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Of rats, elephants, tigers, birds and a noisy jeep
| July 04, 2018
Recovering data from Camera traps comes as an exciting adventure with its ups and downs.
It was 2014. The college term had come to an end and I was clearing my desk for the summer break.
The students were excited they were going to the next class, with new subjects, new teachers and new things to learn, not to forget new classes to bunk!!!
Then it dawned on me that I had to teach the same subjects again next year. What a boring proposition. Life had come a full circle and I was bored with my job again. No sweat, I told myself I would take up that volunteering opportunity posted on Facebook by WCS India. Time to bite the bullet, face the music, swallow the pill… I am running out of idioms but that sums up how I joined WCS India.
Fast forward to January 2018 and here I am, still in love with my job after four years with WCS (by which time my friend in IT sector have hopped five companies and changed six iPhones). I have handled various tasks, starting with data entry, driving noisy jeeps to garages, walked elephant abundant line transects, paid phone bills, handled volunteers and interns. But I had never spent more than a few weeks in the jungles.
So when Killivalavan Rayar, Assistant Director - Conservation Science, WCS India, informed me I was to join the camera trapping team in Wayanad wildlife sanctuary for the season, I thought it was time to enjoy pristine nature (sic), and put to test all the field gear accumulated over numerous trips to Decathlon.
Next day I was on a Calicut bus (Kozhikode in Malayalam) with instructions to get down at Moolehole check post. The driver crosschecked with me to know why I was getting down in the middle of the jungle. “Oh departmentaaa, illa tiger censusaaa?” What if tigers eat you, what if elephants crush you to a pulp, amid such encouraging questions I got down at Moolehole.
Moolehole camp, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary © Vinod K
A field assistant was waiting for me and we had to cross a stream into Kerala where our camp was. A simple task if there was a bridge, but not so simple if you had to cross on a few bamboo poles tied together and creaking under your weight and you having to balance luggage in both hands, much like Gordon-Levitt from
A few hundred meters and the camp started coming into view. It was going to be my accommodation for the next few months. How do I describe it? It was quiet and peaceful, overlooking a clear jungle stream and majestic trees, the original eco-resort. I have a tendency to exaggerate but to put it simply it was a hut in the jungle with a trench around it to keep out elephants.
Now, Wikipedia defines a home as a structure with four walls and a roof designed to keep out cold, rain and provide safety. Our camp was nearly there with three walls, the fourth wall being a bamboo mat with gunny bags tied to keep the cold out.
White-rumped vultures spotted in Sulthan Bathery WL range, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary © Vinod K
I shared it with a few colleagues and a dozen rats who only ran about at night. We didn't mind them as long as they stuck to nibbling foodstuff. After all, weren't we the guys preaching co-existence with animals? But when they crossed the line by destroying my good pair of earphones, the trap was set and most were relocated ‘humanely’ across the stream.
A day at work normally involved getting up at the crack of dawn and going for camera trapping. Camera trapping - where you drive on trails in forests and watch animals at leisure, a free forest safari with some work thrown in?
Ignorance is bliss and dreams are meant to be shattered. We had to check 20-30 camera points a day driving our 4x4's (rickety rust bucket jeeps) for hundred kilometers like rally drivers at breakneck speeds of 20 KMPH!
Vinod K taking a slate shot during the camera-trap survey © Ullas Karanth/WCS
We had to be back in camp by 6 pm. It was a race against time but we operated with pit crew efficiency. One Research Assistant (RA) would open the camera trap shells and pull out the cameras, the other would download the data from both cameras and fill the forms and re-install the cameras and we would be on our way to the next camera trap point.
But the jungle is anything but predictable. Time would be wasted on removing fallen trees or being held up by majestic tuskers who simply don't recognize our right of way. Elephants don't like weird alien objects in their habitat, and our camera trap shells are just that, and for added incitement, there is the cameras flash! Finding uprooted shells was routine and reinstalling them was time-consuming and back-breaking work. Most of the days we reached our camp in the evening on time.
Elephant with its calf near Moolehole camp, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary © Vinod K
At WCS-India we nourish new talent. Raju, the field assistant, had never entered his kitchen at home, but in the camp fate (our fate, specifically) decided he would be the designated camp cook. In no time he learned to make six different varieties of rice-baaths for breakfast. They had different names and colors but tasted the same. Anyway, we didn’t have time to savour food during the day. Dinner was always better with me or Shivu guiding our Michelin-rated chef. Field stories would be swapped and friendly banter would turn to fierce debates while eating around the campfire.
Although we were in an area with the highest density of tigers in the world, sightings were rare. I had three sightings during the whole of two months. Maybe it didn’t make evolutionary sense for tigers to make themselves seen by pesky humans in noisy jeeps.
Elephants didn’t have such whims. Being mock charged by herds was a daily occurrence. Training and common sense said they wouldn’t press home the charge, but speeding away was not an option on the bad roads. Staying put needed nerves of steel. It was common to see the driver look calm and composed during such charges but normally legs would be wobbling and hands shaking on the gear lever (at least in my case).
My first tiger encounter was on February 01, 2018, 9:21:37 am. If you wonder how I am so sure of the timing, I was checking cameras when the Field Assistant shouted "tiger saar" and there the feline was walking in the fire line between Nagarahole and Wayanad. As we watched, it scent-marked a tree. All this excitement was captured by our camera trap. We may not have taken any photos of the tiger but the camera traps had taken photos of us watching the tiger, and the images come with the precise timing.
Remember the "Antichrist", the Land-Rover from the movie
The Gods Must Be Crazy
? We used to drive its desi cousin, the “AntiJeep”. It was so loud that holding a conversation while driving was impossible.
Incredibly most of our carnivore sightings were while driving this jeep. Wayanad is a birdwatcher’s heaven, most were lifers for me. My colleague Shrikanth showed me the most beautiful bird I have ever seen -- the Verditer flycatcher, an intensely blue colored bird with eyeliner, and the vernal hanging parrot which supposedly sleeps hanging upside down.
Vernal hanging parrot in Kurichiyat range, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary © Vinod K
The survey ended by mid-March. We removed the cameras and stored the shells for the next season. I returned to the office with a haul of around 80,000 wonderful images from the survey, each to be renamed and sorted.
By Vinod Kantamneni