Bishnu Bahadur Lama was just 16 when he first started working in tiger conservation – 40 years later he is still in the field, making him Nepal’s finest tiger tracker…
Bishnu is Chief Wildlife Technician at the National Trust for Nature (one of WWF-Nepal’s partners), and has recently been working with a team of 120 on a historic joint tiger survey between Nepal and India, which covers the whole of the Terai Arc Landscape.
Together with five others, Bishnu covered a total area of 44 square kilometers over a period of 20 days, installing ten pairs of camera traps, and carrying out surveys to see what species live there.
WWF-Nepal met up with Bishnu and his team to bring his story to the world… a day in the life of tiger trackers in Nepal’s Terai Arc Landscape.
Wake up and smell the coffee
It’s 6:30am and Bishnu is the first to rise from the team. “There is nothing like the morning scent of the jungle and the fresh aroma of coffee to start your day with,” he says.
By 7:30am the rest of the team are up are everyone pitches in to help prepare an early lunch of rice, lentils and vegetables. While lunch gets ready, the team discuss their favourite subject – birds. Bishnu tells us that there are over 500 species of birds in Chitwan National Park alone. His team is hopeful to spot some of them during the day.
By 9am, lunch is over. But before the team can head out to work, they have a small tradition to follow…
It’s a jungle out there!
Bishnu and his team seek the blessings of whom they call Ban Devi, or the Forest Goddess. “It is a jungle out there,” says Bishnu. “We don’t know what we will meet or encounter. We seek the blessings of the Forest Goddess so that she may guide us safely through our days and nights in the forests.”
The ceremony is short and simple: red vermilion, rice grains and flowers are sprinkled on a stone under a tree in the forest as oil lamps and the sweet smell of incense sticks add to the ambience.
Each member of the team rubs some red vermilion – the colour of life – on their forehead to mark the end of the ceremony.
Ready, check, go!
Back at the camp, a map is spread out for the team to see that outlines the area the team is required to cover. It has been divided into five grids of four square kilometres each. Bishnu’s team decides that the first spot they would hit would be Nakkali Khola, a one-hour walk from camp.
Next comes the equipment. The team has with them ten pairs of Reconyx cameras equipped with motion/infrared sensors and GPS. The cameras are packed together with a suunto compass (with which to conduct the line transect survey), GPS set, digital camera, range finders, measuring tape and datasheets.
The team’s now ready to head out.
Setting up the tiger camera trap – and doing the ‘tiger walk’
After a one-hour hike through the forests, Bishnu and his team arrive at Nakkali Khola, their site for the camera trap installation. The site is located near a stream that feeds into the adjoining Rapti River. Bishnu’s team has spotted tiger tracks along this trail and feel that it’s a perfect site to set up the trap – tigers would be sure to use this trail to get to the river for drinking.
Each camera is mounted on a wooden pole at a height of 16 inches from the ground and placed eight metres apart. Bishnu does the interesting ‘tiger walk’ with both hands and feet on the ground to test the position of the camera. Bishnu explains that the photographic evidence is crucial. They look at the stripe pattern that is unique to each tiger. The data obtained is then analysed to estimate tiger populations.
In search of signs and sightings
As well as photographing tigers, Bishnu’s team also needs to record the type and amount of prey there is in tiger habitats.
Further along the Narayani river, the team begin the line transect survey – a method used to record prey-base density. Harka takes out his GPS to locate the start and end positions for the survey. The transect is along the riverine habitat and will require team members to walk 1.5km in a straight line.
Meanwhile, Sabita and Prakhyat keep a look out for prey. They see a group of hog deer and quickly take note of the number and sex.
Bishnu explains that for any forest to house a healthy population of tigers, good habitat and abundance of prey are the two key criteria. The line-transect survey data would eventually help the research team to determine prey abundance in the area so that they can see what more needs to be done.
It’s a long process. The line transect and occupancy surveys take close to four hours to complete and it is nearly sundown by the time the team is ready to call it a day. It’s time to head back to camp.
Sundown – end of a good day’s tiger tracking
It’s already 7:15pm by the time the team returns to camp, slightly exhausted but happy at the good start to their 20-day expedition. A fire is lit and dinner gets underway, while Bishnu opens his book of stories to share with the team… a ritual by the fire he follows at almost every night camp.