WWF Wildlife Census at Sathyamangalam

It was really the first time I attended a wildlife census. I had no clue of how things would be or how we would go about filling data sheets.

Day 1: We all assembled at Bannari. It was a 2 hour journey from Coimbatore. After a long journey on a hot day, we reached Bannari. There were dozens of volunteers and many pot-bellied forest officers. About 50 volunteers assembled and five of us were girls. Though the people from WWF said that people were ‘screened’ before they came for census, that just did not seem to be the case.

We signed a declaration form stating that if anything happens to us in the forest, the forest department would not be responsible for it. We signed it and soon the session began. It was a terrible hot day and all we were doing was fanning ourselves and drinking loads of water.

The presentation soon began. One scientist from WWF (I do not wish to name him) started giving a talk on how to do the census. We were taught to identify male and female species of elephants. How we would do that considering how we sight them. Watching out their ears, back, etc and then classifying them into Adult Male, Adult Female, Juvenile male, juvenile female. We also were taught to identify pugmarks and differentiate between leopard, tiger, wild dog, hyena, sloth bear among the carnivores.

After the quick training to identify scats and pugmarks, we were taken for a demo session into the forest. It was about 2pm and of course who would want to walk in the hot sun and concentrate at that time. The scientist surrounded the people and was teaching how to use GPS, using range finder an compass. We learnt how to write the sighting angle, transect angle, to name some. It was too much of information explosion for three hours and it was impossible for any ordinary mind to grasp so much of information and actually be able to implement it on field amidst such horrendous climactic conditions. Some volunteers drifted away, not even able to walk a km in the forest, some were not paying attention. It wasn’t possible either. The day was done and all the bottles were empty. There was not one drop of water left for anyone. Parched by thirst, we could walk no further. The moment we saw water, as we came out, we just splashed it on our face and took it easy.

We stayed at the forest guard’s house at Bannari. It was right opposite Bannari Amman temple. The temple has visitors from far and away and here we were right opposite the temple. What baffled me was how people used loudspeakers in the temple, much adding to the noise pollution. I was becoming deaf. We ambled around our way in the evening, barefoot to the temple. Then we strolled around and came home to have a hot cup of tea. Soon, S, another 15 yr old boy joined us. He was assigned Dimbam area for his study. Did you understand anything what they taught, he asked. I did but not everything, since Shriranjani is with me, we both can do it. Otherwise I would have decided to go back home. It is no point doing something without knowing it. He was thinking. He said, you know what I am going to do. Copy the data from someone and put it on data sheet. We were given seven data sheets. If someone actually copies, where is the authenticity of the census. I was sure he was not the only one doing it. Most of them did not understand why things were done and how.

Day2: Started at 6.am and reached forest by 6.30. Wildboar accompanied us (the scientist). As we walked into the forest, in a small fraction of  a second, we missed watching a wildboar. The scientist saw it and he was telling me about how I was not watching animals. Drat! An animal can escape in matter of seconds. So, I asked him what was I supposed to do if the animal escaped. I cooled down with a gulp of water. Later, we saw spotted deer, a ferocious sloth bear that made horrifying noise, almost scaring us before it escaped into a thicket, black naped hare. As we walked further, we felt like thunderstorms rose on the ground. I held the hand of Shri. There was commotion and noise. It was a herd of Indian bisons. It really was scary!! After noting down the GPS reading and transect angle of these species, we walked back. We then did the vegetation study at every 400 m. We surveyed the place and asked the trackers, what trees and shrubs where there and filled the data sheet with most number of herbs, shrubs, plants, there, and so on. It was getting monotonous. We rested on the rock there. After a quick chat about wildlife, we went forth to have lunch. Post lunch, we went for carnivore sign study. We had to track tiger, leopard and other carnivore pugmarks on the ground. It was quite an arduous task as it was tough to find soft mud and then spot the pugmarks. If we saw a pugmark, we had to measure the footpad of it to verify if it was a tiger/leopard pugmark. We used a scale to measure it and it was less than 8cm, it was leopard, more than 17, it was a tiger. At 2pm, it was something so tough as there was no air in the forest, no canopy cover. I was finding hard to breathe and walk in the hot sun. The water became hot. I just wanted some breeze. The forest watcher said there was a tamarind tree ahead, and it seemed like a never ending path to reach there. We slowly ambled up there and parked ourselves under the tree. I could feel the silence then. It was a tiger area. My mind stopped. I was just feeling the breeze at that moment and wished it did not stop. After spending 20mins there, we walked into denser forest where we could see some greenery and water patches. It came to a point where all I wanted to see was a drop of water, muggy, slushy water, doesn’t matter in what form. We found tiger pugmarks there and counted them on. After almost 5km walk on carnivore study and pellet count- Yeah, we actually counted every freaking pellet of black buck, spotted deer, black naped hare and what not. We found plenty of sloth bear scat filled with soori seeds. Wonder if it ever eats anything else. As we walked in the interiors of the forest, the cool winds started blowing in. After sometime, we saw a herd of elephants. I could see the ear of the elephant. It was fanning itself in the summer. Elephants do not have sweat glands like humans, so they rest in shade. In fact, you will find no animals there after even 10 am. They were all resting deep inside the forest as we were carrying out the absolutely nonsensical census. After watching the elephants, I saw a pile of rocks. Climbed up and sat there for sometime. The clouds suddenly turned grey and I felt a trickle of water on my cactus hurt hand. Yeah, one thing I want to tell here. It was a scrub jungle and ideally one should wear a full sleeved shirt here, but the summer did not permit me to do so. The drops of water that fell on me were huge. The elephants started moving. We were waiting for wildboar to finish his phone call. He was talking on the phone in the middle of the forest. I suddenly heard a roar and told forest trackers there was something. The noise was scary too. Soon, wildboar came, we jumped off the rocks as we watched the mountains. As we walked back, it started pouring like crazy. I loved it, for the whole day we were burning and burning and burning with no respite from heat and finally God had some mercy on us. After an hour of walking in the rain, we reached to a stop where there was a cow shed. Sitting there, we were playing with some calves, watching tobacco farms and sipping hot black tea and biscuits. It was great after a long strenuous day. That was really the end of day 2. Well, did I not want the day to end? It was bloody long and tiring!!

Day 3: Did a 5km trek for dung count. We did not sight any animals. Wildboar did not accompany us, so we got chance to click pictures and feel the forest and its tranquility. We took a greener route. There after finishing 2000m, we slept on the rocks, hearing birds. We spent time there and trekked back to a house on the outskirts of the forest. Sipped in some tea and slept under the canopy of a tree sighting treepies, babblers and red collared doves. The babblers were very noisy, yet my eyes shut, and I went into a deep slumber. Wonder why people need ACs when all it takes to cool off is a shade of a tree?

Ok, the blog is getting  a bit long. What happened next, will follow soon. Thanks for the patience and reading this!!

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