The thrill of spotting the unexpected. And repeatedly
A trip to the jungle is usually about the excitement of having predictable sightings. Dr. Animesh Talukdar, Wildlife Veterinarian shares an unusual experience of being surprised by the unexpected.
After a long discussion, my dissertation topic was finalized on one of the beautiful ungulates, i.e. Swamp deer. I reached my study area in December 2014 and started collecting field data. As per method mentioned in my dissertation study proposal, I identified 1X1 km ungulate habitat within my study area, Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve, which is of approx 37 sq km. I knew that the entire defined area is not home to the species of my study, yet I had to include the total area for studying livestock presence there.
First day itself, I visited that region, knowing that even people from the forest department were reluctant to go there frequently because of the presence of elephants. I was excited to visit such an area as that was my first solo tour in the field after 2 years of doing various group field tours with my WII MSc batch mates. Eagerly and anxiously, I reached the area, accompanied by an allotted rifleman. He lit up a bidi and started humming songs as we were entering a particular track. He was doing that supposedly to alert the Elephants nearby! I couldn’t refrain from asking him to be quiet. He asked another forest department worker to come along, who excitedly informed me about having sighted a leopard that morning. We finally began the walk for my survey.
The new fellow introduced himself as Chamma and informed that he has been appointed as my field assistant for next 3 months. I could hear creaking sound of breaking of tree branches. Chamma suspected that elephants are nearby and advised us to walk fast. On the way, we saw lots of huge pugmarks. As per Chamma, all were of leopards. After 1 km of the walk, Chamma saw something and told me- “Sir, look scat of leopard.” I observed and felt that the volume is too much to be of leopard. Curiously I asked, “Is there any record of tiger presence here?” He calmly replied “No, but local people say sometimes they have seen. I myself have been working here for more than 25 years but have never seen one”.
I took the photograph of the scat and walked forward. On the way, just one thought kept lurking in my mind – ‘it must have been a huge leopard or tiger’. I shared my apprehension with Chamma that this could be of tiger too. “Maybe” he responded. I then decided to talk to our professor, scientist Dr. Bivash, about that. I showed him the pictures of pugmarks and scats. He gave me 10 camera traps to employ next day. Panthera camera traps arrived the following morning. 3 pairs of camera traps were set on the track at 1 km distance from one another. Others were set on the main road of the reserve, from where the track started.
Early morning on the following day, I took the camera trap data and started examining them. My apprehension was right! The very first photo was of a tigress! There was only one photograph from 1st camera trap. I started exploring date of the 2nd pair of the camera trap. To my utter surprise, I found 8 photographs of 2 cubs. One seemed to have repeatedly faced the camera while the other seemed to have ignored it. Needless to say, it was a super exciting day for me. I shared my findings with the range officer and Dr. Bivash. Naturally, the news spread fast. In following days, all managers of that division and nearby started visiting that track. Suddenly there were no more photographs for following few days. I was getting disheartened. I started to shift cameras around wherever I spotted or heard about pugmarks. 20 days went by without any photographs. I started feeling immensely guilty for having raised awareness about the presence of the tigress and her cubs. ‘The crowd must have disturbed them, forcing them to leave the place’, I thought to myself. The Range officer came to meet one of the days and tried comforting my concern and guilt.
After 20 days I got the second capture of the mom alone. Then I realized that possibly they were avoiding cameras and flashes. I started changing camera trap location day by day and the mom with cubs started coming in-front of camera trap without any hesitation. They continued doing that for rest of my stay there. It was an icing on the cake that I could study tiger along with dissertation subject- swamp deer.
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