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Into the jungle with a toothcomb

Forest Department staffers undertake the most important exercise to determine the state of affairs in India’s forests every four years.

Updated: February 23, 2014 9:29:29 am
The 2010 national census put the tiger tally for Tadoba at 43. The 2010 national census put the tiger tally for Tadoba at 43.

IT’S 6 AM, and at the lake-side office of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, at Moharli in Chandrapur,  a team of four Forest Department staffers and two Wildlife Institute of India (WII) volunteers is all set for its rounds.

The team heads for a narrow alley — called line transact 29 — in the Devada 2 beat of the range in two vehicles. Near the alley, they get off and walk along the transact, with labourer Pintu Bisal at the front followed by Forest Guard S B Pendam, Range Forest Officer (RFO) S V Shinde, Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF) C S Reddy and WII volunteers Anil Dasahare and Kaynath Latafat. Pendam carries a range finder and a bearing compass to measure distances and directions and a GPS for coordinates.

The six are among the nearly 1 lakh people involved in perhaps the most important exercise to determine the state of India’s forests. Besides taking stock of flora and fauna, the team will carry out a count of tigers across the country. The exercise, held once every four years, began on January 16.

To cover this stretch of the forest — the tiger reserve is spread over 1,727 sq km — the team will take eight days. The first three days are to check for and count carnivores, and the remaining five for herbivores.

The term “line transacts”, like the one the team is covering, is used for the pathways the animals take, and where chances are high of finding herbivores physically or through signs such as scrape marks, scats and pug-marks.

“We prefer early mornings for the walk as wildlife starts moving around this time after a night’s rest,” says Reddy. It is still dark, the sun barely penetrating through the thick forest canopy, allowing the team to slink into the shade.

The six move slowly, careful not to give their presence away. Along the 2.5 km way, the team spots pug marks of porcupine, Indian gaur, wild boar and deer. They identify scrape marks left by bears on trees by studying their texture and the height of the spot. In case of the rarely seen jungle fowl and palm civet cat, their scat is a giveaway.

Though a transact survey estimates the count of herbivores, there are ample signs of tigers, leopards and other carnivores too in this lane. “They obviously know where the herbivores move,” says Reddy. All the signs are captured on the GPS, compass and range finder and the measurements noted on proforma sheets.

About 1.5 km down the transact, the team suddenly stops, calling for complete silence. “A tiger roar, listen carefully,” says Reddy. Only a trained ear can decipher the sound from a distance.

In the middle, the transact is intersected by a round patch of ‘salt lick’. It is a mine of clues about the animals as they come here to lick that part of the soil which has vital nutritional salts.

RFO Shinde spots a thorn-like thing on the ground and picks it up, surprised. “See, a bamboo flower!” he exclaims. It is a rare sight since bamboo flowers once in over three decades. As they note, the forest here falls in the catergory of “mixed bamboo”.

“Every 400 metres, a 15-metre radius patch from the transact centre is checked for floral varieties. Canopy or open-space density is noted on a 0-1 scale and shrub density on a 0-4 scale. A 2-metre diameter patch about five metres away from the transact is studied to determine the availability of dry grass or leaf litter for the herbivores to graze on,” says Shinde.

Along transact 29, the trackers detect teak, bamboo, garadi, tendu, dhawda, dhoban, etc. The officials also check for human interference, in the form of cutting of branches and cattle dung.

The entire exercise takes about two-three hours. The chances of spotting an animal fall as the sun climbs higher in the sky, and they have to call it a day. Back at the centre, the team tabulates the data collected.

There were no direct sightings today, but Reddy isn’t disappointed. “It does happen at times, particularly when conditions are overcast,” he says. Based on the data collected from the field, WII will set up camera traps in select areas across the country to show tiger presence. This will continue till June.

The 2010 national census put the tiger tally for Tadoba at 43. All eyes are now on what teams like Reddy’s will find.

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