"Did you hear that?” said forest guard Panduranga Karwarkar (53) as he rushed to switch off the solar-powered lights outside the Quashi Anti-Poaching Camp (APC) at Kali Tiger Reserve (KTR) in Uttara Kannada district.
“It’s a sloth bear... artificial lights can disturb their movement,” he explained as we strained our ears over the next 15 to 20 minutes to hear the huffing or sniffing of the bear. An eerie silence followed. Torch lights were flashed frenetically but the pitch darkness made it difficult for us to spot the bear.
Sleep was hard to come by that night. The forest watchers had prepared a makeshift bed (an iron cot with my ‘backpack’ serving as the pillow) for me inside one of the 45 APCs in KTR. Also, every sound, even a dog barking, reverberated in my ear as the jungles were quiet and still. Above all, my excitement was keeping me up.
As the first ray of sunlight hit the forest floor, two forest guards, a deputy range forest officer and I set out of the camp. First, to check on any sign of the bear, and next to experience a survey that no other country in the world undertakes on such a massive scale: The tiger census.
To our surprise, we found pugmarks of not just one sloth bear but also its cub. Some seven hours ago, they had drunk water from a stream just 200 metres from the camp. A chill went down my spine... Not sure if it was the bear-effect or the cool breeze and thick fog that had taken over the entire area.
I wanted to follow the bear trail but I was told we had to walk two kilometres in the opposite direction, into the core area of the Castle Rock range in KTR, for the tiger census. Panduranga assured me they will track the pugmarks on return.
Half an hour into our walk, around 7 am, the three forest personnel stood in a line and posed for a selfie on the M-STrIPES (Monitoring System for Tiger-Intensive Protection and Ecology Status) app on a mobile phone provided by the forest department.
“The selfie means we have officially logged into our duty (sic),” said Panduranga. The selfie becomes a record of the number of guards conducting the survey, login date and time, path and more.
The sun started to clear thick fog as the four of us began the 2-km walk armed with nothing but a machete, a tool ‘so sharp’ that even jungle tubers refused to break, I chuckled in my head.
As I started scanning my surroundings to locate a tiger, Dondiba Bammu Kolapte (42) said, “The counting of tigers today is quite advanced compared to when it started.” He has been part of the last three tiger census assessments.
Three surveys, one goal
The tiger census is a combination of a line survey, sign survey and camera trap survey, which the forest personnel are trained for, and which they carry out on predetermined dates.
While the line survey is done on the first three days of the survey, the sign survey is performed on three alternate days in a week. Camera trapping is done over 25 days.
In the line survey, Dondiba explained, they are given a predetermined path of two km in every beat, which is randomly distributed. The path is a straight line that can cut through hills, water bodies, or grasslands. And these ‘foot soldiers’ have to record the presence of animals, mainly herbivores along this line, without deviating much.
“We have not sighted any carnivores during the line survey at KTR this time. But herbivores like chital (spotted deer), sambar deer, Indian gaur, barking deer, birds and snakes are common,” said Dondiba.
They also note down details like how far or close the animal was spotted from the path and at what point, in which direction, and the GPS coordinates. The data is fed into the same M-STrIPES app.
The forest team walks on the same path for three straight days, after which they start the ‘more detailed’ sign survey. It requires them to walk five kilometres every day.
Here, the task is to collect signs of the carnivores, like the tiger, leopard, sloth bear, and mega herbivores like the elephant and Indian Gaur. They intensively search for scats, footmarks, scratch marks on trees and other signs. A majority of the guards are indigenous tribal people, born and brought up in the jungle. So, they can smell the presence of animals, and they know the animal corridor and also mating seasons.
They also need to record the number of water bodies in the area and their quality, and the type of vegetation available to the herbivores among other details.
All this gives them an understanding of the habitat that is supporting the tiger, considered an ‘umbrella species’.
However, it is the camera trapping that is more accurate and helps the foresters to arrive at the exact number of tigers.
Before we proceed, it is important to know that KTR is divided into three blocks for ease of monitoring. The first block includes the Kulgi, Phansoli and Gund ranges, the second block has the Kadra Wildlife and Anshi ranges, and the third block includes the Kumbharwada and Castle rock ranges. The forest is spread across 10,000 sq km approximately and hosts diverse vegetation including deciduous, evergreen, grassland and backwaters (of the Supa dam).
In each range, around 150 camera trap sites have been set up based on the earlier sightings and prospective sightings, typically close to water bodies and caves. At each site, two sensor-based cameras are fitted to capture clear images of the animal moving past it.
Once in five days, the images from these camera traps are collected and segregated using CaTRAT (Camera Trap data Repository and Analysis Tool). The software is powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and segregates the pictures of each animal in separate folders along with information such as latitude/longitude of the animal spotting, time of the recording, name of the range and so on.
