It was a muggy morning in mid-May when a group of us gathered at Attapatti village, situated on a small hill near Valparai in the hilly Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu.
This is home to the Tamil Nadu forest department’s training centre, and a three-hour-long session was scheduled for the day – the department would train us on how to take a census of tigers inside the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park.
Over the next few hours, Arumugam, a forest department biologist, taught us how to operate the Global Positioning System (GPS) device, how to collect scat (a dignified term for scooping up the poop) and identify scratches and pug marks of the big cats.
The entire exercise, as it turned out, proved to be a grand farce. Not a single tiger was spotted during our census-taking exercise. And yet, I witnessed records being fudged to show their presence.
Here’s why we went looking for tigers in the first place: the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park is the largest sanctuary in Tamil Nadu and lies in the Western Ghats, south of the famed Palghat Gap in the Anaimalais (Mountain of Elephants). Spanning an area of 958 square kilometres, this protected area is the most important watershed for the state.
Over 2,000 species of flora have been identified in this area. A wide variety of herbivores inhabit the sanctuary, including the elephant, gaur, sambar, spotted deer, barking deer, mouse deer, Nilgiri tahr and wild boar. This is equally matched by its carnivore diversity of tigers, leopards, wild dog (dhole), Indian fox, leopard and the jungle cat. Over 300 species of birds have also been sighted in these jungles.
In the forest food chain, the tiger is situated at the top. If the tigers are healthy and safe, it usually means the rest of the wildlife in the food chain below are in good health and numbers too. Apart from concern for the big cats, this is also why a tiger census is conducted every year across the country.
Since the tiger reserve was declared in 2008, laypersons are not allowed inside the Core Zone, where the tiger census is carried out. The exercise with volunteers was a great opportunity for a journalist keen on environmental issues to stay inside and see what actually goes on here.
There were other volunteers with me on this week-long tiger census exercise – activists and wildlife conservationists, along with the forest department’s anti-poaching watchers (APW), forest guards, forest watchers and rangers. On the first day, our final and essential set of instructions was on how to fill up the data sheets provided by the department to document the presence of tigers. Once the training was complete, all of us clambered into jeeps to head to the base camp in the Valparai Range.
Once it crossed the abundant tea estates in the area, our jeep entered dense forests. This was the Buffer Zone, an area between the reserved forests and human habitation designated for environmental protection. There was a sudden change in the weather. Pregnant rain clouds gathered quickly and it suddenly got very dark.
At 4pm, the jeep stopped at the beginning of the Core Zone, the main protected forest area. Each of us was lugging 15 kg of material on our shoulders – food for eight days, clothes, a sleeping bag and a tent. We split up into four teams of two each and began to climb up the mountain to the base camp 12 km away. As the darkness began wrapping itself around us, our steps quickened.
Each team was led by an APW. “In this area, there is a lot of elephant activity,” my team leader said casually. “In fact, we are travelling right in their path!” It took us three hours of trekking against gravity, hearts in our mouths, to reach base camp. We didn’t encounter any elephant. Just dozens and dozens of leeches.
Darkness enveloped us and the temperature was 15 degrees celsius, freezing for the average Tamilian used to hot, muggy climes. The camp, situated at 2,000 feet above sea level, was a comfortable place designed for senior officers of the forest department. Two bedrooms, a kitchen and a toilet were available to us. We lit a cooking fire and sat around it to warm ourselves. Since we had to wake up early in the morning, we slept early.
An insistent musical note woke us the next morning. This was the ‘whistling thrush’. A cup of very hot, very black tea rejuvenated us and we set off in teams of two.
No method to the madness
The area allotted to my team was a spectacular shola forest and grassland covering 1,800 hectares. Our APW leader knew the area like the back of his hand.
The tiger census in Tamil Nadu is mainly reliant on these APWs. They are the eyes and ears of the forest department inside these dense jungles but as evident from our conversations during the exercise, these experts often feel shortchanged by their jobs.
About 1,000 APWs work in the forests surrounding the districts of Coimbatore, Nilgiris and Erode. Apart from taking the annual tiger census, they put out forest fires, stop poaching, prevent cutting and smuggling of timber, ensure that forest land is not encroached upon or opium is grown. They also chase away elephants where required and protect the wild bison. During all this work, no accommodation is provided for them – APWs continue to live all their working lives in tents or base camps when out in the field.
Work is constant and exhausting, they say, with not a day’s rest. In 2014, APWs moved the Madras high court with a plea to make their jobs permanent, and in April that year, the court asked the state government to regularise their jobs. This has still not happened to date.
These watchers are not regular employees but daily wage workers. They earn between Rs 4,000 to Rs 7,000 per month, which is often paid only once in two or three months. “There is no guarantee for our lives in such a job, and we get just Rs 6,000 a month,” lamented one APW who did not wish to be identified. “We find it very difficult to run our families with this kind of money.”
Their wages were earlier paid from forest development funds, but since it is not a fund dedicated for their salaries (officers use it for monthly office expenses), there are often inordinate delays in payment. When the APWs protest, the department uses Forest Relief Funds, which are normally used for other expenses like running officers’ camps and quarters, which take precedence over APW salaries. Now Forest Relief Funds too have dried up. The watchers say they have not been paid for the last two months.
There ought to be no dearth of funds to count and save the tiger in India. In 2016-17, the Centre allocated a huge Rs 295 crore for Project Tiger in the Union Budget, almost double the Rs 161 crore allotted in the previous year. This near doubling of funds for the tigers was made possible by doubling taxes on coal, lignite and peat. This additional income is from the Clean Energy Cess, which goes towards funding the environment ministry, the Modi government’s pet Namami Ganga project as well as Project Tiger. In the second Budget of the Narendra Modi government, in 2015-16 allocations for the tiger had been slashed by 14.91% from Rs 185.02 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 161 crore in 2015-16.
