Monday, January 23, 2006

In search of a Tiger

Narayan and I participated in a tiger census conducted by the forest department at Balle near Kabini. We were there for 4 days, trekking through the forest in search of pug marks, scat and prey animals (deer, sambar, wild boars, elephants etc.). We worked with the RFO (Range forest officer), Mr. Ravindra Kumar and few of his forest guards. Here’s a brief description of my experience during those 4 days.

Counting tigers in the wild

Well, it’s not an easy task. Chances of spotting a tiger in the wild are very low. A tigers' stripes may look striking in a zoo, but in the wild, it’s very well camouflaged. The thick vegetation of the south Indian jungles makes it a lot more difficult to spot one. We were in the jungle for 4 days, but weren’t lucky enough to see a tiger.

The census is conducted for a period of 6 days. There are 2 parts to it :- 1) Trek for about 5 -10 kms in the forest searching for tiger pug marks, scat and scratch marks on the barks of trees. 2) Walk along line transects of 2.4 kms, stopping at every 400m to note down the kind of vegetation, scat and sighting (if any) of prey animals. With this data, (i.e looking at the approximate number of prey animals) the forest department tries to estimate the number of tigers it could support, and also the distribution of tigers in various parts of the forest. This is nothing more than an informed guess and by no means an absolute number (or even close) of tigers in the wild.

Radio tracking tigers in the wild has been tried by conservation scientists like Dr. Ullas Karanth in various parts of India. Although this sounds to be a viable solution for counting tigers, it has a few problems :- 1) Catching tigers in the wild is a very difficult task in itself .. 2) A more serious problem is tranquilizing a tiger when seen. If the dosage is too little, it doesn’t serve its purpose; if it’s too much, it could be fatal. The forest guards told us that a few tigers had died due to excessive dosage. Hence, it’s not a widely used method to count tigers, although, it has been used to study individual tigers.

Another method worthy of mention is camera trapping. In this method, an automatically triggered camera is strapped to a tree. Whenever any animal moves in front of the camera, it fires and captures a snap of the animal. Since the pattern of stripes on each individual tiger is unique (much like the human fingerprints), these pictures can give us some idea about the number of tigers in the wild. But again, this method had its own problems :- 1) to setup camera traps at multiple sites in the forest proves to be expensive. 2) Large mammals (elephants) get disturbed when the flash fires and they attack the camera, breaking it into pieces. 3) It doesn’t necessarily photograph all the tigers in the wild.

Due to these problems, the first method is preferred and is widely used all over India to count tigers.

Challenges faced by the forest department

1) Habitat destruction:- A lot of tribals still live within the forest. They depend on the forest for their very existence – wood, food (basically meat), water etc. The forest department is trying their best to relocate them to the outskirts of the forest by providing them agricultural land and shelter.

A lot of villages surround the forest. The villagers have been cutting down the forests and converting it to agricultural land over the years. They graze cattle at the edges of the forest which eat most of the grass required for the survival of herbivores in the forest. Most of the poachers come from these villages. Since they have easy access to the forest, these poachers’ setup traps to capture deer meat, tiger skin, elephant tusks etc. (In the images below, you can see the paw bones of a tiger which was caught in one of these traps. Click on the image for a bigger picture.)

2) Finance:- The forest dept. is severely short of funds. Some officials mentioned that they couldn’t afford diesel to run their jeeps!! These jeeps / forest vehicles are old and in very bad shape. They don’t have sufficient funds to setup camera traps or procure GPS units to navigate within the forest.

Call for Help

Narayan and I spoke with the RFO about the kind of problems they face and how we could help them. We had no answers for many questions that he put forward --- “Why should we (i.e. the forest officials) put our lives at risk to protect these forests? We don’t get paid well enough, we have no social/family life and the living conditions/facilities aren’t great.”

This RFO (Mr. Ravindra kumar) had worked with Dr. Ullas Karanth at Nagarhole, helping him research the behavior and habitat of tigers. He has shot dead a poacher while a group of them were trying to steal deer meat from the forest (Read the full story here). We (Narayan and I) found him to be a very helpful, sensible, well educated and practical person and a great nature/wildlife enthusiast.

After spending 4 days/nights in the forest, living and working with the forest guards, I’m highly impressed (and moved) by dedication and interest that they’ve shown in protecting whatever is left of these Indian jungles. I’m thinking of ways to help them financially, but I alone can’t do much. I don’t know how many of you guys out there are interested in contributing to this cause, but if you are even remotely interested please do leave a comment or mail/IM me and I’ll try and get in touch with you.

PS :- 1) The paw bones that you see in the picture above belong to a tiger named “Maasti”. Maasti still survives (with only 3 paws) and is taken care of at Bannerghatta zoo, Bangalore.

2) I’ll upload the pictures (about 300 of them) as soon as possible.