Walking the line in Wayanad
Groups of trained amateurs volunteer for data-gathering missions in the jungles of Wayanad, an activity that's as thrilling as it is rigorous
Except for the sound of birds charting their course for the day, the forest is ominously silent at 6am. It is still misty and cold in the Tholpetty range of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, a landscape that is a mix of moist and dry deciduous forests, with bits of marshy land and patches of semi-evergreen forest. Fresh air and the smell of wet earth after rain come as a heady tonic.
Two volunteers step quietly into the dense foliage, guided by the red-paint markings on trees. One is a veteran, the other a newcomer. They walk slowly, a few feet apart, making as little sound as possible, armed with only a notebook, pen, compass, range-finder and bottle of water. Scanning the area for any signs of life, they proceed slowly, covering around 3km in 2 hours. They are on high alert on this wildlife science mission in the core of the jungle. Every sound is important if one is to be accurate in the data collected—besides, of course, protecting oneself. This is, after all, the home of the elephant, bear, gaur, leopard and tiger.
They are volunteers on a “line transect", a research methodology adopted by the Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS-India) in its study of forest ungulates (herbivores), conducted annually.
As part of a line-transect survey, the survey area is divided into squares by a computer program to ensure the best sample. The “lines" are marked by red paint on trees every few metres and the volunteers follow this path, scanning the area around them. On sighting an animal, they quickly identify the species, count the number of individuals and take distance and angle using laser range-finders and compasses. Two people walk each “line" 8-10 times during a span of 10-15 days to get a good prey estimate. For an entire park/sanctuary covering many ranges, this can mean many walks across a month. The final data is statistically processed to arrive at as accurate an estimate as possible.
There are 27 “lines" (or squares) of 3.2km each in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and seven in the Tholpetty range. A team of 20 participants (including volunteers and WCS-India field assistants) cover 220km over 10 days, usually in June and July. Back in the 1990s, the forest was surveyed by walking straight lines, but this meant the team had to walk back after the survey to be picked up. The demarcation was later converted into squares that enabled better sampling and allowed walkers to return to the starting point at the end.
Volunteers are trained to watch for signs to detect an animal before it sees them. Many have encountered a tiger at 5 metres or seen an elephant herd pass by a metre away. But it is the herbivores that they are really looking out for. A healthy herbivore population is an indicator of the carrying capacity of the forest for carnivores. An accurate estimate of cheetal, sambar, gaur, wild pig, muntjac, mouse deer, four-horned antelope, langur, chinkara, giant squirrel, nilgai, and lion-tailed macaque populations calls for extreme alertness in sighting. It could be the slightest movement detected through the undergrowth, the faintest sound of a twig breaking or a new smell. Some liken the experience to meditation.
Physical and mental fitness are essential requirements. Letting attention flag even momentarily could mean missing a detection, or bumping into an elephant herd. Ironically, though, what puts off most volunteers is the ticks and leeches. Some volunteers never come back for more. At the Tholpetty range camp in Wayanad, this summer, however, there were young jungle veterans who had braved it all and returned for more, led by WCS-India’s research assistant Shivakumar. Most are seasoned jungle wayfarers who come for the love of wildlife and wild places. They can sense a tiger’s presence in an area by sniffing tiger spray scent on a tree trunk or leaf, or sift tiger scat to determine you how old it is. The flies on it are an indication of its freshness, indicating how recently an individual cat has passed by.
Mornings begin at 4. While the camp at Begur has toilets and beds, most other camps can fall into the “shack" category. Dropped at their respective points, each team starts its slow walk into the jungle at 6am. No phones or cameras are allowed inside and clothing has to blend with the landscape. By 8am , they return to where they began and are picked up. Details of sightings are exchanged. Back at camp, it’s time for a simple breakfast and a quick nap followed by lunch. By 3pm the group starts getting ready for the next set of walks, from 4-6pm. By 10, the team retires for the day.
Ask D.V. Girish, wildlife conservationist and founder of a Chikmagalur-based wildlife conservation organization called WildCat-C, and he will tell you that walking a transect is a “divine experience". He has been “doing the line" for almost three decades, having begun as a youngster in 1990. Girish has walked the jungle terrains of Bandipur, Nagarhole and Bhadra, the hilly ones in Melghat and Amrabad, ravines of Ranthambore and grasslands of Kanha. Walking a jungle on foot, and doing it at the slow pace of a transect walk, can “elevate one’s understanding of a forest", he believes. He has walked a line between elephants on both sides, retraced steps from slushy hudlus (marshland) with reposing elephants, and been stared at by a tiger from 15ft across marshy land. He still believes crossing a street in Indian cities is far more dangerous.
Sometimes they even encounter people. This one time at Tholpetty, Madhu M.V. (a regular volunteer) and his partner found guns trained on them by the police, beckoning them to approach with their hands raised. It turned out the police were looking out for Maoists in the region.
The data collected is analysed and the report submitted to the state forest department. It helps as a monitoring tool and information base for decision-making in managing the forest. For example, whether interventions after a fire have been helpful or not can be checked by studying the herbivore population in the following year, and comparing it to the previous year.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) also uses this data in its national assessment for “status of tigers, co-predators, prey and their habitat", conducted every four years in collaboration with state forest departments and conservation NGOs. WCS-India’s transect data from Anshi-Dandeli, Bhadra, Nagarahole, Bandipur, BRT Tiger Reserve, Goa and Wayanad was used by the NTCA in its 2014 study.
If you would like to volunteer at line transects, visit Wcsindia.org for details.