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Monday, March 22, 2021

Chp 853. Trekking at Dampa Tiger Reserve


Thank you all for "liking" and sharing my previous posts about Dampa Tiger Reserve. I managed to get around 1K visits each for those posts as of today, which will surely increase as time goes by because of Google search result hits.

I wrote those 3 posts to boost tourism at Dampa Tiger Reserve, and in case you haven't read them yet, you can click on the links below:

When I went to Dampa Tiger Reserve last month, I was tagging along on an official academic research, and so my experience was a bit different from what a typical tourist might experience there.

We (that is, the research team and I, along with the Wildlife guards accompanying us) trekked across vast mountain ranges planting motion cameras, collecting faecal samples (scats and pellets), recording various animal and bird sightings on a GPS map grid, and other scientific stuff that a civilian like me had never experienced before.

The entire expedition was extremely exhausting, but at the same time, a whole lot of fun!


I realized that if you ever want to be in conservation, you gotta have passion. Hardcore passion. Unless you are deeply interested in different biodiversities and don't mind roughing it out in the jungle devoid of any luxury or comfort for days and even weeks at a stretch, you will not survive in this rigorous line of work.


Here are some of the interesting things we did at Dampa Tiger Reserve that as a tourist you may not get to experience, partly because it was an official research related field work, and mostly because tourists are prohibited from visiting some of the areas we explored.

(For a list of things tourists can see and do at Dampa Tiger Reserve, do read my previous post.)

So the most important thing we did during our field work was to plant cameras.

The Research team from Wildlife Institute of India had installed numerous cameras across the gigantic reserve area, all strategically placed on a map grid, in order to study the ungulate population (animals having hoofs, like sambar and barking deer) as well as apex predators and smaller organisms.

To reach the camera locations, we had to travel across the vast forest area on foot.


We rambled through thick bamboo forests and evergreen trees, jumped across gentle streams and avoided not-so-gentle thorny shrubs, battled highly intelligent apes about to take over the planet and even found a crashed X-wing fighter!



:P

Jokes aside though, this one time, we kept climbing for almost 3 hours on a never-ending slope and finally when we stopped to take a break, I asked how much distance did we cover in that 3 hours ascent, assuming it would be around 20-30 KM. The answer? 4 KM. Lolz.



Just freaking 4 KM.

It felt like we had covered a lot of distance because we climbed up from a height of around 200m above sea level (where our base camp Teirei IB was located) to almost 900m above sea level during that 3 hours hike.


By the way, I have censored out all longitude and latitude indications in this post, so as to maintain the location's confidentiality. I mean, there's absolutely no chance that a poacher will read my blog post and then go to the specific location, but still, it's a matter of ethics.

We took a route based on the GPS devices the research team was carrying. All the camera locations (planted and to be planted) were already plotted out on a map grid, and they were all evenly distributed across the forest.


Now here's the toughest part. The map grid doesn't care about the terrain. :D

The research team would occasionally stop and brainstorm on the best route to take, as there were usually no existing human trails to reach that particular point indicated on the map grid.


It was as if the map grid was taunting us, "Awwwee you poor babeee, you wanted a clear path to reach this destination, so sad, did I hurt your fweelings, did I hurt your tiny sensitive emotional fweelings, go cry to mommy if you can't reach this location."

And so like a bunch of WW2 Japanese Imperial soldiers rushing on a suicidal Banzai charge at Iwo Jima, we would rush towards that location marked on the map grid, trotting through the pathless slope in wild frenzy.


Once we reached the exact spot as indicated on the map grid, the research team got ready to plant the cameras.

This was one of the many cameras we planted on that expedition.


As you can see from the image, the camera has many LED lights above and those are the motion detectors. Once it detects any slight movement, it will start recording and stop a few minutes after there's no longer movement. This is necessary because such cameras are planted for weeks at a stretch and there is simply not enough storage space to save the video file if it records 24/7.

Here is a sad aspect of the camera...


The above text translates to, "This camera is for studying purpose only so please do not destroy it". One of the students, Valpuia, even wrote on his camera, Dear sir, I am just a humble student, please do not destroy my camera, if you do, I will fail in my course. *cry emoji*

So the sad reality is that poachers and insurgents who illegally enter the reserve area destroy any cameras they find because they think it's recording them. To them, these cameras are like "Big Brother watching", their version of an Orwellian 1984 at a dystopian Dampa.

The research team had already pleaded to the YMA leaders of nearby villages like Damparengpui and West Phaileng, but people don't want to take any chances for fear of getting into trouble later if they are caught on camera.

