Counting Tigers

When people first hear “Tiger Census”, the first reaction is “Oh Cool!”. When I tell them what we actually did on the Census, they say “So you roamed around in the Jungle looking for Tiger poop?! Ha ha ha! Very funny! But that is not the whole story! But being part of the whole experience was indeed very cool! Learnt a lot, had a ton of experiences, and got to walk around on foot in parts of Indian forests where Tourists and the average citizen can never set foot in!

How did I get involved? A bunch of us were part of a Western Ghats trekking group. On one such monsoon trek to Rajmachi, a fellow trekker told us about how the Forest Department was running short of manpower and thus looking for Volunteers for a Tiger Census exercise. We would have to trek 8-16 kms everyday for a week through the core area of a Tiger Reserve collecting data for the census.

None of us had any idea about the hows and whys and whats of it! All we knew was we would get to walk – On Foot – through the Core Area of a Tiger Reserve! Rest of it we just didn’t care! We all sent in our applications the next day and 4 of us were selected. Have no idea on how the selection was done, but I was one of the 4 who made the list!

It was not always about “collecting Tiger poop”! The first few years our job was to walk through the forest trails to find Tiger Pugmarks and make casts out of Plaster-of-Paris! Tiger Pugmarks are unique like Fingerprints. A trained wildlife person can identify the specific Tiger just by looking at the Pugmarks. The idea with the census was to make PoP casts of the Pugmarks for identification and classification later.

Our first year, 1997, we were sent to the Melghat Sanctuary. The first 3 days, we spent at the beautiful Forest Department Dormitory at a place called Semadoh where we were trained how to help the Forest Guards make PoP Casts and taught how to walk through the Forests safely. In the evenings, we watched Wildlife films on the 8mm projector at the Guest House. Amazing 3 days!

We were then each paired up with a Forest Guard and assigned a route to walk on. For the next 7 days, we walked an average of 10 kms of Forest trails each day. Every time we saw a unique pugmark we would stop, I would pull out the kit from my backpack and help the Guard make a PoP cast. We didn’t do it every single time we saw a pugmark though. The forest guards, who were mostly from the local Pardhi Forest Tribes, were very experienced in Jungle Ways. They could tell we had already taken this Tiger’s pugmarks before just by looking at it! The guy I was assigned to was a true jungle genius! Learnt a LOT from him!

Every evening, we would stop at Forest Patrol House – a small cottage in the middle of the jungle. These patrol houses are basic structures used by Forest Guards for night halts. A basic meal of Bhakri and Zhunka for dinner and then sleep! Sleep didnt come easy that first year. The census was in the peak of summer in Central India with Temperatures crossing 40C! The windows and doors were kept securely locked because it was the jungle. Very hot and stuffy! But it was an amazing 10 days overall!

I must have been put on some kind of mailing list because the next year, I got an email inviting me for the next exercise again in Melghat. And this time, it was even better because the group was bigger. Evenings we had dinner and Rum and shared Ghost stories – that became bit of a annual tradition! 2 years in Melghat, 3 years in Tadoba and 1 year in Bhadra! I looked forward to the annual Tiger Census and meeting my Forest buddies and making memories!


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