Rare colugo sighted

Bet, our Katu guide, freezes and points into the trees. I try to follow his line of sight, expecting to see a giant black squirrel or a troop of macaques. Or, if we are really lucky, it could be red-shanked douc langur, that color-splashed species that is arguably the most stunning primate on the planet. But I don’t see anything. The canopy is still and quiet: only the droning of a cicada gives life to the forest scene. I look at Bet and ask him what he is pointing to. He surprises me by using a Vietnamese word I have never heard before: chồn bay, which, I think to myself, roughly translates into flying fox. I look and look but still see nothing. Then a lump of bark breaks off from the nearest tree and glides to another trunk. My eyes widen in disbelief. Now, I’m no botanist, my professional training being limited to two short college courses back in my undergrad days, but I do know that trees can’t fly. And so I look again and what I see astounds me: a greyish-brown mottled mammal with a small narrow-pointed head, bulging goggle-like eyes, and talon-tipped feet, all draped in a mass of fuzzy skin that makes it look as if the animal is wearing a fur coat several sizes too big. I wracked my brain: what was this?

Then it hit me like a shot of Katu home-distilled liquor: it was a colugo! Now don’t worry if you’ve never heard of a colugo: I hadn’t either until I started working in Vietnam. The colugo is also known as the Sunda flying lemur (Galeopterus variegatus), even though it is neither a lemur nor capable of true flight. Rather, it is a squirrelish-looking mammal with enormous folds of skin between its legs that allows it to glide from tree to tree. Indeed, the colugo is among the most agile of all gliding mammals, capable of soaring more than 100 meters and even able to maneuver mid-flight. It’s a great way to both access scattered food resources (which includes hard-to-come by fruits) and escape canopy-prowling predators. If evolutionary adaptations were given coolness-points then the colugo would be one of the slickest mammals around.

I just had time to snap a quick photo (attached above) before the colugo parachuted to another tree trunk and out of sight. I couldn’t believe my luck. Seeing this gliding mammal was quite a treat. It was my first sighting in more than three years of work in the jungles of central Vietnam. Under normal conditions the colugo is actually not a very rare animal. But conditions are far from normal in Vietnam: rampant hunting has decimated mammal populations across the country, and the colugo is no exception. In fact, specialized traps, made specifically to target colugo, have all but extirpated it from the jungles of Quang Nam province. And yet there is hope: at least one colugo is out there, sailing through the canopy high above. Let’s hope there are more. I believe there are.


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