Tiger Spotting: Ranthambhore Tiger Census

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In Ranthambhore you don’t just see a tiger. You see Jhumroo, Jhumri, Machchli, Bachchi, Nick-ear, Jhalara female, Sultanpur mother or Isabelle (named after BBC cameraman Colin’s daughter). Every single of the 38 odd tigers of the high profile park are so well documented that when you see one your guide will elaborate on its antecedents like it were the scion of a royal family – what its name is, how old it is, how much it measures from head to tail, who its mother is, what area is under its territory and more importantly, when it had its last meal. Perhaps no one knows as much about the individual tigers of Ranthambhore as Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh of Ranthambhore Bagh. 

I was lucky to have been invited by Aditya, himself a wildlife expert and keen photographer, for an insider view of the annual tiger census at Ranthambhore. These 15 days offered a chance to explore the park in a way unlike the rest of the year. Safaris inside the park were restricted only to evening drives, tourists were less, guides had more time and you had the rare opportunity to explore the park on foot from early morning till afternoon. Add to it the prospect of the all-night full-moon waterhole count inside the park and it was an offer too good to resist. 

There were other volunteers too. Waiting to be deployed inside the park, the college freshers would ask innocent questions like ‘Does the chowki have an attached western bathroom’, ‘Do you get mineral water inside the jungle’ or more importantly ‘Will we get a certificate from the Forest Department for this?’ There were almost 70 counting units working for 15 days. After a week of the Rajasthan heat, an absolute lack of urban luxury and the mortal fear of being in the jungle on foot, half the volunteers wilted. It isn’t easy earning your stripes in the Indian jungle.

Meanwhile, the hardier ones were dusting the tracks, scouting for prints and making Plaster of Paris casts of the pugmarks. We exchanged info and I continued on my morning walk with Sharif and Aditya. It is in the quest of the tiger that the forest opens its secrets to you. The tiger is like some unattainable Higher Truth and the jungle path is like a mystical journey to salvation. Often blinded by the religious zeal of seeking the Truth one misses the little epiphanies that come your way. The dance of the peacock, the ballet of a Black-naped Hare, the sly glint in the eye of a jackal or Painted Spurfowls nimbly scaling the steep ravine slopes. We arrived at our Truth quite early in our journey. Scarcely had we crossed Padam Talao that Sharif stiffened. In a low whisper he said ‘tiger’. The thrill of seeing a tiger on foot is unimaginable. It’s a lot pleasanter if the tiger is 60 feet away. By the time we reached the track, Bachhi the young tigress had disappeared into the bushes.

The park has an excellent network of tracks and more than half the core area is open to visitors. Since the tracks follow the general lay of the land and are covered in soft dust, tigers prefer walking on the tracks because of their soft pads. This facilitates excellent tiger sightings from open jeeps and also makes tracking relatively easy.

It was during a regular inspection round with CF Saheb (Conservator of Forests Shaukat Hussain) that I saw a Black-tailed Mongoose. ‘It’s a good omen. We might see something’, he said. That’s when we encountered Jhumroo. A strapping young male, son of the ferocious Jhalara female, measuring 9 feet from head to tail, Jhumroo was The Lord of the Lakes. He had dominated the area around Padam Talao and Malik Talao and during summers stayed in the cool confines of Raj Bagh. No wonder the guards said that these are truly ‘Royal’ Bengal Tigers. It is these forest guards and local guides who name them, usually after some bizarre connection. Take the case of Chimpoo Kapoor. Supposedly an ill-tempered sloth bear that loved running around trees, it was christened Chimpoo by Billoo the guide because it was slightly balding and in a vague way reminded him of the Bollywood actor.

Soon, the big night arrived. Once during the 15-day census a 24-hour waterhole count is conducted, usually on a full moon night. This is essentially done to get an estimate of the ungulate population. Ironically, there was a lunar eclipse on the full moon night of Buddha Purnima so it was decided that the all-night waterhole count would be conducted the night before. It was a massive operation. 4 forest ranges, 177 outposts, as many watering holes, 300 volunteers inside the park and I had the best job. Distributing food packets to them. Poori-alu and a pack of Tiger biscuits. Makeshift machaans had been erected on trees and cliffs overlooking different water holes. One guard and one volunteer were to man these precarious machaans for 24 hours (from 1100 hrs on 3rd to 1100 hrs on 4th). One wrong move and it would be the tiger doing the census.

The team had to note down the number of ungulates and predators that visited the water hole. Chital, sambar, nilgai, chinkara, wild boar, tiger, leopards, sloth bear, jackal and hyenas were on the guest-list. The results were to be tabulated later to arrive at an approximate count of these populations. At every machaan, I’d hand the goodies and ask: Kuchh dikha? Nahi sahab! Next waterhole. Aapko kuchh dikha? Bas ek saheli (porcupine). Another machaan. Haan bhai, koi aya? Sahab aap hi aye ho! By the time we had done the rounds from 8 till 2 in the morning we had seen 5 tigers, 2 leopards, 3 civet cats (the same guys who gave us SARS) and the Savanna and Indian Nightjars. 

