Ever wondered what it’s like to be in the field and in the thick of the action, working to conserve one of the most majestic and charismatic cat species in the world?
Here’s a first hand account by Rebecka Le Moine, who spent six weeks with WWF-India as an ecology intern. Rebecka is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Ecology and the Environment at the Linköping University in Sweden.
I came to India at the beginning of May, and travelled to Jabalpur in the Sapuda Maikal Landscape (SML). This landscape has six tiger reserves and hosts about seven percent of the world’s tiger population. WWF-India has been working here since 2003 and now has three offices and multiple field camps within the landscape.
The global tiger conservation goal is to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022. This goal is known as Tx2. WWF has been identifying sites where the doubling of the tiger population is feasible and suitable based on available habitats and prey. These areas are called “Tx2 sites”. WWF has pinpointed two sites in the Sapuda Maikal Landscape, and it is crucial for them to prove the importance of tigers within these sites. A good way to do that is through camera traps.
As waterholes are important drinking spots for all animals, it is an ideal place to set up camera traps. Some of the areas have no legal protection today, but WWF is hoping that their protection can be strengthened in the future, and discussions have been initiated with the forest department. For now, it was time to set up some new camera traps.
A jeep took us to a Tx2 site called Balaghat, which is an important corridor area between the Kanha and Pench tiger reserves.
The exact position of the camera trap is carefully determined to increase the chances of capturing a tiger on camera.
A tiger’s stripes to them are like our are fingerprints are to us. They are unique to each tiger and can therefore be used to identify them. This makes it possible to track a tiger’s movement if it is captured on camera traps in different locations.
When we walked in the jungle, it was more than 40 degrees Celsius. Having a good water supply and staying hydrated is crucial for fieldwork. We made stops now and then in the shadows to share our water and have some snacks to eat. During the walks, we spotted a lot of birds, all of them new to my eyes. Monkeys were climbing in the silence, putting a safe distance between us and them as we walked, and making the tree canopy shake.
It’s exciting to think if the camera you put up will capture anything during the dark hours, when the tiger roams around…
After setting up the cameras for the day, we headed back to the field station where we lived under simple conditions and cooked our food together. Since it was so hot, our field visits were planned for the early mornings and evenings. As the sun set for the day, we ate some food before we went to sleep in the middle of the TX2 site.
The reserves face several threats since they are not very well connected. Even if the border of protection divides the human’s behaviour, it does not affect the tiger’s movement in the landscape. WWF has high ambitions; aiming for a fully connected landscape via tiger reserves (core areas) and functional corridors, resulting in a 20 percent increase in habitat.
But there are many threats and challenges in this, not least in the crucial boundary between Kanha tiger reserve and Pench tiger reserve. To gain an understanding of this, we drove across this corridor on our way to the field station. Here, in the middle of the corridor, a national highway and a railway are being planned.
As the country is developing, the demand for infrastructure increases. But these roads are cutting the two tiger sources apart, in an already weak linkage.
We made a stop to take a look at the planned railway, which was already being built. I stood still and looked at the planned infrastructure. I stood in the silence, which was broken now and then by different birds singing. I couldn’t imagine how it would be like with trains crossing in the middle of this valuable and unique jungle. The partially developed railway cuts between the Kanha and Pench tiger reserves.
WWF is recommending the construction of tunnels or underpasses to facilitate wildlife migrations in the landscape, but there are no results yet to be seen. I hope, for the sake of the tigers and all the other wildlife that roam around here, that the authorities are willing to listen.
Roads with its traffic mean noise, light and air-pollution, as well as direct dangers when crossing the road. Therefore, many animals tend to avoid roads, and populations can become isolated.
HUMAN WILDLIFE CONFLICT
We continued the drive, and I witnessed the overgrazing. I saw more cows than I saw straws, and I realized how high the pressure must be on the vegetation and those who graze on them. The high amount of cattle makes it easy for tigers to hunt and kill them, which will cause great economic loss to the farmers.
This can result in negative attitudes towards the tigers. Sometimes, tigers are being killed because of this.
To decrease the negative attitudes, WWF-India works with the affected farmers and visits them. When conflict is documented, 2500 rupees (37 USD) is paid to the farmers to serve as interim relief to compensate for some of the economic loss. The rest of the compensation is being paid by the forest department.
During my stay in India, we celebrated World Environment Day with the theme “fight against the illegal trade in wildlife”. On this day, WWF-India held an anti-poaching campaign.
In 2015, there were approximately 90 tigers poached in India. Some researchers argue that if the poaching continues at its current rate, many, if not all, the tiger population will be wiped out in the near future.
But this is just according to computer data models, in reality, the future lies in our hands. We put up posters and signs with information about the poaching that is going on, which is directly affecting the number of tigers. Many people stopped, read, talked and signed.
At the end of the day, we got around 500 signatures! All kinds of people participated in this — young and old, men and women; all of them signing their name for a future without poaching.