Mudumalai Wildlife Census 1998 – Memoirs of a participant
The sun had just set in on 18th of December and the cold of the Blue Mountains was chilling. All the volunteers of the annual wildlife census of Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park, 1998, had assembled at the auditorium near the elephant camp at Theppakadu. The census was funded by the wildlife wing of Tamil Nadu Forest department and was co-ordinated by Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association (NWLEA). The volunteers all of whom were members of NWLEA were mainly residents of the Nilgiris and a substantial number of them were from students of forestry college, Mettupalayam. The dynamic wildlife warden of Mudumalai and Mukurthi, Mr. A.Udayan, gave introduction to the census along with the methods adopted. i.e. line transect and block count. Mr. Ajay Desai, experienced wildlife researcher, gave details on counting tigers by pugmark method. After the deliberations, the volunteers were taken to Kargudi and rested at the Peacock dormitory amidst the beautiful teak forest. This was my first experience of a wildlife census outside Karnataka. Sleeping in the midst of a forest where the roars of tigers intertwined with the trumpets of Elephants excited me no end. And I spent a restless night eager to unwind the secrets of this land of roar and trumpet.
The census participants were up the next day by about 4:30 AM. At 5:30 AM the participants were briefed by Mr. Udayan and Mr. Doraisawamy, DFO, Nilgiris North Division. All the volunteers were divided into 30 teams. Each team consisted of one or two volunteers and two forest staff. The teams were given packed breakfast, lunch and plaster of paris powder (to record the pugmarks of the big cats – tigers and leopards). I was allotted the Chikhalla to trijunction transect, which is about 4 kms long. As this transect was on the western edge of the sanctuary and away from Kargudi, we set off for the transect in the forest department vehicle. On the way a number of teams were dropped off at their respective transects. Just as our transect was approaching, we came across a herd of about 15 guar to the right of the road. A few meters from this herd were two huge guars facing each other with their horns locked. Our vehicle came to an abrupt halt and those in the vehicle witnessed a very fierce fight. The two guar would face each other, go a few paces behind and with all their might, would crash into each others horns. It was akin to two hefty baseball players clashing with their sticks. The sound of the fight was like the breaking of these sticks each time they clashed. But the fight for lasted not more than a minute and we were off to our destination. The vehicle stopped at a forest anti-poaching camp (APC) near the tri-junction of some of the best-protected and richest wildlife areas of the Indian sub-continent i.e, Mudumalai National Park (Tamil Nadu), Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Karnataka) and Waynad Wildlife Sanctuary (Kerala). There were about five teams, which set off in different directions, after being warned by the anti-poaching staff to watch out for elephants.
Accompanied by two forest watchers and a forest guard, I walked to my transect line. The vegetation consisted mostly of natural teak amidst tall grass. Near the stating point of the transect line, a small wet stream was present. The guard said that this point was frequented by a tigress. Hence I decided to search for pugmarks on the sand bed and soon our attention was drawn to the carcass of a sambar. In all probability this sambar was killed by the tigress which the guard was mentioning of. A little away we came across the track of the tigress (tiger) on the sand bed. Using the P.O.P we took a casting of the left hind pugmark. After doing so, we walked along the transect line. Although we were not lucky enough to see any mammals, the area was rich in birds, particularly woodpeckers. We walked on for about an hour and half without sighting much wildlife, but we came across various foot prints and occasionally the alarm calls of chital. We were nearing the end of our transect line and ahead of us the terrain was slightly elevated. We rested for a few minutes breathing in the fresh air.
