CHAT K. Vijayakumar spends 300 days a year tracking and filming tigers. Why does he love them so much? Akila Kannadasan reports
Early morning treks in tropical thorn forests, lunch by a wild stream, nights under the forest canopy… K.Vijayakumar's life is enough to turn a city-dweller green with envy. As Programme Officer-Tiger Programme, WWF-India, the 26-year-old spends over 300 days a year in the wild. “I go home twice a month,” he says. For the past four years, Vijayakumar spent days and nights monitoring the movement of tigers in the Moyar Valley.
Describing the project he was entrusted with by WWF, Vijayakumar says his job was to find out the tiger count in the Moyar Valley. The valley links the Western and Eastern Ghats and the Moyar River separates Sathyamangalam and Northern Nilgiris. The ground work for the project started in March 2008, explains Vijayakumar. “From 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. everyday, a tracker and I trekked the forests of Sathyamangalam, the Moyar Valley and the Sigur plateau looking for signs of tigers — scat, pugmarks, scrap marks, etc.”
This was to earmark the area tigers frequented. After the six-month-long study, 233sq.km of the Moyar Valley was picked for the count. “We made 38 grids of 4sq.km each in 150sq.km of the region earmarked and did a grid survey. A set of two camera traps were placed in each grid,” explains Vijayakumar. Every time a tiger passed the camera trap, a sensor would trigger the cameras on either side of the path facilitating a photograph of the tiger's right and left flanks.
Unique stripe patterns
Back in the laboratory, he studied the photographs to identify the tigers. “Big cats have unique stripe patterns similar to fingerprints in human beings. Using the capturing and recapturing technique, we key out the tigers.” Of course, the process is not as easy as it sounds. Since camera traps are placed in locations with lots of animal activity, curious animals could damage them. “We once had to apply elephant dung on a camera trap to prevent it from being destroyed by elephants,” he smiles.
Vijayakumar's study has found a significantly large tiger population in the Moyar Valley. He says this is because there is a good prey base for tigers in the region. “Feral buffaloes, sambar, chital and gaur are found in good numbers in the area,” he says. Vijayakumar has named every tiger in the valley and can even identify each of them!
The camera traps have also captured photographs of poachers. “If the survey is repeated next year, we will be able to determine the increase in tiger population over the months,” he says. He is now working on finding out the hyena count in the area. “They too have unique stripe patterns,” he explains.
For the Ooty-born, life revolves around forests and its inhabitants. “I've always been interested in wildlife, I can't say why,” he says. It was during his many jaunts into the wild that WWF officials spotted him. “My MSc thesis was on feral buffaloes,” he says, which was done under the guidance of WWF. He later trained under experts such as Ajay Desai to work on the tiger counting project. “I was initially afraid of wild animals,” smiles Vijayakumar. “But once I studied their behaviour, I realised there was nothing to be afraid of.”
Tigers feeding, tigers sleeping, tigers tarrying, tigresses with cubs, dominant male tigers, aged tigers…Vijayakumar has seen them all. He has been chased by a matriarch elephant and a sloth bear and has often found himself in tricky situations. “I was once trapped between a leopard and an elephant. To my front was a river; the elephant was behind me and the leopard was watching me from a tree ahead. After a few minutes, he jumped off the tree and walked away,” he says.
So, which tiger in the region is the closest to his heart? “MV2,” comes the reply. “There is a particular stretch in the woods that I often stroll by. One afternoon, I noticed her lounging about the riverbed along the stretch with three cubs. I sat close by for almost two hours photographing her. She turned her head regally to check me out once or twice. But she neither charged nor fled. She just sat there. She must have seen me in the region several times. It was as though she took me for one of them.”