Lalani told me that elsewhere in India, in a Hindu majority region, researchers used to keep an idol of a Hindu God next to their cameras, and similarly in a Muslim majority region, researchers write passages from the Koran next to their cameras, and so the local people usually don't destroy the cameras.

However the problem with Dampa Tiger Reserve is that the nearby local population consists of Mizos, Brus and Chakmas, and so we have a mix of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Animists. You can't really play the religious blackmail card in this case.

I really hope they get to sort this issue out soon, because as I have mentioned above, reaching even just one camera location itself is an arduous task, and to find it smashed up or stolen is such a huge disappointment. The camera in itself is completely useless to the common folk, making it a total waste. I mean, you can't even take a selfie with it. :P


One way of solving this problem is to have every camera sync to a cloud storage seamlessly so that the data recorded is not lost (as well as a chance of identifying the perpetrators) but you'll require a lot more budget for that system to be implemented. As of now, this is the status quo.

Anyway, coming back to the topic of camera installation, the research team immediately got into action.



Setting up the camera was just the first part of the hurdle.


Next, they had to test the camera feed and make sure it was working properly.




And then came the most painstaking part of the job - calibrating the motion sensors.



They had to test the motion detectors of the camera for every 2 feet, 3 feet, 4 feet and so on, up to 8 feet, making sure that all the sensors were functioning at all required distances.



And finally came the documentation.


Once that was done, the team removed all the poles and measuring tapes. The camera was finally ready to operate.

It takes more than 2 hours to completely set up a single camera installation. And it takes just 2 seconds for someone to destroy it. The sad reality of conservation.

Before leaving, we had to erase all traces of our presence by getting rid of our footprints or butt-cheek marks, covering up the holes made by the poles we planted, and making sure we didn't leave behind any biscuit or chip cover packets etc. This is done so that we don't disrupt the wildlife or pollute and corrupt the vicinity. It also helps prevent poachers and insurgents from finding our cameras.

We proceeded to the next location where a camera was already planted a couple of days earlier. The team wanted to check if it was still there or not...

Thankfully, it was still intact!


We looked at some of the video files the camera had captured and the research team was extremely satisfied with the findings.

Overall, it was a very successful day of trekking across Dampa Tiger Reserve because we were able to plant new cameras and the old cameras were still functional. However, those weren't the only things we did. Below is a list of other tasks we did during our little expedition:

 
1. Collecting faecal samples.

During our entire trek, we stopped frequently to collect faecal samples. In order words, we were continuously looking around for poop. Yes, I know, it was a shitty job. :P

Below is the faecal sample of probably a leopard or a clouded leopard.


The sample is measured, photographed, documented and then bagged for further laboratory analysis.


The lab tests will reveal not just the exact identity of the animal but also other crucial information like the age of the animal, whether it is suffering from any diseases, what it recently ate, and so on.

We also found faecal samples belonging to smaller animals like a civet or similar wild cats.



While collecting scats for faecal sampling, we must collect just a few pieces only and leave behind the rest because wildcats and other animals use their faeces to claim their territory and mark their presence. Collecting all the scats can disrupt their normal behaviour, hence disturbing the ecosystem.

One can make an educated guess about the identity of an animal by looking at its poop. For example, the faeces below definitely belongs to a carnivore because you can see hair and fur mixed with the poop since their stomach cannot digest those parts.


And below is the faeces of a Barking deer as it is in the form of pellets.


And finally, we have an elephant dung, proving that there used to be an elephant in the Reserve.


I used the past tense because the dung is at least one and a half years old, and Wildlife guard Pu Zakhuma told me it definitely belongs to the lone female elephant that was known to roam around the reserve on its own, feeling all lonely and probably listening to "Alone" by the 80's glamrock band "Heart".

I hear the ticking of the clock
I'm lying here the room's pitch dark
I wonder where you are tonight
No answer on the Elephone...

:P

 
2. Destroying traps and reporting poachers.

As we trekked across the forest, the Wildlife guards were busy exploring the areas around us looking for any animal traps or signs of poaching. By poaching, I don't mean just animals and birds, these Wildlife guards were also looking for signs of illegal fishing and the felling of trees.

Their duty was to destroy any traps they came across, but we didn't find any traps during that particular expedition. That was a relief.

We also found remnants of a small campfire left behind by the Anti Poaching guards (squad number *censored* who were currently patrolling that particular region) and it felt good to know they were somewhere in the vicinity, even though we didn't get to meet them.


 
3. Vegetation sampling.

Since we were following the map grid to plant the cameras, it was also an ideal time to do a bit of vegetation sampling. This is a method in which vegetation data is collected using a frame quadrant of a map. Each species is marked either present or absent, which allows the research team to calculate the percentage frequency of each species for the whole sample area.

Below is a Bombax cieba flower that we entered in our sampling grid.