However, this recent doubling of tiger funds came with a twist. The Centre’s share of the non-recurring expenditure on Project Tiger would be only 60%. States that received funds for the tiger would have to shell out 40% of the costs. Non-recurring expenses include compensation for villagers relocated from tiger habitats, equipment for the special tiger protection force, etc. Recurring costs would be shared equally by the Union government and the state in which the tiger reserve is located.
The APWs, the most important people involved in the tiger census, have seen none of this money.
“We wanted to strike work before the census this year but the officers promised us that we would get paid in two days’ time,” one APW said. “Now it is six days and we have still not been paid. We are the ones who walk throughout the forest. The officers do not even get down from the jeep. We used to work enthusiastically and enjoy the job earlier, but now when our children go hungry, how does one work with interest?”
Another complaint is the lack of protection from the government. “There is no guarantee for our lives. We do not even have life insurance or health insurance.”
In contrast, APWs in neighbouring Kerala told me that they are happy with their working conditions. “The Kerala forest department understands the importance of the anti-poaching watchers,” said A Aathan, an APW in Kerala. “We get a monthly salary of Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000, and we are provided with GPS, torchlights, raincoats as well as a modern field kit. We enjoy the work that we are doing since we are traditionally tribals who have lived in the forests.”
Kovai Sadasivam, an environmental activist based in Coimbatore, agrees that the condition of Tamil Nadu’s APWs is indeed poor. “The APWs are the watchmen of the forests,” he said. “The forest department is only now beginning to use technology for the tiger census. But unless you have personnel on the ground to use these, there is no use of technology. And these APWs are working in the forests without even basic equipment.”
Hari, one of the volunteers on the census with me, said, “From the outside, surveying the tigers seemed to be awesome, but when we went into it we found that there was no proper equipment or method to it. In fact, even the GPS devices had been borrowed from a university teaching department. The APW go around the whole forest without proper footwear, no raincoats, guarding it and surveying it. How is it possible to expect correct data from all this?”
As my team walked looking for direct sightings, pug marks or tiger scat, we found a treasure trove of information about the jungle’s other inhabitants. We could spot tracks of elephants, Indian gaurs and Nigiri tahrs despite the thick fog. But after traipsing 20 km up hills and down valleys, we did not find any sign of a tiger. In the evening, we returned to base camp and found that the other teams had not had much luck either.
Two more days went by, with no sign of a single tiger.
On day four, we reached the Transact Line – a 2,000-metre path with a lot of animal movement. We were supposed to walk this 2 km stretch twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, looking not just for tigers but for their prey as well.
It was difficult terrain. We went around the area only once. We did not see even one telltale sign of a tiger, but the data sheet was filled with phantom sightings of signs.
“We did not see any signs, so how come you’ve filled these sheets like this with false data?” I asked our APW.
He replied casually, “If we write that we have not seen anything, the officers will shout at us. They will accuse us of taking provisions and sleeping on the job. So even if we don’t see a tiger, we write that we have seen pug marks and scat.”
The consequence is large-scale fudging of data. Our team filled the census sheets by copying the data recorded in the previous year. When I cross-checked with the other teams, I found that they did the same.
K Ramesh, a volunteer who was part of another team, confirmed that they too brought back fudged data. “We were not interested in searching for tigers or numbering them,” he said. “We just went through the forest in order to show GPS points. We didn’t even go into thick forests. All seven days went like this. We went only for namesake, although we did register some pug marks and scat,” Ramesh said.
In all, the four teams recorded total sightings of two sets of pug marks and two sets of scat. The pug marks and scat that Ramesh saw was the closest we came to the big cat.
A fudged tiger census should be sending alarm bells across government departments. I discussed this with district forest officer Subbaiah of Pollachi Division, and he gave me a wary response. “Steps are being taken to pay their wages, and they will be paid soon. Regarding the other issues, I am unable to comment,” he said.
Shekhar Dattatri, reputed environmentalist and former member of the National Wildlife Board, told me that the practice of fudging tiger census data was rampant across the country. “I was not personally aware that tiger data was routinely fudged in Tamil Nadu. However, in the past, forest departments of several states have been guilty of fudging tiger numbers in order to paint a rosy picture for the state or to please higher officials,” he said.
“This is an extremely damaging practice, and is highly condemnable,” continued Dattatri. “In Sariska, Rajasthan, forest department claimed that there were 16-18 tigers in 2004 when, in fact, all the tigers in the reserve had been killed by poachers. Such officials, who provide false data, must be taken to task and the practice of falsely inflating tiger numbers must stop forthwith if we are to make real gains in tiger conservation. The only way to prevent this fudging of data is to outsource tiger estimation to a credible independent agency. As long as forest department personnel are involved in ‘auditing’ their own wildlife numbers, the public will never get a true picture.”
The APWs reported that their wages had still not been paid even by the end of the census-taking week.
“All this data will be sent to Dehradun’s National Tiger Conservation Authority laboratory,” explained Arumugam once we returned to base. “With this data, the The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) will release the tiger population figures.” This fudged and incomplete data will also be used to place camera traps inside the forests.
There are 49 tiger reserves functioning across the country. Are they all, too, recording data in this manner?
Conservationists in Tamil Nadu like Kovai Sadasivam, Osai Kalidasan and Shekhar Dattatri are livid at the lacklustre and careless manner of the tiger census. Where have all the tiger funds gone, they ask.
If this situation continues, conservationists might well be asking another, more terrifying question – where have all the tigers gone?
(This story has been published in arrangement with GRIST Media)