the testes, teeth, and the colour of the fur. “[It] probably was alone as sometimes macaque males are.”
In Systematic Review of the Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta), Jack Fooden of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, lists weasels as a predator.
If tiny weasels, generally weighing less than one kilogram, can bring down these macaques, is it any surprise that martens can? Fooden quotes the work done by Raghubir Singh Pirta of Utkal University and Mewa Singh, a primatologist at the University of Mysore, in the Shiwaliks, where they ran behavioural experiments on young captive macaques. Singh told The Wire weasels prey on such youngsters that are unprotected by adults.
Mills added that his guide of 20 years had once seen martens attack a macaque but didn’t see the outcome. As reports by Datta and Sathyakumar also show, few people witness how such hunts end, which makes this an important observation. Another person, Chris Bradshaw, commented on Mills’ post that in 2003, he had seen a group of three or four martens hunt and kill a macaque at Sattal, near Bhimtal, Uttarakhand. Perhaps macaques have to reckon with these diminutive but fearsome predators more often than anyone realises. Mewa Singh doesn’t think so. He says such instances are likely to be rare or occasional.
In another instance, a pair attacked a grey langur that seemed to be helpless against their assaults. Like a mongoose taking on a hooded cobra, one of the martens circles the tired primate. This is another primate with massive canines that lives in troops. How this encounter ended is also uncertain.
Mills felt “[a] very mixed set of emotions throughout, hard to now put into words. I remember being amazed, awestruck, edgy, slightly upset & then relieved when it was finished. Glad it played out naturally without anyone affecting the situation.”
People not exempt
Yellow-throated martens aren’t ones to give up their pursuit of prey even if they get hurt. In Namdapha, Datta and her team saw one go for a wasp nest, about two metres off the ground. The weasel-like animals’ fur is not impervious to stings.
“Every time the animal was stung, it fell to the ground only to climb again and continue foraging on the wasp larvae,” they write.
Yellow-throated martens attack beehives with equal gusto, eating honey and grubs. Besides their maniacal attacks on large animals, they often plunge their heads into flowers to drink nectar and gorge on figs when they are in season.
If martens can fearlessly take on aggressive animals, do people walking in these forests have anything to fear? Generally, the animals disappear when they encounter humans, but at least one community fears them.
“The Muduvans of the high country are dead scared of the animal,” says Zacharias. “They say [Nilgiri] martens come in large numbers and chase them off their resource – honey!”
Even the much-larger wolverines of the cold expanses of Siberia, northern Europe and North America that have an outsized reputation for pugnacity do not take on humans. Yellow-throated martens may possess melt-your-heart looks but their badass attitude and stamina in bringing down large prey seems to have been underestimated.
Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals. She lives in a forest with snake-man Rom Whitaker and tweets at @janakilenin.