Wildlife watching is a tricky occupation and to conduct the arduous task of wildlife census non-stop from noon-light to moonlight is even more complicated. Despite the prevailing heat conditions and a sizzling temperature of 44 degreess Celsius, a full-scale wildlife census was recently conducted at Sariska and Ranthambhore wildlife sanctuaries in Rajasthan.

On May 25 and 26, nature lovers congregated at Sariska National Park (SNP), located a mere 200 km from Delhi. The reason behind wildlife enthusiasts and trigger-happy photographers making a beeline for the park was that rare opportunity to experience animal census operations firsthand. While it was adventure for some to spend a night in the forest, for others it was a getaway from the daily drudgery of city life. Certain first-timers thought that it is a fun exercise, but in reality, it is serious work of conservation.

Spread over 850 sq km, SNP is home to a variety of fauna such as spotted deer, chinkara, nilgai or blue-bulls, jackals, hyena, leopards and reintroduced wild tigers. Having an undulating rocky terrain with wide valleys, the forests comprise of typical dry deciduous trees that dramatically change colours with the seasons. The forest is lush green in the monsoon with numerous streams and mini waterfalls; turn invigorating with balmy atmosphere in the winter, but dramatically turn tinder dry in the summer.

Summers are chosen for animal counting because the animals scurry for shady corners during this time — making the job easier for forest officials. The preferred day-night invariably coincides with a full moon when there is ample light for easier sighting. The wildlife census is a 24-hour non-stop vigil from atop a strategically chosen spot that is usually a makeshift platform called machan made of wooden logs and perched high upon a sturdy tree. Mostly all machans are rickety and pretty uncomfortable, giving sore bottoms by the end of the exercise as I had experienced during my participation in various such censuses.

According to the District Forest Officer (DFO) at SNP, the waterhole technique is applied where animals are counted from a hiding place or machan as they visit waterholes. The survey is taken at a time when there is the least availability of water at all water sources in the entire census area. To facilitate this method of counting, 271 machans were specially built overlooking water points which are basically waterholes to quench the thirst of small and big creatures.

Sharad Khanna, CEO of Indian Wildlife Adventures who escorted a team of volunteers from NCR, said: “The waterhole survey started at 10 a.m. and continued throughout the night until the next day till 10 a.m. with the help of a fact-sheet where species and their total numbers were diligently recorded. Use of binoculars and cameras were permitted for better viewing and determining the sex and age of the animals with help of experienced foresters who accompanies each volunteer.”

The result obtained is an index of wildlife animal presence in that particular area. At the end of the 24-hour exercise, the available data is computed to arrive at a guesstimate. Data thus compiled over the years will show results that can be deciphered for better conservation methods by researchers.

Though wildlife census involves many more practices like pugmark methods, scat sampling, roadside counts, pellet group count, camera-trap method, waterhole census in the most widespread and comprehensive. The technique not only covers the entire sanctuary but also involves volunteers so they also get to appreciate and participate in the nation’s wildlife conservation, informed the DFO.

On an earlier occasion, to study the status of wildlife population in Sariska, I was placed at a prime location and provided with water and food. While the daytime was scorching, it also gave me chances to be up-close with birds and beasts. As the beautiful big orb of the moon rose on the horizon, there was some respite from the heat but soon this turned miserable as the temperatures dipped to shivering standards. In the wee hours, there was temporary cloud cover and suddenly a resounding roar shattered the silence of the night but nothing was visible. Until daylight dispelled darkness and forest officials came to take us back to the base camp, it was not known that it was a leopard that let out the spine-chilling roar. The tell-tale pugmarks revealed it all.

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