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Introducing the Tiger Team
Posted on June 2, 2010
Hi! I am Nazneen Ahmed from Bangladesh and I work for one of the conservation programmes of ZSL – the Sundarbans Tiger Project (STP). STP works for the conservation of our national animal, the Bengal tigers. I belong to the Awareness and Education team (AnE) of this project and my other team members include Rezvin Akter, Iqbal Hussain and Travis Child. The STP has other teams too and gradually through each new update on this blog, I will introduce them to you.
As my team name suggests, we are responsible for all the communication and awareness building tasks of the STP because conservation is not only about doing research – a large portion of success lies on establishing two way communication between the conservationists and the mass people to bring about the positive changes we need to conserve tigers.
This time, I will share with you my first experience of the wild Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest of the world and home to one of the largest remaining populations of Bengal tigers.
In March, Naser Hossain, one of our first STP project members, a Masters student at King Mongkut University in Thailand, and also Assistant Conservator of Forests in the Forest Department (he’s a very busy man!), was doing a canal survey to strengthen our existing tiger monitoring survey. Naser was being supported by STP’s wildlife technicians Alam, Mizan, Khairul and the boat crew which is headed by Montu.
While the survey was going on, we, that is those who were based in our office in Dhaka (Bangladesh’s capital), were informed that we too could assist Naser in his survey of the Sundarbans. Wishing to experience the forest, I immediately seized the opportunity and offered to work with Naser for a week. A whole week in the magical Sundarbans forest – I couldn’t wait!
At that time the survey crew was based at Chandpai, one of the many Forest Department’s (FD) offices scattered across the Sundarbans. After a bumpy journey of more than twelve hours by bus from Dhaka, at last I found myself with the survey crew, sitting on the rooftop of our accommodation boat – the Chafrakhali Rani – for boat is the only way to navigate the water ways of this coastal forest. I was truly a world away from the traffic jammed, noisy streets of Dhaka.
A myriad of stars had lit the sky. It was a magic night indeed – the first night for me in the heart of the Sundarbans. Darkness added a touch of mystery to the hushed atmosphere of the forest. The air was full of mist. Even in my jacket I was feeling cold and from time to time a chilly wave ran down my spine.
Suddenly a loud bark like a hiccup broke the silence. We pricked our ears. The bark came again. Others explained to me that it was a deer raising an alarm to warn others – it was sensing danger somewhere…a tiger. Never before did I hear the bark of a deer, and as I sat there in the dark I imagined what it must be like to be a deer in a forest full of tigers.
We returned to our work. A large map of the entire Sundarbans was spread out before us. The team had divided the forest into sixty-five survey units all crisscrossed by numerous canals. The plan was to survey a random selection of canals and count the number of tiger tracks along the canal banks. As tigers move about their territories they leave pugmarks on the muddy soil of the canal banks. This allows researchers to count those pugmarks and assume the density of tigers in that particular region. We split into small teams of three and each team was assigned two to three units of the forest to survey. Once we finished our work plan we were then ready for a hearty dinner to build our strength for the next day’s work.
Nights and mornings descended quickly on the forest. It was like the rhyme, “Early to bed and early to rise…”. With the first light at dawn the team prepared to depart. I was to accompany Alam. We packed breakfast and lunch, GPS, small maps of the canals we were going to survey, tiger repellents like crackers and sprays, binoculars and of course survey sheets to take notes. Besides the big accommodation boat, there were three other small engine-driven boats known as “Shampans.” The pace of our work and our boat depended on the ebb and flow of tides – if our target destination fell in the direction opposite to the flow of the tide, naturally it took us more time to reach that spot. So we had to plan our routes accordingly to avoid disruption by the tides. With the boat chugging away, Alam began coaching me on the use of GPS. This little instrument was the only guide for all of us in that huge mosaic of forest, river and sea.
Each day we witnessed different numbers of tiger tracks on each canal. Sometimes when the footprints were on firm ground, they could be clearly identified from a distance. However this was not the case most of the time. Because the banks of the canals remain submerged under water during high tides, this either wipes away or smudges any footprints that the ground might have had. Anyway identifying tiger pugmarks was really difficult for me; I kept mixing them up with deer and wild boar foot marks, though Alam was a real expert. The most frequently occurring footmarks were those of otters, monkeys and wild boars. I was also concerned about the numerous human footprints had too found their way into the forest. What were all these humans doing in the forest? Had they gone there for poaching or merely to collect honey or timber? It was difficult to say.
We were required to inspect at least one kilometre of every canal but there were also days when we could not even cover three hundred metres and our boat got stuck into the canal. This usually happened when the tide was down and the water level was so low that the boat’s engine could not possibly move. Such a mishap meant waiting under the strong sun for as much as five to six hours for the high tide, having nothing to do and chewing puffed rice (if there was any left).
My first night was also interesting. I was sleeping on one of the Shampans. Suddenly at midnight the boat started rocking to and fro. There was no wind; the water was quiet, so what was the cause of this rocking? Then I felt something brushing against the wooden surface of the boat, as if it was attempting to pound on the boat. I was so scared! In the morning I found out that it had been a crocodile! Fishermen are sometimes attacked by the large crocodiles in the Sundarbans, but luckily I was tucked up safe on the boat!