Tiger Census is a week long quadrennial event conducted all over India at the same time. A total of 5,00,000 sq.kms area – 17 states- 40,000 forest beats to be covered with 2000 personnel pulled in to count an estimated 1700 tigers nationwide. The event was scheduled from 16-Dec-13 to 23-Dec-13. With 2 days of training, the census will be done in 2 parts. The 1st 3days will mainly concentrate on tracking the carnivore population(including tigers, leopards etc) through critical carnivore trails and the next 3 days will be through specified transact lines identified to count the herbivores and evaluate the healthiness of the carnivore habitat.
The public can participate based on an online application and selection procedure. It is purely voluntary wherein, 1 volunteer will be accompanied by 2 forest guards and allocated a specific beat inorder to spot the mighty one with the stripes..!! The forest department would provide bare minimum logistics (read it food) However, beddings need to be carried by the volunteers themselves 🙂
So all said and done, I was shortlisted as a volunteer for Kallahalla Wildlife Range in the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve. Last minute preparations, arguments with folks for permission, hunt for a notary for getting the indemnity bond attested.. I was all done and all set for the LONG week ahead 🙂
Day 1: After getting misguided by google maps a couple of times, I had arrived at the forest office in Kallahalla by noon. After the enrollment formalities were done, there was a small briefing for the volunteers about the do’s and don’ts in the forest. We were not in a luxury campsite, we had to remember and be alert always. We were then directed to the camp to grab some rest before the hectic week ahead 🙂
The camp itself was in the middle of the national park that boasts of the highest density of tigers in India. The shelter we had to look upto during our next few days was an old abandoned 3 BHK house which once served as a forest staff quarters. Now, there laid only the walls and a thatched roof with no doors, no electricity and no phone connectivity. We would have the privilege of being greeted by wild animals at our door step every morning and reptiles creeping in to the living room every now and then. We did not have to be surprised even if one fine morning, the tiger himself waved a ‘Hai’ at us while sitting on the porch.. The only things that we had with us to protect ourselves were our sleeping bags, camouflage clothing, trekking boots, torches and some insect repellents. That evening, we opted to sit out in the open, under the clear starry sky until the biting cold of the December night froze us. It was just a day past full moon 🙂
Day 2: We all assembled by 6.00.a.m in front of our camp where I was introduced to Mr.Swamy & Chikkanna. They were the guards who would accompany me through the due days ahead. Chikkanna was a ‘Kaadu Kuruba’ tribal person. He could recognize the forest with just it’s sounds and smell. He knew every grain and twig in the forest. Swamy was a Bachelor’s in Biology. Chikkanna’s role was to manage the team with the survival skills for the deep jungle and help identify things with their local names. Swamy would then document everything with the local and their scientific names. And me? I was a general public, getting aware of various aspects of forestry and the habitat census procedure itself.
Mr.Swamy saved the camp as the reference point in his GPS and the three of us marched towards our beat. We stopped by every now and then to make a note of the different animal scats that we found along our way. Also, the forest grass cover, vegetation, commercial trees, medicinal plants, herbs, shrubs, every thing were recorded. The scat samples that we collected in small sachets included those of wild cat, barking deer, rabbits, sambars, spotted deers, bears etc. along with that of the tiger as well.. Further ahead, as we marched a few kilometres into the thicket, we reached a small bit of moist land. We spotted aleast a dozen of jungle fowls around there. We walked around the place and noted fresh pug marks of a tiger mother & a cub who had just dropped by, to quench their thirst. We proceeded further and the sight I encountered next needs a special mention. Atleast 50 parakeets emerged out of a small bush when I walked by. It was truly Awesome 🙂 I cursed myself several times for not being able to identify the innumerable bird species I came across all the way. We saw a tree-full of langurs, Malabar giant squirrels and sambars. We encountered a pack of wild dogs(dholes) who surely were upto a well laid strategy. However, the day soon ended without any major direct sighting of the tiger.
Day 3: Another day, filled with anxiety began at 6.00.a.m. We were greeted at the entrance of the transact line by some wild hogs. The 2km stretch of the transact was covered without any sightings apart from elephant dung all the way. Further downhill, we saw fresh tiger scat and I had already started to crib about having missed a glimpse of the striped beast by a few minutes 😦 Peacocks, barking deers peeked into our way at times. We then grabbed some wild berries from one of the trees along our way. We consumed it only after it was okayed as ‘Safe for consumption’ by Chikkanna.