Later, we returned for another midnight jaunt with the dashing Balendu bana, a man of good taste and great stories who runs the sprawling Dev Vilas resort. Apart from Aditya of Ranthambhore Bagh, he was the only resort owner helping out with the census. Slowly the silvery moon sank behind the walls of the 1000-year-old Ranthambhore Fort. It had been a long night, we were tired but more than us it was the creatures of the night who needed a break from our prying eyes. I silently promised not to disturb them till next year, when I’d be back, not as a volunteer for the tiger census but as the traveling tiffinwala distributing food packets…

BOX | How to Cast a Good Impression: Census Methodology

In India the Pugmark Plaster Cast Method is followed. PIPs (Pugmark Identification Pads) are prepared at strategic places on the tracks that criss-cross the park. To make the PIPs the soil in the ground is sieved to remove stones, pebbles and twigs and then the soil is evenly spread over the same place. This makes the ground soft with fine soil so that a good impression of the pugmark is cast on it. The PIPs are prepared a few days before the census begins. Once the census starts, the various Counting Units are allotted a forest beat. A counting unit consists of a few forest guards and some volunteers. They set out on foot at the crack of dawn and walk down their assigned beat. Every time they find pugmarks on the track they take a trace on tracing paper and a plaster cast of the left rear pugmark. They note down the area where the pugmark was taken, the date, the time and the direction of movement of the cat. Over a period of time many casts are made all over the park. At the end of the census a small team of experts sit together and analyze the different pugmarks. Since no two pugmarks are identical it is technically possible to make out the different tigers by the plaster casts of their pugmarks. The same tiger can leave seemingly different pugmarks depending on its speed, gait and even the soil type. It takes an expert to figure out the nuances but the method does give a decent estimate of the tiger population though it can never be dead accurate. The margin of error through this methodology is very high but since it is an inexpensive method and the guards are trained in it for a long time, this is the method the forest department prefers.

Aditya suggests that the best way to conduct such a census is by setting up infrared trip cameras at different PIPs. But this is very expensive and time consuming and is hence not preferred. A more reliable and cost-effective system is the Line Transact Method. You take a contour map of the different geographical regions in the park. Ranthambore has seven, six if you don’t include the out of bounds wetland area. You draw an imaginary straight line across the geographical regions, take a team of two people and note down what all you see in a fortnight. You do the same with another team, take an average and you have a decent approximate figure.  

FACT FILE

Getting there:

By Road: Delhi – Jaipur – Tonk – Sawai Madhopur (440 km/8 hours)

By rail: Kota Jan Shatabdi Express from Nizamuddin to Kota. Dep 1:10pm arriving at Sawai Madhopur at 6:15pm. Overnight journey in Dehradun Mail from New Delhi Station. Departure at 10pm arriving at Sawai Madhopur at 5am

Where to Stay:

Ranthambhore Bagh

Located on the main sanctuary road, Ranthambhore Bagh is a homely resort run by Aditya Singh, who much to the consternation of his wife Poonam spends more time inside the jungle than at the resort. The Bagh comes equipped with 12 Swiss Cottage tents, 12 double rooms, a well-stocked library, a boutique, cycles and is a haunt for wildlife enthusiasts, professional photographers and birdwatchers. The garden itself acts as a sanctuary with close sightings of Golden Orioles, Rufous Tree Pies, Green Bee-eaters, Yellow-footed Green Pigeons and Red Wattled Lapwings. Legend has it, 6 years ago a tigress had stayed on the terrace of the Bagh for 3 full days. Even today, leopards are known to snatch fowls and dogs from the fringes of the resort in the dead of the night.

Food & Acco: Double rooms for Rs.2400 and Swiss Cottage Tents for Rs.3050 (for two persons per night on twin sharing basis with all meals, taxes as applicable). Food is a delicious blend of Rajasthani, Indian and Continental fare.

For bookings: Call Ranthambhore Bagh at 07462-221728 or its Delhi office at 26914417/2681792. E-mail: tiger@ranthambhore.com Website: www.ranthambhore.com 

Safaris: There are 14 routes presently, essentially 7 that are done on a forward and reverse basis with a limited number of jeeps allotted a fixed route so it’s advisable to book in advance, which can be done 65 days in advance.

When to go:

The park is open from October to June, shutting down in the monsoon season between July and September. The peak season is till May, after which it gets very hot. The winter season offers good light to photograph the tigers though in summer, the water sources begin to dry up and the undergrowth is scanty making tiger sightings far more convenient. 

Around Ranthambore:

Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary

The terrain is flat and rocky with gently sloping hills. The Devpura irrigation dam within the sanctuary is a useful source of water for wildlife and a good habitat for aquatic flora and fauna.

Keladevi Sanctuary 

The northern extension of Ranthambhore, Keladevi has the curious feature of two separate ridges running parallel to each other with dense forests in between. Some gorges with high moisture retention and cooler temperatures, known as ‘kiwil’ act as nature’s treasure houses. The sanctuary is bound to the west by the Banas river which finally flows into the Chambal to the south, making it a varied landscape.

Mansarovar and Surwal 

Mansarovar is a large deep-bottomed lake 24km from Ranthambore Bagh known for its picturesque sunsets while Surwal is a shallow lake. Both these water bodies are excellent for winter migratories like Demoiselle Cranes, Pelicans, Flamingoes, Bar-headed and Greylag Geese.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

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