Tiger Troubles

18 02 2008

tiger litho

For the first time in a large number of years, I will not be attempting to participate in any animal censuses this spring/summer. The reasons are mostly personal, but I am still feeling very bad about my nonparticipation as this is a critical year for India’s overall conservation effort.

It had became obvious a couple of years ago (especially after the IUCN study) that India’s forests had reached a crisis point. Our top predator, the Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris) was at a population nadir. The known numbers of tigers had been suddenly found to be less than half of what it should be. Even more frighteningly, in certain important tiger zones like Sariska, the tiger has completely disappeared. The extinction of our tigers stares us in the face.

The government has come up with various ‘explanations’ including increased poaching, but the most disingenuous reason put forward for the sudden dearth is that the tigers were never there in the first place! The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and their minions in “Project Tiger” now wants us to believe that poor counting technique is to blame for an earlier “inflated” statistic. They argue that now that proper camera traps have been placed, and things are being done in a “more scientific” manner, we should all acknowledge that the tiger popultion has not actually fallen much – that the population always was less than half of what we had projected…

I say that this is disingenuous (i.e. bullshit) for a couple of reasons.

1) Long term forest dwellers, the tribals and the Forest Department personnel themselves in each forest, get to know their animals very well indeed. Larger animals like the elephants or bisons and certainly both the leopards and the tigers in each of our forests are easily recognisable and identifiable as individuals.

2) The census methods used in the past, though rough and ready, are yet certainly scientific enough. When censuses are based on physical evidence such as scats and the plaster casts of paw prints, then there is absolutely no way that someone can claim that the populations so determined are inferior to that of phototrapping. I would argue that in fact the phototrap is a ridiculously unscientific way to determine absolute populations when compared to the older methods!

In fact we are left to surmise that if one takes the trouble to go through the physical evidence that had been gathered over so many years of painstaking censusing, our tiger populations have long been declining – steadily and now quite drastically. The problem then lies with the MOEF/state Forest Departments’ perennial habit of inflating the actual counts in order to satisfy the powers that be, and in order to pacify the many and vociferous critics of the government’s very many inadequacies in this regard.

In other words they have been cheating on the numbers for quite some time, and quite systematically too, and now that they have finally been caught out, the easiest recourse has been to point the finger at the supposedly faulty methodology of the past.

But why has the tiger declined and is it only the tiger that is in trouble?

The short answer is  NO! It’s not only the tiger that has troubles. The forests as a whole have been grossly overexploited.

A case in point in the present instance is the debate on allowing forest dwellers to continue to occupy their niches within the confines of the many forests of our land. Persuasive voices say that here is a major factor in the degredation of our prime habitats. I personally believe that it is not the tribals themselves who are to blame. Many have found it easy to manipulate and utilise the unique rights that tribal forest dwellers have, to indirectly reach into and steal the forests’ wealth. Well there is little left to steal now and the tribals are left holding the bag on having to live in forests that can no longer sustain their needs.

There are many other factors too. Take a look at the great number of private estates that sit squarely within our forest areas. They are certainly doing their bit to destroy the forests around them for one thing, with their use of fertilizers and pesticides and for another the exploitation, contamination, and pollution of the forests’ precious water resources are all having a disastrous impact. Then we have our MOEF’s penchant for suddenly granting mining and even forage/fodder licenses in our few remaining forest areas. They will then even come up with environmental clearances for these absolutely destructive projects and all in the name of ‘development’!

But these issues, though important, are not yet the worst of the culprits. The forests as a whole are under great threat due to lopsided and simplistic mismanagement over many decades. We know that our hardwood fig “strangling”trees are being poached along with our sandalwood. Trees such as the rosewood and mahogany are simply never seen within our ‘Reserve’ or National Park Forests. If we can’t protect these huge trees that are so difficult to transport out (where the take per tree is less than 200,000 rupees now for the illegal logger) , then where is the question of our being able to protect our leopards and tigers? A tiger will earn a poacher not less than a million rupees and all that it takes is a well placed wire trap or some poisoned bait – and a buyer.

In other words, if we can not protect our trees, there’s no way that we can claim to be adequately protecting our precious tigers. Combine the losses to poaching with the ridiculously bioinverse policy of planting large tracts of monocultures of “economically important” species such as teak or bamboo – and of course these then have to be harvested – and you do indeed begin to have the recipe for the disaster that we have been cooking up.