The tree is used for feeding, nesting and roosting. Birds are attracted by the bright flowers, bees feed on the nectar, and monkeys too love to eat the flower. The presence of this flower automatically indicates that such animals, birds and insects are nearby too.

 
4. Assisting animals.

The Wildlife guards also act as support staff for the various animals and birds inhabiting the reserve area. They clear fallen boulders and trees (especially tall bamboo grass) that may block burrows or nests.

They were continuously on the lookout for such abnormalities during our trek too.

Below is a fruit known as "Elephant apple". It is a favourite food of monkeys, deer, elephants and other herbivores in the surrounding region.


As you can see from the above image, it has a very thick cover that is quite difficult to gnaw through. Sometimes the Wildlife guards would chop the fallen fruits in half with their sharp machetes and then leave the pieces at the same place again, so that it would be easier for the animals to eat them.


Though this gesture may seem kind and thoughtful, many conservationists, including Lalani, are of the opinion that this may disrupt their normal behaviour as wild animals are supposed to roam around looking for food by themselves.

 
5. Identifying the presence of animals and birds.

The team also looked out for the presence of other animals during our trek, apart from collecting the faeces samples. For example, we came across a tree that showed signs of an elephant presence (yes that same lonely female elephant mentioned earlier above).


You can see the bark of the tree above where the elephant apparently scratched her back. :D

I also took a few amateur photographs of insects I came across during that trek, like this beautiful giant red bug which is called Giant Red Bug. :D It is a petatomid bug (Stink bug) Microcheraia spp.


And then there was this cute little stick insect which I found walking gingerly on my pants. I gently removed it and placed it on a tree. I could have sworn the little fella said "Thank you!". :D



 
6. Avoiding insurgents.

Dampa Tiger Reserve also has different insurgent groups operating in the surrounding areas, especially towards the Bangladesh border, because it serves as a good cover from the Indian army. As a tourist, you don't have to worry because tourists are prohibited from visiting such areas anyway and the only people allowed are the Wildlife guards and people on official duty.

Some of the active insurgent groups in the region are the Shanti Bahini (a Chakma insurgent group), the NLFT - National Liberation Front of Twipra (a Tripuri insurgent group) and the BDF - Bru Democratic Front (a Bru insurgent group).

Apparently you can identify some of the areas where they operate by the markers they placed to keep out Wildlife guards and researchers, like this fallen tree we came across during our trek for example.


I shuddered a bit on seeing the blockade, but somebody once told me that even though the insurgents are prone to violence, they will not kill or harm any Mizos because of the backlash they will face from the larger Mizo community of Mizoram. There had been a few incidents of Mizo Wildlife guards being kidnapped by the insurgents, but none of them were ever harmed.

In fact recently when 22 BRO (Border Road Organization) employees were kidnapped at gunpoint, all Mizo workers among them were immediately released and only the non-Mizos were held at ransom.

Yes, nobody wants to see a repeat of 1997 again.

A small part of me, the reckless blogger part of me, was actually wishing that the insurgents appear and kidnap us (provided they don't harm us of course), so that I can have a new blog topic to write about. :D :P

But then again, which insurgent group, however heartless and cruel they may be, can ever get to kidnap these cute and sweet people, right? :)



 
7. Visiting APC.

There are various Anti Poaching Camps spread across the vast reserve, and Wildlife guards are posted there for months at a stretch. Their main duty is to prevent poaching and preserve the natural surroundings. Such places are off-limits to tourists.

The exact number of Anti-Poaching guards and the location of the camps are confidential, but researchers visit them occasionally, and sometimes take canned food and other items for them too. The camps range from a makeshift thatched hut to a simple concrete building.

All pictures below are courtesy of Wildlife guard Pu Zakhuma.







And so, these are my experiences at Dampa Tiger Reserve. As a tourist, you may not get to experience all this, but at least I hope I was able to take you on a visual journey across it and serve as your eyes.

I want to visit the place again, and maybe spend a night or two in one of the APCs. There are so many things yet to explore in that region.

What we did during my trip was just trekked across the forest at sunrise and returned to base camp before dark. But the research team frequently camped in the forest for many days as it wasn't possible to return to camp due to the sheer size of Dampa Tiger Reserve (500 Sq KM core zone and 488 Sq KM buffer zone).

Below are pictures of such camps sent to me by Joonu Chakma.





I'd like to experience this as well. :)

Hope I was able to inform and entertain you with this blog update. If this (and my previous 3 posts) aren't enough to convince you to visit Dampa Tiger Reserve, I don't know what will. But I really hope you visit the place one day.

I'll end this blog update for now, so, until my next post, take care, everyone.

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