We started again and very silently walked for a few minutes. Suddenly, one of the forest watchers who was about twenty meters ahead of us stopped and gestured us to observe in front. Ahead of us were elephants. Without wasting much time, I questioned him through signs on the number of males, females and young ones. He conveyed back, silently, that there was one calf, three adults and two sub-adults, all of which were females. Just as he informed us of the above and turned back to the elephant herd, the cow elephant had already announced her intentions. Without giving any warning she charged towards us. And we, without wasting a fraction of a minute, began to run. Two people were ahead of me and one was behind. All of us ran as fast as we could without uttering a word. Throughout, I never looked back. What made me run was the fear on the faces of the two who were running ahead of me. Every time they turned back, their faces turned paler and paler, which made me run more faster. Only when they slowed down, did I pick up the courage to look back. Then I saw the cow elephant standing amidst the teak trees, trumpeting loudly. We had ran for about hundred and fifty meters. When we stopped further twenty meters away, all were gasping for breath. In the confusion, the tigress pug mark cast was lost, along with few other minor things. As we had almost completed the transect and did not want to take chances with the elephants we decided to walk back along the transect to the starting point. The sun was already high and all of were hungry. Under the shade of a huge ficus tree, we all had our breakfast. This place was full of elephant footmarks and dung. The guard explained that this place was used by elephants to escape the heat, as there was a small water hole just besides it. After finishing our breakfast, we again left for the staring point of the transect. We moved along slowly, watching for any signs of wildlife. After we reached the starting point of the transect, we stopped. As we had lost the plaster cast of the pugmark collected earlier and as the stream where the dead sambar was lying was near, we again set off to collect the pugmark. We entered the streambed and as we were approaching the half eaten sambar, we heard a strange noise from very near. All of us suddenly stopped in our tracks. After a while, we heard the noise again, which sounded like the growl of a big cat. This time the forest guard hastily added it as that of a tiger’s and asked us to vacate the stream as early as possible. We scrambled off the stream to the grassland besides it and assembled at a common point. After escaping from the elephants now it was the fear of tiger. But the guard put up a brave front, saying that there have rarely been any attacks by tigers in Mudumalai. Any how the tiger (tigress) was probably approaching its dead prey to satisfy its hunger and hence it might have been disturbed by us, he added. We waited for sometime for any other sign of the big cat. One of the forest watchers climbed a Jamun tree and scanned the area around, through my binoculars. As time passed by there was no sign of the tigress, hence we decided to get the pugmark cast again. After carefully confirming that the tiger was not anywhere around and asking one of the forest watchers to keep a watch, we cautiously approached the pugmark track. We did not waste any time in taking a plaster cast of the pugmark and immediately after doing so we came back to starting point of the transect line. We rested for a few minutes before beginning our walk back to the anti-poaching camp (APC).
Two teams had reached the APC before us. After eating the packed lunch, I was washing my hand, when my eyes fell on a skink moving fast - after which was a snake. Wary of me the snake could not catch its prey and stopped about five meters in front of me. I had enough time to get close pictures of it. After going through its features I could make it out as a Bronze back tree snake. Later on, the other two census teams also returned to the APC and we all set off for our dormitories at Kargudi in the forest department vehicle.
It was a memorable evening. All the participants shared their exciting and sometimes frightening experiences, which they had that day. Some of them saw a leopard trying to attack a Guar. A few of them saw a sloth bear with cubs. One of them had a green pit viper slithering in front of his feet and Mr. Rangaswamy, senior member of NWLEA came across 2 leopard cubs following their mother on the road to Ombetta Lake. One of my fellow participant suggested that the cow elephant, which charged against our team, was just scaring us and it was a mock charge. But I replied that wild animal attacks are just mock attacks – only if you escape unharmed. If you do not escape and are harmed, it is a serious charge. This is particularly true to elephants, I added. After finishing our dinner, Honorary Secretary of NWLEA, Mr. T. Ravi informed that the next day we wee going to census the mammals using he block count method.
As usual every one was awake early the next morning. At 6:00 AM all the participants were briefed about the block count by Mr. Ravi and Mr. Udayan. According to this, all the fifty census volunteers were taken to a road parallel to the Mysore - Ooty highway. Each volunteer was accompanied by a forest department personal. A distance of about ten metres was maintained between subsequent volunteers and all of them were required to walk towards east i.e., towards the interstate highway. As the grass was tall in many places, the volunteers were required to tie a piece of white cloth or a hankey to a stick provided, so that their adjacent teams could see them and move in as straight toward east as possible. At 7:00 AM exactly the census operation began and as instructed the volunteers began to move ahead. Many of the volunteers particularly those who had compasses moved in the straightest possible direction, but some of the volunteers could not get it straight and took their own time in reaching the state highway. Although many of the volunteers could not sight any mammals, I and my adjacent teams were lucky enough to sight three herds of elephants numbering to more than twenty five. Fortunately for us, none of them charged against us this time around. After the census, the participants reached the main road and were all taken back to Kargudi.
After finishing the breakfast at Kagudi, the volunteers were taken to Theppakadu and briefed on the sightings and recordings of the census by the organisers. They interacted with each other on their experience of the census. The volunteers recorded their thanks to the wildlife officials of Mudumalai and also NWLEA, for the excellent arrangements and co-ordination. After the vote of thanks, all the volunteers were taken to the nearby Moyar falls. The Moyar River thundering down the Moyar gorge amidst dense forests, with the gigantic Nigiri hills in the background- it was a sight to behold. While returning from the Moyar gorge, a herd of Guar crossing the road was sighted. Volunteers who had cameras could get some good photographs of these magnificent herbivores. Later on the volunteers were taken to Kargudi. From here the participants departed to their respective destinations, taking back with them many cherishable moments gained by experiencing at the closest possible distance the, beautiful wildlife of our last remaining forests.
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