Once the forest’s precious tree diversity is gone, the forest itself gets degraded and becomes a poorer and poorer habitat that will soon not be able to support top predators like the tiger. Biodiversity is undermined at all levels. Other critical large-animal populations, notably the elephants, leaopards and bison, will then have to start wandering out of the ‘protected’ zones in search of food and water, and that will lead to increasing incidences of man-animal conflicts in the forest’s surroundings.

One final point for today’s debate: The earmarked, and presently “protected”, territory is very inadequate. Tigers roam over huge areas of range (as indeed do elephants). They spread out so that they do not much have to encounter one another. I have twice seen wild tigers while hiking in scrub jungle, well outside the confines of the nearest reserve forest. Clearly we need to expand the buffer zones around the “core areas” of our remaining tiger populations. We also have to eventually find the funding to fence the forests and forest denizens in (and the poachers out).  Ever thought about what it would take to fence-in an elephant?

In the meantime, if we can start by adequately expanding the buffer areas and perhaps even provide linking corridors between nearly contiguous stretches of forest, this in itself will start to make a fantastic difference!

Environmentalists and forest watchers who care and who have raised their voices of protest have been silenced by committees of armchair scientists, most of whom have never even seen a real live wild tiger to speak of. It’s up to us now, the common folks of this great land of the erstwhile Royal Bengal Tiger, to keep the issues alive and to make the careless of officialdom accountable for the precious heritage that they are allowing to be destroyed before our very eyes.

IF YOU CARE AND WOULD LIKE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE:

Let your voice be heard.forest strata

Make the protection of our forests a major issue of national importance.

Teach your children well, for the future is in their hands.

Publicise (write to the editor or to an investigative journalist of your local paper), document, and protest each and every incident of forest abuse that you see or find out about. Keep a weather eye out for stuff like this!

Get personally involved; participate in animal censuses, take up projects to help forest tribals become independent of the forests, talk to your friends about the plight of our forests and encourage one another to become activists for the sake of saving the little that still remains.

Let’s not leave our kids with just this:tiger rug

Let us instead come together to fight to preserve what we still do have left!

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Bison’s Charge – A Tall Tale

18 02 2007

In line with our focus on forests and animal censuses, here’s another true story from a few years back.

Roy (Aruna’s cousin) decided to join me for a census and we headed to Mudumalai. Roy is a young man, Chennai born and bred (i.e. big city). This was his very first time in a real forest and we were both looking forward to it. The real beauty of these animal/bird counts is that one is given a route to follow and allowed to walk. If you go to any of our national parks as a tourist, walking is banned! One can only get into the forest in the Forest Department’s own vehicle and that too on a fixed, well travelled route.

Hiking into any of the woods in South India is a glorious experience. Ancient lichen coated, orchid draped trees, sholas, myriad birds and even the undergrowth is wonderful with mosses, liverworts, cycads and ferns to fascinate. it does not really matter whether one does see much in the way of animals – spotted deer and monkeys (macacques or langurs) are hard to miss – still it is an enthralling and enlivening experience.

On the very first day we ended up in different teams. There were too few volunteers. On the second day though, a few more people showed up and we were together. On his first day’s trek, Roy’s forest guide had found them a huge hive of mountain honey and they had seen a few elephants. Roy was now hooked!

We started out bright and early with a forest guard who was a bit of a reluctant (and noisy) walker. With encouragement and perseverance we made good headway, moving through the open teak forest at the periphery and were soon going into a fairly dense forest. After a couple of hours the route led us downhill. We could hear a small stream chuckling in the depression ahead and about 100 yards from the bottom the trees opened up and we were on grass. Roy and I were abreast leading the way, with our ‘guide’ quite a bit behind us. There was another group somewhere East of us, they had been dropped a half kilometer before us and so we were the last to start.

The bottom of this small valley was fairly open with a few small shrubs and plenty of grass. The rivulet of pure mountain spring water looked inviting. We were thirsty and speeded up down the slope when suddenly there was a burst of commotion on the far side of the clearing and charging straight towards us thundered this massive gaur bull (Indian bison, Bos gaurus). Now these are huge animals, the largest of the bovines, easily weighing in at over a ton a piece and muscularly built – one ton of pure muscle!

He was going full tilt, jumped the rivullet and started up the slope, saw us standing startled into stillness and slack jawed not 30 feet ahead. He came to a sudden halt and there occurred again one of those frozen moments. He stared, he snorted, we were barely breathing. Abruptly, he turned and trotted rapidly back the way he had come leaving us still gaping. If he had decided to continue his charge, I wouldn’t be here to blog about it!

