Waterhole census: Should Mumbai worry about the health of its forest?
Is the waterhole census report worrying? Should Mumbai be worried about the decline in the number of animals reported in its forest?Updated: May 26, 2019 23:41 IST
The annual waterhole census at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), which was done on a full moon night a week ago, counted 590 animals — fewer than the 671 in 2018 and nearly 41% less the 995 recorded in 2017.
The counting is done in summer because animals flock to the few remaining sources of water – 49 waterholes in this case — as streams in the forest dry up. Forest officials and volunteers watch the waterholes from a machan, a makeshift platform. The census covered SGNP and its outskirts — including Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary — covering a swath of forest around 190 square kilometres in area.
The animals counted by the forest officials and volunteers included leopard, spotted deer, monkey, boar and peacock among others. Animals such as the rarer mouse deer, palm civets, jackals, rusty spotted cats — all of which have been reported to live in the forest — were missing in the census. There were satisfying moments for the participants, with sightings of porcupines, a species which is known to exist in the park but never spotted during a waterhole census. The number of sambar deer was 33, six more than last year, but the number of sightings for other animals declined. There were 201 spotted deer this year, as compared to 295 in 2018 and 392 in 2017. While 10 leopards were seen last year there were only four this time. Volunteers counted 29 bats as compared to 60 in 2018.
Is the waterhole census report worrying? Should Mumbai be worried about the decline in the number of animals reported in its forest?
Forest officials said there is no need to be concerned. The waterhole census is not an accurate way to gauge wildlife, with techniques like motion-sensor cameras, or camera traps, giving more reliable results. This has been proved by the fact that the waterhole census has been able to count less than a tenth of the 47 leopards that were recorded during a recent count by the Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS) and SGNP. Waterhole census has also been criticised for involving volunteers who may not be earnest about the exercise.
The criticism had led to speculation that waterhole census will be discontinued. The forest department even said the waterhole census was not a compulsory exercise, but after protests by wildlife enthusiasts clarified that it will continue holding it. However, it changed the nomenclature of the exercise, saying that calling it a census was not accurate as it is not ‘scientific’. Volunteers joining such events are now told that they are joining the ‘Waterhole Machan Nisarg Anubhav’.
While announcing the event at Pench Tiger Reserve in Vidarbha, where the census was held on Buddha Poornima night on May 18, at the same time as in Mumbai, the forest department issued a caveat saying that the activity had no ‘scientific significance’ and that the event is done only to involve the public in forest and wildlife conservation, besides collecting data on that could be useful for related studies.
Despite the scepticism over its usefulness, the programmes draw wildlife enthusiasts. The ‘Nisarg Anubhav’ at Melghat Tiger Reserve, Amravati, held on Buddha Poornima attracted 480 participants, each of whom paid ₹615 to join forest officials that night. They reported 16 tigers — the same as in 2018 — in the 2,700 square km forest, India’s fourth-biggest tiger reserve which is estimated to have 50 of the top predators of the Indian jungle.
Swapnil Bagale, a tourism manager who was part of the programme, said that waterhole census may not be accurate. “The same animal can be sighted at different water holes and the report will count it as two animals,” said Bagale. “It is a volunteer programme and the forest department has been holding it for the last 17 years.”