Coffee plantations shelter some elusive small mammals of the Western Ghats, providing an additional home to many nocturnal mammals too. During the monsoon, when the forests of the Western Ghats are bubbling with macro fauna, I usually spend a good bit of time at my favourite places, like Honey Valley in Coorg.  During one such trip last monsoon, while chatting with Honey Valley’s owner, Suresh, he mentioned seeing a mongoose that was quite bigger and darker than a regular mongoose. From his description, I was sure that it was the Brown Mongoose, a forest mongoose with restricted range within the Western Ghats. Inquisitive, I asked him about the other species he witnesses in his plantation. He mentioned that Nilgiri Martens were regular visitors in the 1990s, when Honey Valley was the largest producer of honey in India. Curiosity now piqued, I made up my mind to carry out a camera trap project for a couple of months post-monsoon; Suresh was more than willing to help me out in all possible ways.

By September 2018, when the monsoon had slowed down, I made my first recce trip to explore the area. For three consecutive days, Suresh took me around every nook and corner of his plantation and the surrounding non-cultivated secondary forest.  His expertise in botany resulted in a lot of learning for me during these walks. We also looked around for tracks and signs left behind by the animals he usually sights.

During almost six months from mid-September 2018 to March 2019, we setup 4 camera traps at 7 different locations. We chose camera trap locations such as fallen tree logs over streams creating natural bridges, forest trails used by animals, along forest streams, and even one set-up above the ground on dangling tree vines.  We were successful in photographing small mammals at 5 of these locations. Considering the less-than-2 area we covered during this project, the number of species documented reiterated the fact that a lot of wildlife does exist outside of forest areas.

Since coffee’s arrival in India in the 17th Century —in Chikmagalur, Karnataka, to be precise—it was planted across suitable regions like Coorg (Kodagu) in the Western Ghats, causing large-scale deforestation.

Coorg’s coffee harvest calendar is confined to a few months each year: November to January for the Arabica variety, and December to April for the Robusta variety, these being the commercial varieties cultivated. Here, workers are spreading fresh, hand-picked coffee berries for sun drying.

Drying the coffee berries takes 10-12 days, and is done by evenly spreading the harvest under the sun and stirring/raking from time to time for uniform exposure. Cemented drying yards are made to ensure uniform and quick drying. These almost-dry coffee berries at Honey Valley have turned dark brown.

Since our target species were smaller mammals, and with no large mammals in our project area anyway, I experimented with soft-boxes and umbrellas for lighting, which are otherwise not possible to use in camera trap set-ups in forests.

Setting up camera traps targeting specific species requires a thorough understanding of the species’ behaviour and habitat.

Testing the trigger and functioning of a camera trap is essential.

The most photographed species was our main target: Brown Mongoose. Brown Palm Civets were also regularly captured. A pleasant surprise was a family of Small-clawed Otters, which used the stream to move upstream and downstream in search of food. Our biggest disappointment was the Leopard Cat, which visited the plantation, but got just half its body in the camera trap’s frame, twice. And yes, the elusive Nilgiri Marten remained elusive.

Suresh deserves to be thanked for this project, and also the staff at Honey Valley, especially Rohit, who took care of the equipment in my absence. Without their inputs and support, it would not have been possible to capture such rare beauties of our Western Ghats. 

Brown Mongoose (Herpestes fuscus), is a large, stocky forest mongoose from the hills of southern India.  It is a rarely photographed species, with very little information documented about it.

Brown Mongoose is a secretive nocturnal carnivore. It breeds in burrows or below tree roots, making it even more difficult to sight. A mongoose triggering this above-ground camera trap was exciting.

A Brown Mongoose pair near a stream at Honey Valley.

Small-clawed Otter (Amblonyx cinereus) is the smallest otter found in India. It is a nocturnal species and found in the forest streams of the Himalayan foothills or in the hills of South India. This seemed to be a family with parents and two young ones, emerging out of the water.

Brown Palm Civet or Jerdon’s Palm Civet (Paradoxurus jerdoni) is endemic to the rainforests of the Western Ghats. It is nocturnal, known to hide in tree hollows during the day.  Although omnivorous, it is predominantly frugivorous, hence playing an important role in seed dispersion.

A Brown Palm Civet triggering a camera trap near a stream at Honey Valley.

Small Indian Civet (Viverricula indica) is a civet native to South and Southeast Asia. It is mainly nocturnal and generally terrestrial, but can climb well if needed.

Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) is a small wild cat native to South, Southeast and East Asia. Being primarily nocturnal, secretive and elusive in nature, it has rarely been documented. The camera traps at Honey Valley produced heartening glimpses of the presence of the Leopard Cat, and this image is from another camera trapping exercise in a nearby region.