He was almost black with huge humped shoulders and rippling with muscles. Four white socks looked incongruosly cute and his neck – wow! The pics here do not do justice to seeing one of these 6 1/2 feet tall monsters up close.

Our guard had stopped at the beginning of the clearing and he now came hurriedly down and tried to persuade us to head home. We were only half way through our prescribed route and both of us flatly refused.

Seeing people in the deep forest is very ratre and it looked as though this gaur bull had been frightened by the previous group and had been making tracks away from their ramble when he suddenly ran into us. He must have wondered how his persuers had managed to get ahead of him and cut him off again!

Luck was certainly with us, for the lone bull bison is considered the most dangerous of the forest animals. They rarely have human contact, being very shy and behemoths of the very deep forest where even poachers rarely venture.

The rest of our trek was anticlimactic!

We were startled to see the amount of cattle droppings on the periphery of the forest range. It turns out that the government actually licences the native tribals to herd cattle within the forest, but, quite naturally, these licences are abused by local non-tribal heavyweights who buy out or extort the licences and then use them to allow large herds of cattle to forage within the forest itself.

Incidentally, Roy is now well settled in Switzerland. He and Akila (and their beautiful baby Leah) had come down this Christmas and we got to spend a brief time together in Chennai. Roy has certainly not lost the forest bug! We are going to try to schedule his next visit so that he can ‘do the census’ again!





Treetops and Topslip

3 11 2006

Getting into the forest is the most rejuvenating experience possible!

Topslip is the main outpost of the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, A national park administered by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department in the Western Ghats Catchment area of the state, bordered on the West by the Parambikulam sanctuary in Kerala and on the East by the Anamalai hills.

The entire complex is a very precious reservoir of biodivarsity for an ecosystem that includes one of the only remaining regions of tropical rainforest, truly unique shola forests and medium montane grasslands. The last real populations of the Nilgiri Tahr (a type of mountain sheep/goat – Nilgiritragus hylocrius) are to be found in the upper reaches of these very habitats in isolated pockets of the Western Ghats biosphere.

Arriving on Wednesday, we spent one night at the Chital Forest Lodge and the next morning were given a rare oportunity to experience the newly built Treetops Suites. These are real treehouses placed, seemingly precariously, on stilts of living teak trees, the suites are comfortable and include functioning bathrooms and even hot water!
The evenings were misty and with the onset of the monsoons, we had periods of heavy rain followed by intervals of light drizzle. The spotted deer and wild boar were out in force and the population of the Nilgiri Langurs (Trachypithecus johnii) seems to be very healthy in this forest but they are endangered due to habitat loss and poaching as it is rumoured that their flesh has aphrodisiac properties.
We were surprised by a herd of the endangered Kaattu Erumai (Gaur, Indian ‘Bison’ – Bos gaurus) who wandered through the camp on the second day. These are massive beasts with the bulls weighing in at over a ton, beautifully marked, generally shy and found only in deep forests, it was a treat to watch them calmly walking through.
The nights were very special. A serenade of insect, tree frog and barking deer calls, with lowering mists and very faint moonlight filtering through. The barking deerMuntiacus muntjak) were obviously tracking larger predators, either leopards or tigers.

Oh, the smells! Delightful wafts of wildflowers, honey, ripe fruits and spices; clean healthy air to relish breathing.

All of our attempts to enter the Karian Shola were dashed by the spells of pelting rain. This patch of Shola is very special as it is one of the last resorts in India for the Ceylon Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) a fascinating bird that mimics dead leaves so perfectly that it is hard to spot even from a few feet away!

Just as we were getting ready to leave, Sellamuthu, the Treetops’ Forest Guide, pulled us out to watch a pair of giant malabar squirrels (Ratufa indica) gambolling in the tops of the nearby teak trees. They were having fun chasing each other around and making incredible leaps from branch to trunk completely oblivious to the fact that they were a good 100 ft up.

Even in these aparently rich forests man’s ravages are very evident. Large plantations of teak tree monocultures have replaced a highly diverse forest ecosystem. Attempts to propagate the forest species of trees have been failures and it is becoming obvious that climate change is inimical to the original habitats. The planted seedlings simply don’t survive.

In oder to try to promote diversity, species of bamboo have been introduced but introduced species usually create their own imbalances.

We are witnessing bioinversity in action.

So, we take our children to these forests, knowing that our grandchildren will not see anything resembling them at all.

Thanks to Pandiyan for the nilgiri langur pic.

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