Sunday, May 22, 2016


Visitors to Similipal, in spite of its designation as Tiger Reserve in 1973, have always remained sceptical about the presence of tiger in this 'very-rich forest' of Odisha.  Perhaps that seclusion which Similipal provided to Similipal enabled tiger to survive even today as the single largest population in the state.

Thick ground vegetation have rarely rewarded a glimpse of tiger in Similipal. Visitors and some wildlife enthusiasts are loud about their frustrations but the truth is they were (are) not oriented to the science of wildlife signs on the ground.

The truth is--, a tiger is territorial-- its male, female and cub have different dimensions of pugs; when they move they will after all walk on the ground; if the ground is suitable they will leave their pugmarks; and if we have the correct orientation we will observe the pugmarks and only the pugmarks to tell about the composition and spatial distribution of tiger population!

Back in 1975 I didn't have a refined orientation about tiger pug-tracking when I started my crocodile work from river Mahanadi at Satkosia Gorge surrounded by the forests later designated as gharial sanctuary and then Tiger Reserve. Even I had a laugh when Dr H R Bustard showed me a cartoon published in Science Today sometime in 1975/76 where a tiger cub was saying to its mother something like this-- 'I have fooled the enumerators by walking 3 times up and down the road, and they think I have siblings!'.

In 1979 I was a part of the large cat census work in Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary. The field data and evidences in the form of tracing sheets and plaster casts were carried by Mr B. P Das, the Wildlife Warden to Mr Saroj Raj Choudhury - the Field Director of Similipal and the 'guru' of pugmark tracking.

Pugmark tracking was first used in 1972 to determine tiger population in the country. The entire process was designed and coordinated by Mr S R Choudhury who was then Senior Research Officer at Wildlife Division of Forest Research Institute- Dehradun. 

During my stay in Similipal from 1987 the method got refined over many respects. WWF-India head quarters in New Delhi took notice of the work in Similipal and published the pugmark tracking guideline and pocketbook in 1999 and 2000. Before publication these work were reviewed with inputs of a number of "field scientists" from India and neighbouring countries. After the publications were released they were widely followed within India and in the neighbouring countries whose reports are still available.

People who were not oriented to the science of wildlife forensic signs continued to ask for photographic evidences of tiger. Their demand grew more when my study report of 1994-99 got published as research papers and a WWF-booklet to highlight occurrence of colour aberration in tiger over a range of at least 14 body colours including melanistic tigers of Similipal. 
During my wildlife studies in the USA in 1982 I got details about colleague Howard Hunt in Atlanta Zoo, USA (1970-80s) who used trip-cameras to detect predators visiting alligator nests in Georgia Swamps. Back in India in early part of 2000s interests were growing to use camera traps for tiger studies after initiations made by Mr Ullas Karanth in Nagarhole from mid-1990s. By the year 2005 industries were growing around camera trap, software and training of human resource to get and interpret photographic evidences. As the country that held 60-70% of world tiger population administration in India finally got inclined to use these modern development. As national bodies NTCA and WII could make it reach every state. But Similipal officers earlier this month quoted Mr Karanth saying that in Namdapha the staff see pugmarks but were unable to get photographs in camera trap! There is a long way to improve this science and go ahead.

In Odisha state after 12 years (2004-2016) of circumstantial neglect, pugmark tracking still says more about composition and spatial distribution of tiger/leopard population in any forest. 

However, one thing for sure, camera traps have lifted the image of Similipal as photos are now there of some of the tigers in colour range and location ranges. 

Let's not be complacent. Believe me, there are a few more tigers than our eyes or the cameras meet in the forest! We have to simply make the ground soft, keep walking, bent down at places, search the pugmarks, kneel down on the roads and bring these evidences as traces or plaster casts from field to analysis room. Yes, last word, please no goading to hurry up analysis in order to make an administrative announcement. 

Key: Tiger census, camera trap, pugmark tracking, Similipal