The data collected from the camera traps are then sent to Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun for numbering, informed Imran Patel, head of the research centre at KTR and who accompanied me to the Kulgi range. Each tiger is identified by its distinct stripe pattern and assigned a unique identification number, such as KTR T-1. This number helps in tracking a migrating tiger or when it becomes a man-eater or a “cattle thief”.
Men and the wild
On the day of my visit, we did not find any carnivores but only a few jungle babblers, doves, minivets and a pair of grey Indian hornbills.
But all through the two-km walk, the forest guards kept me on tenterhooks, narrating the tales of tigers and leopards. Each one of them had seen at least three black panthers and leopards while only a few, the likes of Panduranaga, had a face-to-face encounter with a hulk-size male tiger in Quashi range.
Ningayya Killedar, deputy range forest officer of the Diggi range, recalled a threatening story from this year’s tiger census. “It was around 6.30 or 7 pm. We were returning from the sign survey. Daylight had almost faded. Our forest guard alerted us of a bear — they can smell the presence of animals. We saw the bear at a distance and flashed light on it. We made a loud noise, drove it away, and began moving towards our camp. But all of a sudden, the bear reappeared and started chasing us. The guards climbed the trees while I ran for my life. After a short distance, the bear gave up and returned to the jungle.”
Another time, Murgesh Kattappa, a forest guard at the Quashi range, had to spend almost two hours on a tree because of an Indian gaur. “I was out on a survey looking for signs of the tiger. A gaur that was happily grazing on the path began running towards me furiously. I jumped onto a tree while it sat under the tree, huffing angrily at me. I made loud noises and threw branches to chase it away. But it turned counter-productive as it grew angrier.”
Mobile network is limited in the jungles but Murgesh got lucky that day. He called the fellow ranger and other guards. But before help could arrive, the gaur walked away and Murgesh ran to his camp.
The tiger might be the king of KTR but it is the sloth bear and elephant that have given these guards many scary moments. They said several villagers living in the 150 hamlets inside KTR have been attacked, injured, and even killed by freaky bears. The prey base for these carnivores is small, which has led to repeated incidents of cattle being killed in these hamlets, Imran informed.
After almost three hours, at 10.20 am, we returned to the camp, exhausted, dehydrated, and blackened by the blazing sun.
For my sake, the foresters decided to have breakfast before we ventured out for the second session of patrolling the forest, their routine job. On other days, they have the first meal of the day past noon.
“Due to the Covid-19 crisis and shortage of funds, the department has terminated services of several forest guards. So, there is nobody at the camp to cook food. Most of the time, we log in to the second part of our job without having breakfast. We eat jungle tubers and fruits on the way,” the forest guards told me.
After having the delicious poha (flattened rice), Panduranga teased me if I was still interested in tracking last night’s sloth bear.
Big cats at KTR
KTR is an important ecosystem. From four tigers recorded during the 2018-19 survey, the numbers have jumped to 22 now – eight males, 12 females, of which, two have three and four cubs each, and two tigers whose sex is yet to be confirmed.
Most tigers have migrated from the jungles of Goa and Maharashtra. They are in the 4-7 age group, and healthy. It is a good sign for reproduction and gene-pooling, informs Imran Patel, head of the research centre at KTR, adding that “KTR can hold five times more than the current tiger population.”
Moreover, as per the last year’s survey, KTR is home to the highest number of leopards in all of the tiger reserves in India – over 200.
What has astonished the forest officers is the sighting of a good number of black panthers, a highly elusive melanistic leopard, in KTR. However, I was not lucky despite wandering into the heart of the jungle for two days. My taxi driver got a darshan of the black panther right in front of his car parked outside the camp.
Tiger census, a timeline
India started counting its tiger population beginning in 2006. The earlier census was based either on the direct sighting of tigers or their pugmarks. This led to discrepancies as many tiger reserves started exaggerating their tiger numbers.
According to Vikaspedia, this prompted the Union government to appoint a Tiger Task Force (TTF), which along with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), suggested countrywide monitoring of tigers and their ecosystems. Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, defined the scientific protocols for it. NTCA, in coordination with state forest departments, NGOs and WII, has been conducting the survey — Status of Tigers, Co-predators, prey and the habit — has been counting tigers once every four years since 2006. However, it was during the 2018-19 survey that WII came up with a robust method of counting the tigers, also making use of camera trapping. The new method also studies its habitat and co-dwellers, especially the leopards, elephants, and other large herbivores.
Different states begin the census on different dates but the line and sign surveys are carried out between December and February.
In Karnataka, the tiger census ran from January 15 to the end of February this year.
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