When we continued our walk further, Chikkanna stopped us suddenly and asked us to stay still for a while. He pointed- “Elephant..!!” He concentrated on the sound and again said- “There are 2..!!” Within moments, we heard the thumping sound of the elephants moving towards us.. 100mts.. 50mts.. 10 mts.. SHIT.. We saw them both right there.. “RUN…”Chikkanna commanded.!! The three of us just ran… and the elephant mother & calf duo followed us… We ran.. they ran.. We ran further. “TREE..” Chikkanna pointed. And we three climbed and reached the top of the tree within seconds. (It is unbeleivable how you end up doing things that you have never done before, when it is for life.. I had never climbed a tree before. Atleast not one this high..!!) The duo continued towards us. Swamy grabbed a few crackers from his bag and lit them one by one. After bursting 5-6 crackers, the elephant duo decided to spare us. Although petrified a little bit at my first near death adventure, I descended the tree and continued our walk further.
We passed by something that looked like a tiger’s den with few bones stranded here and there. We reached Kiggere- the tropical moist deciduous part of the forest. It is a grassland, where we saw herds of spotted deers grazing all around. We rested there for a while and feasted on the fruits that we had collected along our way. The second leg of the day continued here on, towards Kebbekatte.
Climbers, creepers, bushes, thorns- we waded them all.. and suddenly pug marks appeared from nowhere. “The tiger has just walked down to the watering hole-200mts down the line(Kebbekatte), we might be lucky“- Chikku said. “Shh..” followed an alarming sound. “It’s a tusker.!! He is close..” We looked around and couldn’t find any trees this time. We real7sed that we were stranded between an elephant chase. Swamy reached out to his supervisor over the walkie-talkie to inform him of our status. He was informed that we were stuck midway and it was not possible for help to reach us from either ends of the beat. Without an option, Swamy lit a couple of crackers this time. And, we were all releived for getting lucky again, for the 2nd time.. We then walked towards Kebbekatte. It was an unfortunate day for us as we had just scared the tiger away which was spotted by the other beat who had arrived there before us.
Day 4: My heart kept thumping a little harder than usual. I felt a bit nervous while I was heading towards the jungle. My fingers were crossed all the way hoping to have no more adventures. I felt it was okay even if I did not spot a tiger, but wanted to reach back alive and kicking. I kept walking blindly behind Chikkanna who lead Swamy and me. We had to literally find our way out of the bushes which had overgrown all of us, blinding our way further. We could not even see if a tiger sat by, snarling at us. I heaved a sigh of releif when I got the 1st glance of the Kiggere grassland. the 1st part of the beat was accomplished, peacefully..!! Chikkanna moved into the bushes to answer the nature’s call. And so did Swamy, behind another one. I was trying to pacify my thumping heart standing all alone in the meadow. Tigers are mostly spotted in open grasslands, I had read. Then, on hearing the trumpet of an elephant, Chikkanna emerged out of the bush. He signaled Swamy to join us asap. He explained to us that the tusker was calling for a fight and is moving towards Baalekatte(our route further). We walked ahead slowly along the same route. Suddenly, Swamy pointed out to our right and screamed- “Run Run… its a Herd.. Herd..
It took few seconds for Chikkanna & me to believe our eyes. We had forgotten to look out in other directions while we were concentrating on the lone tusker. About 10-12 gigantic pachyderms were marching towards us, at a distance of barely 20mts from us… We three started to run… Chikkanna shouted- “The tusker & the herd, both are heading towards Baalekere, let us run towards Doddkere“. We three ran..
Tadan…. Another tusker stood right infront of us…. We three were surrounded by these pachyderms from 3 sides.. Chikkanna and Swamy ran.. I followed them.. While the two were running much ahead of me, I got entangled in between a thick bunch of creepers. “F**K… This is it..!!” I thought. But, I saw god in disguise running towards me with a dagger in his hand and free me out of the tangle. It was Chikkanna. After running for a distance, he had turned back to check on me. On noticing that I wasn’t there, he had come back.
The monsters were close, we continued to run.. I again tripped over a snake that crossed my leg.. I leaped over and continued to run. Meanwhile, Swamy had lit a few crackers and planted them along the way. Out of 6 odd something crackers, only one bursted. The sound was good enough to shoo the tuskers away.. We continued to run and reached the safe confines of a tree trunk on the otherside of Kebbekatte lake.
After a short while, we met the group from the other beat and headed towards Sulekere along with them. This was the last option we had, to catch a glimpse of the striped monster. We waited there for a long while hoping for him to come there to drink some water. We saw bisons and other animals walking in there, but hard luck- we could not spot a TIGER 😦
And thus ended our tryst with the wild.. The pug marks were all accounted which will be matched with the camera images captured by NCTA and a compiled report will be out in a few months’ time 🙂
Whether it was my chase of the ‘Tiger trail’ or if it was ‘Me getting chased for being in the elephant trail’, I don’t know. But what I’m certain was ‘The Chase’ was over..
Well wait, did I say the chase ended? No wait, our adventure followed us all the way to Bangalore and stayed with me for atleast another month. You’d be excited to know…. Read Part TWO!