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Watchers of the great Western Ghats

 

The Western Ghats in Southern India is one of the world’s hotspots for biodiversity and is a WWF priority eco-region. It is a large landscape consisting of tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and other forests, forming large areas of connected habitat for wide ranging species such as elephants and tigers. But despite it’s greatness, the landscape is severely fragmented.

Anti-poaching watchers in a boat on the Bhavanisagar reservoirAnti-poaching watchers in a boat on the Bhavanisagar reservoir

It holds the single largest contiguous population of Asian elephants in India and possibly in Asia – and holds the key to the long‐term survival of this mega herbivore. Additionally the area also harbours the largest contiguous tiger population in the world and is home to spectacular assemblages of large mammals including endemic species like the Nilgiri Tahr and the Lion tailed Macaque. However, this landscape is fragmented, owing to commercial plantations, settlements, highways, railroad and other development.

We’ve been working in this region for 10 years or so, implementing a landscape approach to conservation. The forests have been a special focus of our work as these form critical linkages that can sustain and connect elephant and tiger populations across the landscape. The major activities we’re addressing in the landscape comprise:

  • Monitoring of tigers, co-predators, and their prey species in protected areas
  • Key tiger corridors
  • Monitoring of elephant movement
  • Supporting anti-poaching efforts
  • Enhancing communication systems of forest departments
  • Training and building capacity of front line staff.

We’ve been studying tiger and other predators through sign surveys and camera traps – and whilst I was in the Western Ghats in December – I was shown camera trap images of tigers, leopards, spotted hyena, bison (gaur), sloth bear, wild dogs, wild boar, deer and mongoose sometimes using the same routes. These camera traps have also captured different behaviours such as hunting and marking territory. In fact poachers have also been caught on camera – unknowingly – and then found and arrested!

Local anti-poachers discuss strategies with Forest OfficersLocal anti-poachers discuss strategies with Forest Officers

In these areas, poaching of wildlife has a constant threat, and has been a significant problem in the past. The Forest Department has been able to employ local indigenous communities as anti-poaching watchers in many of these areas, but as resources are limited, they welcome our support. For example, through training and equipment such as walkie talkies, binoculars, GPS and even uniforms, which help them to feel like they are important members of the team.

Anti-poaching camps have been equipped with communication systems in areas such as Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Sathyamangalam TR, Coimbatore FD, Parambikulum TR, and Nilgiris North Division – where just two or three anti-poaching watchers are based. Every day they go out on patrol and record all the species they see, their locations and any signs of poaching or illegal activities. These anti-poaching camps are very basic structures, with just one or two rooms to use for sleeping and eating – and very few facilities. They are often very isolated, deep inside the forest.

I visited one camp at nightfall, and whilst they are in really beautiful, peaceful places, at night with just the sounds of wildlife around you – the forest around you and the stars above – I felt quite vulnerable and exposed. Whilst some of these camps have a trench dug around them to prevent elephants entering, they have seen tigers and elephants just on the other side of these trenches! The watchers can spend over two weeks at these camps, and then just go home for one or two days before returning to their camps. You really have to get along together in these situations!

We’ve helped to supply walkie talkies, batteries and also establish repeater stations which extend their wireless communication range substantially. Presently more than 60% of the landscape is covered by a network of repeaters and base stations. This means that different camps can communicate with each other and are able to share information and respond quicker to any incidences. It also helps the watchers to feel less isolated and better connected – which is important for morale.

anti-poaching watchers from the tribal community Sathyamangalamanti-poaching watchers from the tribal community Sathyamangalam

In fact, I witnessed the walkie talkie in action when we got our vehicle stuck in mud deep inside the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. The forest guard contacted the nearby watchers and the forest office to get help – whilst an elephant was trumpeting in the near vicinity! Thankfully a team came with a vehicle and towed us out of the mud and we were able to continue! We then saw a herd of six elephants and their calves slowly moving through the forest – a beautiful sight. They are such huge animals, but so graceful.

I visited another camp, which was located in a small community, and the anti-poaching watchers were employed from that community, so they went on patrol during the day – perhaps 10 km – and then returned home for dinner and to sleep. This was surrounded by a solar powered electric fence to deter the elephants from raiding the crops that the people were growing for their livelihoods. It’s so important that the local communities are engaged in conservation, and supported to live alongside wildlife, because crops are damaged by elephants, livestock are killed by tigers. Whilst I have been in India, I have heard of people being injured or killed by these species too! We’re working to find ways to protect people and their livelihoods and find solutions.

A plaque on the wall of an anti-poaching shedA plaque on the wall of an anti-poaching shed

The  watchers felt proud to tell me that their presence is making a real difference, as poaching used to be commonplace, but just having their presence inside the forest really seems to deter poachers. These people are on the front line and are doing a tremendous job in challenging conditions, and it’s great to see that our support is helping.

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What do you think about poaching in the Western Ghats? Leave a comment on Becky’s blog post.

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