Cameras Don’t Lie – The Return Of Pakke
I have spent the last five years doing field work in many parts of the Pakke Tiger Reserve. I often rue the fact that I have never seen a tiger, while other researchers have seen tigers from their base at anti-poaching camps. Even visitors who come for a quick visit have been lucky enough to have sightings!
Photograph by Rasam Brah.
I remind myself that I want to spot a tiger, not just anywhere, but in the tropical forests of Pakke – the same forests where I have learnt so much about the serendipitous interaction between plants and animals, about how malaria decreases anti-poaching efforts and, more recently, where I am comparing the efficacy of Protected Areas like Pakke with the neighbouring community-owned forests. What makes this study more significant is that the naturally low prey base of these forests had plummeted even further because of unregulated hunting, but is now recovering. Other forests in Northeast India are yet to show such signs of recovery.
Pakke’s renewed conservation narrative started as recently as 2004, with the coming of Tana Tapi, the legendary protector of this reserve (See Sanctuary, Vol. XXX, No. 2, April 2010). Then, when he was transferred away from Pakke in 2008 (for political reasons), anarchy returned to Pakke, with photographic evidence revealing that poachers had resumed their nefarious activities right inside the reserve. There was even one unsuccessful, yet audacious, attempt by poachers to steal bears temporarily kept in an enclosure pending their release to the wild. Two domestic camp elephants were also shot at by ruthless poachers. The heroic, front-line anti-poaching staff members, all employed as casual workers, were completely demoralised and for a while it looked like all the good work would come to naught.
Photograph by K. Tayem.
Then, mercifully, nine months later, Tana Tapi returned. Out went the carrom boards and it was back to foot patrols, anti-poaching and forest-related work. In time, the staff’s capabilities improved dramatically. In the last few months, for the very first time, the forest field staff has actually begun collecting data for Phase-IV of the tiger estimation exercise. The Forest Department has appointed a young field biologist to monitor their work. And in a collaboration with WWF-India, which has long been working with the Forest Department, the forest watchers have been trained and are currently undertaking a vital camera trapping exercise within Pakke.
Pakke is unlike any of the plains forests that most wildlifers are familiar with. A vast tract in the northern segment of the park is virtually inaccessible due to dense vegetation, hilly terrain, lack of trails and the antagonism of residents towards the Forest Department. Tana Tapi tackled the problem of suspicion and unfriendliness towards the Forest Department head on. He met with residents from Lelung village, and even convinced them to donate a piece of land to the Forest Department to set up an anti-poaching camp. Local unemployed youth from the village were hired as forest watchers.
But when hardcore enforcement began, poachers who had the run of the forest instigated residents to threaten to burn down the anti-poaching camp and demand that the forest watchers at Lelung be withdrawn. An unfazed Tana Tapi acted strategically by responding that they were free to burn it down. He explained to them how they would be charged with offences against the State under the Indian Penal Code. He also said that he had no problem if they wanted a fellow resident’s job terminated, as long as they gave it to him in writing, effectively deflating the agitation as no one wanted to give written proof that they were responsible for a fellow-villager losing his job.
At Sebba village, people want about 50 sq. km. of the park de-notified, out of fear that their growing population might leave them with much smaller land holdings in days to come. They have put tremendous political pressure through the local MLA, Forest Secretary and even the Chief Minister, to stop officials from demarcating the boundary of the tiger reserve. Unperturbed by such political pressure, Tana Tapi and his team – Kandra Brah, Malo Kino, Raham Langlang, Tangru Miji, Loguna Welly, Wangta Ralongham and Sanker Natung – continue to go about their work. All below 35 years of age, this tough group forms the core of the Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) of the Pakke Tiger Reserve, which has evolved into a rapid response team of 30 forest-fit youth, deployed to tackle any emergency. In 2012, they undertook a two-week operation to locate an old path from Lelung village, which was used by poachers to access the lower areas of Pakke. For two days, they camped in a remote area, eating raw rice, with no access to water. Tangru Miji, a skilled naturalist and ex-hunter, showed them an epiphyte, which held water. They stuffed their pockets with this epiphyte and would chew on it whenever they were thirsty. No one could ask for better on-the-job-training in jungle craft.
Photograph by M. Doimary.
When they finally reached the village, they were looked at with some misgivings by people who mistook them for army personnel, but they were lucky to find a generous person who gave them food and a place to stay that night. Unfortunately, they did not reach Lelung village. But they were determined and embarked on a second mission… facing similar hardships. This time, they cut a patrolling path along an old hunting trail. That same year, STPF members and beat-guards that patrolled the northern boundaries seized three truck-loads of cane being illegally extracted from the tiger reserve.
Eye in the forest
There are no shortcuts to effectively protecting forests. Poachers walk, and protectors must therefore walk too, and they must know their jungle better than the intruders. In just two and a half months, the steps taken in Pakke have produced spectacular results, all captured on camera. Adding technology to old-fashioned patrolling is an easily replicable strategy that must be used across India if we are to stay ahead of those who would destroy our wild heritage.
We launched a Best-Camera-Trap-Image Contest in Pakke to raise staff morale. The images depicted on these pages highlight that the efforts of the staff have paid off. Unhappily, in addition to cameras damaged by elephants, six camera-traps were stolen.
In Pakke, Tana Tapi, (a Sanctuary Wildlife Award winner, Vol. XXX, No. 6, December 2010) leads by example and as a result, like him, his staff wears many different hats. Everyone has to work in and for the forests, wherever they are, whatever their formal designations. While going through the camera-trap pictures, I found one of Tana Tapi and I as we were driving along the patrolling road, which runs through Pakke from east to west. I remember him reassuring me that I would see a tiger. He had then stopped at one of the anti-poaching camps to see whether there was a camp elephant that could take us into the forest, but they had not yet returned to the camp and so we returned to base without exploring the jungle. And, just as luck would have it, on the very trail we were to explore on elephant back, that very night, a tiger showed up on the camera trap images!
By the time this issue of Sanctuary reaches readers, an exciting session of camera trapping will have ended in April 2013. I remain unsure as to whether I will ever see a tiger, marbled cat or clouded leopard in Pakke’s forest. But as long as they continue to thrive, well-protected by a reinvigorated staff, they keep the magic of a tropical forest alive, on the ground and in my head.
Photograph by Raham Langlang.
Thank you, Tana Tapi and the Forest Department staff, for your dedication to saving Pakke’s wildlife. These camera-trap images are not just pixels on a computer...they are the visible symbols of the magic of nature, alive and well in Pakke, arguably one of the most exciting tropical jungles in the world.
Author: Nandini Velho, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, April 2013.