Seasoned ‘Warriors of the Wild’
Despite tough conditions under which they work, they plod on and face the most daunting prospects with calmness and courage.
Temperatures are a blazing 40 deg C. The dry, deciduous forest landscape is stark and offers not much shade from the sun’s relentless scorching. Often it feels like the hot air from a hair dryer is directed onto the face, in the words of one volunteer. Added to that there is the terrain which comes with flat grounds neatly embedded with small, round boulders making walking a balancing act. The land will suddenly dip at a steep incline or stop abruptly at a deep gorge or ravine, sometimes echoing with the roar of a tiger.
It is in such tough conditions at the Amrabad Tiger Reserve that teams of research assistants and field staff of WCS-India/HytiCos have been working since early this year. Part of an annual wildlife survey done to monitor tiger numbers as per NTCA guidelines, this includes counting prey species and carnivores. The monitoring is done in collaboration with the Telangana forest department.
The reserve in south Telangana falls in the Nagarkurnool district and was earlier a part of Mahbubnagar district. With the annual rainfall less than 700 mm and drought a common occurrence, this region located on a rocky plateau is hot and dry for a large part of the year. In fact, one of the explanations for the rock-spewed surface is a weathering down of the volcanic boulders by the heat.
The flora mostly belongs to the tropical dry deciduous variety, with most trees shedding leaves in winter and summer. Palm scrubs and grasslands intersperse the landscape. Among the wildlife that occupy the land are the tiger, leopard, langur, dhole, giant squirrel, wild pig, nilgai, sambar, spotted deer, porcupine, tree shrew, sloth bear, jungle cat, hare, four-horned antelope, palm civet, etc.
Setting up cameras at vantage points is the first step in the survey. These cameras with in-built sensors that can detect presence of a moving object up to 10 metres distance are put up in pairs to capture both flanks of the object/animal. At ATR, 220 locations have been chosen for the cameras. The work is almost over. The cameras will be in place for two months, and the images retrieved every fortnight.
While the cameras are used to obtain tiger images, the line transect walks are meant to manually count the prey species in the area. A computer program lays out square samplers, called ‘lines’ all across the reserve area. At ATR there are 26 lines totally. Walking these ‘lines’ of 3.2 km, eight times each during the course of about a month, a good estimate of the prey numbers will be obtained. The teams of two each will cover the distance of 3.2 kms in two hours, walking slowly and noiselessly in order not to scare away (or attract!) any animal.
But even before the cameras can start clicking away or the line walkers note down the nilgai or sambar or wild pig, there is the arduous work of remarking the path. During line markings, 4-5 members go into the forest, armed with red paint, brush and a sickle. Not to forget lugging cans of water! In the scorching heat, dehydration walks in step with anyone daring to venture out. Following the direction using GPS-enabled sets, the teams go about marking the path and painting a red patch on tree trunks every few metres. This ensures that the duo who will walk the path later does not get lost or spend too much time in looking for the path. Minimal clearing of the path ensures that the walk is done sans too much noise. Sometimes, the landscape calls for more walk as vehicles cannot access the drop point.
In sloth bear country, the fear aspect is pretty clear. While the absence of elephants does take away another uncertainty aspect, the alert is on high for sloth bears, believed to be especially aggressive in this landscape. Even a wild pig on the run can have unwanted impacts on a bystander.
Marking the lines, or re-tracing them as done in ATR this season, can take some time especially when undertaken in summer. But once that is done, then it is time for the staff and volunteers to set forth and bring in the data. Volunteers come in a mixed lot, with some who have done this kind of walks many times, and some others who have no clue whatsoever. A clear distinction has to be made from trekking in the forests, which mostly calls for endurance and some alertness. Here, on the lines, attention can never flag, for it can mean a few sightings lost or a run-in with a bear.
Fatalities from bear attacks are few but the victims can be left maimed for life. Often, there is contradicting advice given on how to act in a run-in with a sloth bear. Drop dead as in the famous childhood stories all of us have read, or run zig zag, or shout and wave it away? As with any wildlife, the best response is often one picked up from long years of experience. At WCS-India, some of the staff have been doing this kind of field work since decades.
In the ATR terrain, sloth bears compete with locals for mahua and honey, but experts will tell you that attacks happen only when the animal is alarmed or threatened. Having poor eyesight and hearing, the sloth bear often chances upon humans in the very last moment. This is why the Corbett Foundation advises people not to travel solo in bear land and if doing so to make loud noises to alert the animal.
But, when walking the line, making loud noises is not advised! The next best solution to stay out of danger would be to make sure one sees the bear before it sights the duo.
During this season of line walk in ATR, sloth bears have been sighted at as close as 28 metres and were in no hurry to attack! Describing a recent incident, Srikanth Rao notes that a small cub was riding piggyback on the mother bear, just 38 metres away from the line duo. Close by was another bear with two sub-adults. The line-walkers remained unharmed to tell the tale.
“When we saw the first one, the mother bear was hidden in the grass and it was only the cub we could see. As usual while on lines, we try to see the animal before it sees us. We stood still for a few minutes. The bear seemed to sense something and was staring in our direction. Given the poor eyesight, it started to come closer, all the while sniffing. Fortunately, the wind was blowing from the bear towards us and it could not smell us. Finally, after 3-4 minutes, having decided that there was no danger, it moved on.
“This was similar to sightings we have had in the Western Ghats. Yes, bears may be more aggressive than other animals, especially when with cubs, but thanks to our training from mentors, we have learnt to see animals before they see us, and also to learn from their behaviour. Hence, the much feared ‘aggressive’ sloth bear of the Eastern Ghats still eludes me!” he says.
Leopard for company
A day after, it was the leopard who gave the duo company on the line. “We could hear the leopard, though not see it, for almost half the duration of the line walk.” If that isn’t incentive and reward enough for volunteering in sizzling ATR, nothing can be.
The teams at ATR have seen dhole packs feasting on a sambar kill, a dhole pair giving a spotted deer a chase, and so on. It is when out on a “tough line” with steep descents and surrounded by palm scrubs (favoured by the bears) that life can seem unfair as noted by a volunteer. “We saw almost nothing while sweating it out on the line. Would any animal take such arduous routes??” he asked, wondering if there was sense in walking such lines.
Perhaps, if one is on a wildlife jaunt, it makes no sense. But on a scientific survey which seeks to estimate prey availability across the entire landscape, even ravines and gorges make a difference, the experts will tell you.
As a volunteer on line transects in such difficult terrains, one needs to have an abiding respect for wildlife and wild spaces, besides being fit in body and mind. The research assistants and field staff at WCS-India fit the bill. A dedicated lot, who are wedded to the wilderness, they truly are ‘warriors of the wild’.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 26th, 2019 at 8:36 PM
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