“Water bottle?” Check.
“Writing pad?” Check.
“Log sheets and pens?” Check.
“Breakfast bag?” Check.
“Pepper spray?” Double check.
I tightened my shoelaces, took a deep breath and walked into the forests on day one of the 2018 tiger census, organised by the Government of Goa. I was accompanied by two men I barely knew. I kept track of every bar of signal I lost as we went in further and further. The further we went, my mother’s floating head got bigger. “Madhu, you’ll get yourself into trouble,” she said. My thoughts had never been louder.
What went down at a tiger census had been a question mark for the longest time. Do they maintain a stakeout and manually count the tigers? How can they know they’ve not been counting the same tiger again and again? So many questions and so little access to credible information. One could tell how excited I was to finally be able to do this.
First off, let’s start with why it’s absolutely vital to conduct a tiger census. Just like any other population census, it’s important that we compile a numerical profile of the tigers in the country. This is done once in three years and apart from our obvious conservation needs, it’s also really helpful in combating poachers.
The study was broken down into three parts. The carnivore, the herbivore/omnivore, and the vegetation study. The first three days we penned down any evidence of carnivores. This meant keeping an eye out for direct sightings (if we were lucky), pugmark trails, scat (stool) samples and anything else that would give us affirmation that a carnivore was around. The most important bit was not what we found, it was how precise we were in logging all of it. Forget to record the exact location readings of where you found the sample and that’s it, you just wasted five hours in the jungle.
A tracker, a guard and a volunteer, we hustled in groups of three. I knew I had signed up for a very male-dominated assignment. I just didn’t think I’d be the only female volunteer. Apart from the occasional ‘this is how I die’ feeling and our compass showing us wrong readings, my first day was pretty great. And in the most broken Hindi ever spoken, I started a discussion with the two men on canopy covers and vegetation, all the while wishing I had paid more attention in Ms Bennett’s geography class.
Now, day two was the kind of day that made me want to do this every waking moment. Lucky for me, Paresh Porob, the range forest officer at the ‘Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary’, decided to come along. It’s vital that you understand I’m not exaggerating when I say this: the man is a walking encyclopedia. At 600m above sea level, we trekked 11 km through one of the most untouched forests of Goa. We literally had to hack a path for ourselves; quite contrary to the engineers and the MBAs of the world whose degrees create paths for them.
So, we’re roughly about three hours in and we find ourselves some fairly fresh leopard scat, only a couple of hours old. If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, you know this is a pretty big deal! You’re walking the path a sub-adult, male leopard, took in the wee hours of that morning. I was ecstatic. I asked Mr Paresh question after question till my throat went dry. A conversation with him was like reading an entire book on ‘Did you know?’ facts. My jaws would drop to my knees as Mr Paresh would casually tell me about a leopard cub he rescued and raised. Lost in the imagination of the entire rescue operation, I nearly stepped on a very venomous ‘hump-nosed pit viper’. I could barely see the little snake. I took a picture, thanked it for not biting me, and off we went.
I was trying to keep up with him, taking notes of the names of the many birds we saw, tips on how to control your fear and adrenaline when you encounter a wild animal, shuffling between log sheets. All this, while also trying really hard to not trip and fall on my face. I didn’t always succeed, but that day, I understood what it felt like to have all my senses heightened. I was constantly on the lookout for distinct smells and calls. I can now differentiate between a bunch of birds and identify the scat of over seven different animal species. That experience to me is of more value than any formal education.
Day 4 of tiger census 2018 and about now I’m feeling like Reese Witherspoon from the movie ‘Wild’, finding herself while trekking along the Pacific Crest Trail. (This won’t be the most fun paragraph to read but, the one after this will tell you why it’s important.) We were halfway through the study. What was left was the line transect. In layman terms, the transect is a 2 km imaginary line drawn along a certain bearing, with five points plotted on them at 400m apart. Any direct herbivore/omnivore sightings, strictly along the bearing, were to be noted. I know I’m not an expert at spotting but I’m pretty sure I saw the same giant squirrel three days in a row. We started our vegetation study on the 2000 m marking and worked our way down, over the next two days. This was mainly done to understand the types of trees, shrubs, weeds, and grass in the area so as to arrive at the probability of the kinds of species that lived there. I lost you there, didn’t I?
Fast forward to day six and I’m thinking exactly what you’re thinking -“Where them tigers at?” Remember that boring paragraph I made you read on vegetation? Here’s why – The type of vegetation is directly related to the type of deer found and the type of deer, to that of the presence of tigers. No sambar deer, no tigers. We, at Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary, weren’t lucky enough to spot any tigers but the people at Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary hit it big! They found scat samples, pugmarks, and even captured some pictures through the camera traps. So, there it was. Evidence that Goa was so much more than her beaches.
The census or tiger ‘estimation’ as Mr P called it, was about more than this. Post work shenanigans were just as adventurous. Night safaris, river swims and not to mention, learning how to slack line! The thing about the jungle is, your guards are way down (emotionally, of course). They make way for some of the best conversations and relationships. Eight days down and I had learned all of this, two lines in Konkani, survived monster flies and had no broken bones. So, who are we if not for our adventures?
Also, if you clicked on this thinking you’d learn more about the wild and are disappointed, let’s try and balance that out. Snakes flicker their tongue to detect the outside temperature, so they would know if a warm-blooded animal was in the surrounding. The temperature around a crocodile’s eggs can determine the sex of the offspring. If the temperature goes up, they’re all females and if the temperature goes down, they’re all males. So, if you’ve worked on a census and had an experience similar to or different than mine, write to me. I’d love to know! Or if you work with animals and would like to give me a job, that would be great too!