Where passion meets wildlife science – at the line transect

7 months ago 1
Posted in: Blog

Volunteering for this activity comes with a dash of adventure and lots of learning about the jungle.

Being alert, observant and working as a team in noting down the details are part of walking the line © WCS-India/HyTiCos

Dropped before dawn near the start location somewhere inside the forest, my companion, —a veteran transect walker—and I, wait for the pre-determined time before we start walking slowly and quietly along the marked transect line, scanning both sides for animals.

The deciduous forest is alive with the sounds of birds waking up to another day, interspersed with the pitter-patter of dew falling from leaves, but my ears strain to hear the tell-tale sounds of elephants feeding, or a sloth bear shuffling through the undergrowth.  As a first-time transect walker, I am nervous of encountering a dangerous animal, but this very fear keeps me alert.

In hindsight, I need not have worried so much, as my companion had been sent along with me precisely to keep a watch for unpredictable animals such as Asian elephants and sloth bears, and to ensure that we stay out of their way. In fact, to many of these experienced hands, ‘walking the line’ is more of a “divine experience” rather than a scary one! Walking a jungle on foot can also strengthen one’s understanding of a forest, they will tell you.

Experienced transect walkers train themselves to remain alert for the entire couple of hours it takes to complete a transect walk, without letting their attention flag even momentarily, which would be enough to miss a detection, or—far worse—stumble into the path of an elephant herd!

Part of a research methodology adapted by Wildlife Conservation Society in the study of forest ungulates, the line transect survey is a scientific technique conducted on a yearly basis in the forests of India to estimate densities of herbivores. Data is collected in a systematic and scientific way by the participants who are trained in the process over the course of a week.

A healthy herbivore population, besides being a useful monitor of the same, is also an indicator of the carrying capacity of the forest for the carnivores. When matched with tiger numbers obtained from camera trap surveys, there has been found to be good correlation between the two.

Jungles can look deceptively empty © WCS-India/HyTiCos


Walking the jungle and gathering the data is however the first step.  One needs to be physically and mentally fit, with all senses tuned in.  Strangely, more than the elephants or tiger encounters, what puts most people off are the ticks and leeches you can’t easily shake off. Some volunteers never come back! At the Tholpetty camp in Wayanad, last summer there were the young jungle veterans who brave it all and come back for more, year after year.

Led by WCS-India Research Assistant Shivakumar, they scan the jungle for wildlife during what are called popularly in wildlife parlances as ‘line walks’. The number of sightings and number of prey species are jotted down during the 3.2 km walk along a line. Each line is walked by a duo 8-10 times during a span of 10-15 days to get a good estimate. For an entire park/sanctuary it could take more walks across a span of a month. There are 27 lines (actually squares) of 3.2 km each in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and seven lines at the Tholpetty range.

Including volunteers and WCS field assistants, there are around 14 participants. Most are seasoned jungle wayfarers who can sense a tiger’s presence in an area by sniffing out tiger spray scent on a tree trunk or leaf!

Newcomers are briefed on how to walk the line. What to do and what not to do, as this can be very important, especially with elephants or bears. It is best to be alert and see the animal before it senses you and move to a safe distance. The volunteers are also trained in using the equipment and given a good idea of the scientific methodology behind the transect.

Care is taken by WCS to ensure that a new hand is paired with an experienced one. It is to the credit of WCS which has been conducting transects since three decades that there have been no serious mishaps in the field. As the old saying goes among transect volunteers “It is riskier to walk the roads in Bangalore than to walk transects in the forests”. And yet, walking the line is no jay walk!

Maintaining silence is paramount during the walk. No phones or cameras are allowed inside, to ensure that there are no disturbances from the team for the wildlife and the team is not distracted from its main agenda of spotting animals. Clothing has to blend with the landscape and bright colours are not welcome.

Morning begins at 4 am as the camp awakens for quick ablutions. While this one at Begur boasted toilets and beds, most other camps are very basic and offer no luxuries or even comforts.

Dropped at their respective points marked on trees in red paint, each duo started the walk into the jungle at around 6 am. Covering the distance in two hours, they walk very slowly and silently. They keep a distance of three feet between them. The person ahead scans the area directly ahead while the person behind looks to both sides. When a team spots a group of animals, they quickly identify the species, count the number of individuals, and take distance and animal bearing measurements using a laser range finder and a compass respectively, which are used later for statistical analyses. By the end of the two hours, they come back to where they began.

At around 8 am, the assigned drivers started picking up the twosomes. Excited faces usually indicate a large carnivore sighting or the rare pangolin or python. Details of sightings are exchanged between the teams.

Sometimes it can even be an encounter with the more dangerous species that hijacks the conversation — humans. This time around at Tholpetty, Madhu and partner found guns trained on them by police, beckoning them to approach with hands raised. Turned out they were watching out for Maoists in the region.

Back at camp it was time for a healthy, tasty breakfast hustled up by the camp cook Mahadev and assistants. Camp rules are strict and forbid drinking or smoking, something used by folks who want to drop the habits.

Jotting down observations every now and then is part of the job © WCS-India/HyTiCos


After handing back the data sheet with sightings, it was time for a quick nap before lunch. By 3 pm the group starts getting ready for the next set of walks from 4-6 pm. The procedure repeats. By ten, the team is all set to take off the leech socks, boots and call it a night.

Shivakumar was the last to pull up the covers. Going through the sheets, sorting them, making the list for the next day… the line organizer has no small job. But he was not complaining. He is one of the young jungle veterans who can’t have enough of wildlife and wild places.

PS: If you would like to volunteer at line transects, watch out for announcements on wcsindia.org

(Images used here are representational only and are from a different landscape.)

 A version of this article was originally published in the Livemint.)


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