Many trails, few tails
TNN, 7 February 2010, 06:59am IST
NAGPUR: Less than two years ago, a colleague had counted 14 tigers inside two days in this range. It got so monotonous that the last tiger was insulted with just a cursory glance. So, when it came to volunteering for the Monitoring Tigers, Co-Predators, Prey and Their Habitats programme, or simply put the tiger census, the Kolsa range was the obvious choice.
With the vision of hindsight, perhaps we should have opted for any other range in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve which is spread over 625 sq km and is about a three-hour drive from Nagpur. For, when it comes to census, tigers are reluctant to reveal themselves for a head count. They prefer the sanctity of the thick bamboo and other trees, and also the chest-high hay-coloured grass, bushes and other growth that can camouflage even a giraffe.
From AB's ode to tigers in 'Mr Natwarlal' to Himesh Reshamiyya's 'Jhalak Dikhlaaja', the volunteers tried everything to appease it for a solitary sighting. The real meaning of bad luck hits you when, after a wonderful week in the forests, you don't spot a single stripe.
"You got to get lucky to spot a tiger," said a self-styled expert. "But consider yourself lucky that you got to spend so many days in the forest where few have gone before."
You can pay the nominal fee to enter the forest as a tourist. But the accompanying guide will not permit you to even open the vehicle door. And here we are, eight of us, walking not just on motorable paths but swaying through the thick undergrowth of the forests. Sometimes, we took the beaten path. On other occasions, where we walked became a path.
What are the qualifications needed to participate in such an exercise? Can just about anybody volunteer? Yes. All you require is loads of patience, strong legs, the ability to remain silent for long hours and rough it out, and a passion for wild life. Within a day, you become an expert. After a week, you are qualified to sit on a wild life committee!
In Kolsa, apart from a few of us from Nagpur, there were five from 'Lion Country' Junagadh, three from Chandrapur and another four from Hyderabad. Yet, the 200.97 sq km range could have done with 100 more volunteers.
Not spotting a single tiger or any of the 100-odd bears doesn't mean that their population is on the wane. So much evidence and data was collected that it appears that 200.97 sq km is just not big enough for the tiger population. Forest officers estimate that there are between 12 to 20 tigers in Kolsa. Plus, other carnivores like leopards and wild dogs.
Herbivores like bisons, cheetals, sambars, barking deer, wild boars, rabbits, peacocks and many others are so much in number that no carnivore will ever remain hungry. The thick forests of the range, now dwindling due to human encroachment and illicit felling of bamboo and teak trees, are an ideal home for many species of animals.
"Incest is common amongst tigers," said a forest official. "There are not many corridors for tigers to move about to other forest areas of the region and this leads to mating among siblings and, even a tigress and its own cub. The gene pool is gradually weakening."
The season being still winter, there's still plenty of water in the nullahs, rivers and ponds. Come summer, the animals shed their shyness and willingly reveal themselves at all the water holes. Every volunteer spotted fresh tiger pug marks and scat after walking barely 100 metres on their respective beats (the range was divided into many beats and then to compartments). Warning calls by monkeys and deer would indicate the presence of a carnivore a few feet away. You can smell one. But, to spot one you have to get lucky.
"This exercise is not to take a head count of tigers," clarified field director Sanjay Thakre, "but to collect data to be analysed by experts."
Until then, tiger lovers will continue singing AB's ode in the fervent hope that there is a healthy increase to the national figure of 1411 that was arrived at after the last census four years ago.