By Kay Tiwari
On 20th January the first phase of the census count of tigers began in Bandhavgarh, part of the biggest ever tiger census in India. Though it was not freely advertised anyone could request permission to take part in the transect walks through the forests of MP. I therefore requested permission to take part on the two mornings of 24th and 25th January 2014.
I was placed with the Beat Guard of Shesh Shaya Beat in the Chakradhara of Tala Zone, Gita, a female Forest guard in Bandhavgarh and she was accompanied by a young trainee presently at the Training School here, named Uma, plus three watchmen from various camps in the area including Khriki and Sita Mandap. We were required to gather information on two different transects across the Chakradhara area, each walked on differing mornings. The information gathered included species count seen, vegetation identification within various quadrants along the path, also tree species seen and their numbers and also work out percentages of the various vegetation, dead, dried growing etc. If scat was found it had to be collected as did pugmark traces and plaster casts if possible. Any sign of scratch marking or scent marking by tigers was also important to note with photograph of course and so too signs of other large predators or bears etc. It was going to be very interesting to do.
Apart from the obvious chance to walk in unknown areas it was also a good opportunity to see the work of the Forest staff in action and understand the procedures involved and the difficulties of working in the field. As the weather was dull, rainy and misty there was little opportunity to see much wildlife apart from chital deer, a few sambar and the odd wild boar and peafowl but it was interesting to talk to the staff and learn more about medicinal herbal plants and how the locals use the jungle vegetation for various purposes from inducing child birth to treating malaria. It was also interesting to hear that when the forest were thicker and less wheat grown in the area ancestors would collect the seeds of the bamboo flowers and grind them to a flour and make a kind of roti bread from this source.
As the transect was walked the staff noted tree species and noted down GPS readings at certain points where animals were spotted and what distance away they were located. Though on the walks undertaken, one behind Ghiriaya tank, a square water tank cut into the bedrock hundreds of years ago, past Ram Tulia pool under the Fort plateau and across Shesh Shaya Road to the Kila turn and a second across the ridge looking towards Khriki and down on Ghorademon there were no actual signs of tigers presence or any other big predator for that matter. No scat or pug marks, no claw markings or feeding points other than the presence of skeletonal remains of old bones of deer. In fact it was after finishing the transect of the first morning that we heard alarm calls below behind Gopalpur and were alerted to the presence of a tiger. Vijaya’s pugs of the morning were spotted on the road down towards Chakradhara from where we were heading towards the Vishnu statue and we headed to see if we might glimpse her.
Being quite an elusive tigress she is rarely spotted by the staff on their walks and though visitors might see her the forest workers actually get less chances of spotting tigers on their work day duties. Any chance excites any dedicated staff and Gita loves the tigers that live on her beat. As we slowly walked down and waited on the edge of the grasslands of Chakradhara there was little thought we as a team of seven on foot might see this tigress. Calls of sambar rung on the hillside and all thought her gone. As the vehicle headed to collect us and we walked down the road I spotted movement near the junction to the watchtower and there was Vijaya walking on the road. She had just crossed from behind a small hill and now stepped on the road for a second. All the girls of the party saw their tigress and Gita radioed the sighting in to headquarters as we watched her disappear on the hill behind the watch tower and vanish from sight.
Walking in the forest was indeed a rewarding experience. Not only does the thrill of seeing a tiger on foot carry something special in your memory but being 500 meters above the roads one normally ply in the jungle adds a unique perspective on the importance of the Bandhavgarh forests. For the staff who accompanied this small party of just two female volunteers this is an everyday job. The terrain can be difficult and the weather unforgiving at times but the joy of walking this special earth must be amazing. I will certainly volunteer to do this again. For me it offer insight into where the tigers of Tiger Nation roam, where there watering places are and caves are hidden and also the places where their prey are tracking. These factors are important when talking tigers to visitors to Bandhavgarh and the opportunity to know where secret springs are hidden and footpaths is essential to learn. However next time I will remember Bandhavgarh’s ticks, tiny pinhead like irritants are not fun to live with for days after. Does it matter that much? I would say no because the chance to walk in Bandhavgarh is unforgettable.
Also it is important to appreciate from the staff’s perspective the hard life they lead and the work they do. It might appear idyllic but there are hazards too. One may never know if there is a tiger or bear around the corner and those tiny pests that we all forget, they are simply something else, itching as I am right now.
Credits: Tiger Nation