Counting tigers in Mudumalai no walk in the park

May 4th, 2008 - 12:06 pm ICT by admin  

(To go with Three states, four forest reserves, how many tigers?)
By Papri Sri Raman
Coimbatore, May 4 (IANS) This year, the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary is encouraging school kids to spot a tiger. Yet, a tiger sighting here can be the rarest of rare experiences. Last year 130,000 visitors came to the Mudumalai sanctuary, about 400 km southwest of Tamil Nadu capital Chennai. The sanctuary is believed to hold 80 tigers. But finding them can be an arduous task, as 23-year-old Tarsh Thekaekara, who teaches tribal children in a Gudalur school on the outskirts of Mudumalai, found out.

Brought up in the shadows of the forest, Tarsh has taken part in the wildlife census here for the last two years.

For the counting, Mudumalai forest is divided into 18 “beats” - small areas that use natural landmarks like rivers, roads, ridges as boundaries.

One forest watcher, one forest guard and one or more anti-poaching watcher (APW) guard each beat. One or two volunteers are assigned to each beat for the census.

Tarsh’s three-day tiger counting experience began on March 6 with a training session by the wildlife warden and expert scientists.

“The training covered a code of conduct, data collection methodology (including details of the different surveys to be undertaken), need for sensible clothing, emergency information and an overview of the forest.” Food was carried. The counting began at about 6 a.m. and went on till 5 p.m., each team walking about 18 km through the forest.

Tarsh’s diary says: “The first day we looked for carnivore signs (and sightings if you were lucky!). These included kills (carcasses), scrap marks, rake marks, pugmarks and scat. Whenever any sign is found, it has to be filled into a given form, along with the time and place.” A painstaking job in total silence. Under these circumstances, a wild boar may sound like a tiger to the trembling novice!”

On the second day, hoofed animals were counted along pre-defined line transects through the forest. “One person had to walk along the line and on every sighting, note the perpendicular distance from the line, the species and number of animals.”

This is a statistical method. Two kilometre (sometimes even four km) lines (transects) are drawn on the map of the forest, and the undergrowth cut through at various intervals.

Based on the number of animals seen along these specified transects, the overall population of each species is calculated. “So even not seeing anything is important data.” Tigers are almost never seen, elephants sometimes.

All the groups have to do the transect sighting at the same time of the day.

On the third day Tarsh’s team had to do a pellet and elephant dung count. “We had to walk along the transect and make a note of each pile of elephant dung we could see on either side of the line. We also had to note the perpendicular distance from the line, and the state of decomposition or age of the dung.

“In addition, every 400 metres, we had to mark out a 40-sq m area and count all the pellets we found in that area. This included the number of pellets of each species. It was often in the range of 200-500 pellets!”

The forest is full of lantana and undergrowth and it is almost impossible to get a clear 40-sq m area and count the pellets accurately.

It’s a tough job, but the volunteers are all praise for the APWs, especially those from the local tribes. The APWs are “very knowledgeable about their beats”, Tarsh said, recalling his experience in 2007.

“On the last census, Ravi, our APW, told me in the morning that there were no elephants in our area. We just walked around aimlessly all day.

“On the second day, we walked by a river for about half a kilometre, when Ravi said two herds had crossed into our beat. By 9 a.m. he took us to both the herds, we counted them and were done for the day.”

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