An official ban on carrying cameras and other digital equipment into the forests has caused a steep decline in the number of volunteers registering for the upcoming December 2013 tiger census in the worlds most populous tiger belt spanning parts of Karnataka,Tamil Nadu and a bit of Kerala.
We have banned all types of equipment like cameras and cellphone cameras,and we are contemplating banning cellphones too, said G S Prabhu,Karnatakas principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife). Volunteers have to sign a document to this effect,this is serious work.
Following the ban,only 500 applications have trickled in for the 7,000 volunteering spots available for the eight-day,mid-December census.
In contrast,there was a huge rush of volunteers for the 2010 tiger census. Software engineers took off from work,students skipped college and people flew in from other cities and even overseas. Some of these enthusiastic volunteers rampaged through the deep forests otherwise inaccessible to tourists shooting pictures and recording videos. They thought they were on a paid vacation and devoted very little time and attention to the exercise of recording data, said Prabhu.
The forest department said there was no question of relaxing the no-camera rule and,if volunteers are not found,its own staff would adequately carry out the census exercise,Prabhu said. But the fact is that volunteers lend a helping hand to the forest staff as they go about the tiger enumeration and,more critically bring in the neutrality of objective outsiders and lend transparency to the effort.
Some 3,500-square kilometres of contiguous dense forests comprising Nagarahole,BRT and Bandipur reserves in Karnataka,Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu and Wayanad in Kerala are known to be the worlds best home for tigers. For the census,two or three volunteers accompany forest staffers and trek several kilometres daily,spotting and recording pug marks,scats (droppings),sightings of the tiger and its prey,as well as noting evidence of human intrusion in the form of fires and tree felling. Later,forest officials collate these numbers and map it to data from camera trappings.
Volunteers trek for several hours daily and rough it up with basic rations,primitive wash facilities and makeshift sleeping arrangements. People may think this is very romantic but it is not… it is tough work requiring rigor and discipline, said Prabhu.
Newbie volunteers would discover that the census is no joyride,said Praveen Bhargav,trustee of Wildlife First,who welcomed the ban on gadgets during the census. If volunteers run amok in the forest,clicking photos and videos,tweeting and posting on Facebook,it will all turn into a tamasha, he said.
The census is a sacred ritual that needs dedicated focus with minimal diversions,said Bhargav who has been on several such treks. Gadgets are a big distraction,he said.
The last census was like a party for some,volunteers were busy calling their friends and updating,Ive spotted a herd of 20 elephants. What have you seen on line 5? Those assigned to count prey were so busy taking pictures of fauna and flora that there was no sincerity about collecting data. This is a lifetime opportunity to be inside the worlds best habitat for tigers and to contribute towards a serious exercise, Bhargav said. Volunteers should treat it as such.