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Tiger Tales


Watching big cats and capturing their different moods in the forests of Parambikula



AT THE PARAMBIKULAM TIGER RESERVE IN PALAKKAD DISTRICT of Kerala. Thanks to conservation efforts, there are more tiger sightings in the reserve than before.

IT takes hazardous treks through uncut forest paths and endless waiting, besides knowledge of animal behaviour and habitat, to get a shot right in the wild. But, above all, wildlife photographers will tell you, one should be there at the right place at the right time. No one knows this better than N.A. Naseer, who recently “caught a tiger by its tail”—a sleeping one at that!

Reading the trail of a tiger is nothing new to a tireless trekker and wildlife photographer like Naseer. He knows the distinguishing features the velvet paws leave on the forest path. Many a time he has followed those pug marks to shoot a tiger. But this time it was a tail that stopped him in his tracks.

The forest watcher K. Sreenivasan, who was accompanying him, gestured frantically to him to get back. A tiger can smell an intruder in its territory. But Naseer was too overwhelmed by the image to leave without capturing it on his camera.

An enormous tiger was sleeping, camouflaged under a green cover. Its tail was slightly raised in a curve. The animal’s fiery yellow coat with black stripes mirrored the colour of the dry and fallen leaves scattered around.

 “A tiger sleeping with its tail raised is one of the rarest sights in the wild. If you ever get a chance to photograph it, you will win laurels,” the words of the late tribal watcher Swaminathan rang in Naseer’s ears. That was a decade ago. Swaminathan knew the forest like the back of his hand. He had told Naseer many a story about his adventures and the daring exploits of his forefathers in the wild. He had taught Naseer about the ways of the jungle and animal behaviour. Ever since Swaminathan had told him about a tiger sleeping with its tail raised, Naseer had dreamt of seeing such a spectacle up close. The occasion finally came now.

He threw himself flat on the stony path with the camera in his right hand. A yoga and martial arts teacher, Naseer crawled towards the tiger, which was lying with its back towards him, even as Sreenivasan gestured him to be cautious.

“It was massive. The carcass of a spotted deer, which it had devoured, lay a short distance away. The hearty meal and the cool shade under the canopy of trees would have lulled it to sleep,” Naseer recalled.

Suddenly, the tiger raised its head and opened its eyes as if it sensed that someone was around. The tail moved a bit. “The warning was clear,” he said. It did not want any intruders in its territory. The tiger turned its head and growled. Zooming the lens from “400 mm to 200 mm”, Naseer took photographs in quick succession from the ground level. The lower range of 200 mm is used when the subject is close.  

Suddenly, the tiger sprang up and vanished into the interior. “I tried to get up. But the camera slipped from my right hand and I could not get that shot. I missed it,” Naseer said. The tiger was in its habitat, the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in Palakkad district of Kerala, an enthralling landscape fortified by the Western Ghats. For nature lovers, Parambikulam is a resplendent green cover with its tropical rainforests, sholas and vast meadows, and its varied flora and fauna. The legendary Salim Ali had immortalised this wild haven in his writings after his ornithological pursuits here seven decades ago. After the rare shot of the tiger, Naseer and Sreenivasan have been keeping their eyes open for a tiger sleeping with its tail raised, but to no avail. But then, as Swaminathan had said, it is not an everyday sight.

The tiger, generally a shy animal, retires into the interior when it sees human activity in the jungles, wildlife experts say.

The eminent wildlife biologist George Schaller says, “Like all cats the tiger presents a violent contrast between action and indolence, gentleness  and  courage,  shyness and persistence, and like all cats it possesses  a certain exalted indifference  that makes any attempt by man to enter the  world  of the tiger both difficult and challenging.” Sreenivasan treats the tiger with almost a reverential air when he says it is “omnipresent” but elusive.

A tiger may suddenly appear from nowhere, he said. Naseer is “more driven by the aesthetic expression of the tiger in the wild”. He has captured the many moods of the tiger over the past 17 years in pursuit of his passion. A photograph he keeps close to his heart is that of a tiger getting out of a pool with the water falling from its tail forming a film.

Moods of the tiger

Naseer is very vocal when he describes the tiger’s moods. Except for the aged ones, most tigers are agile. Some through their body language show their readiness to take on any gladiator. A few have marked personal charisma. Some others display childlike frolic and innocence in their movements. Some are dreamy or contemplative, said Naseer. Once he saw a ferocious tiger receding in fright when it encountered an elephant with its outstretched trunk.

He is indebted to Sreenivasan for sharing his deep knowledge and understanding of the language of the forest, especially bird calls and alarm calls of animals. But sometimes Sreenivasan too gets a surprise in the jungle. He has come eye to eye with a tiger on a few occasions.

One of his proud possessions is a digital camera Naseer bought for him. There is an emotional story behind the gift. On February 9, 2010, the then Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh declared Parambikulam the 38th tiger reserve in India. Just 10 days before that Sreenivasan was in the Thellikkal part of the reserve when, to his great excitement, he saw five tigers in a gap of two hours. Two of them were moving as a pair. He took photographs of them on his mobile phone camera and alerted Naseer who was some distance away at that time. Naseer rushed to the place and waited patiently behind a tree. A tiger was cooling itself in a pool of water. It had seen him clearly, yet remained still as if posing for the photograph. He got excellent shots of the tiger. The camera was Naseer’s gift to Sreenivasan in return for this.

Sreenivasan, 35, is the son of a mahout, Karuppan, and has been familiar with Parambikulam since his childhood. He is now involved in an ambitious “camera trapping” project launched by the Forest Department to monitor tigers. Sreenivasan is part of the seven-member tiger monitoring team. Thermosensitive autofocus cameras that can work in any climatic condition are installed on trees two to three feet high in the interiors of the tiger reserve. When a tiger is within its range, the infrared cameras emit a flash and the images get registered on a memory card. These images are transferred to a laptop once in five days and are examined carefully to estimate the tiger population.

You can tell a tiger by its stripes. Scientists say that each tiger’s stripes are analogous to fingerprints in human beings. They are unique to each tiger, and the images make it easier to count tigers. The Parambikulam Tiger Reserve is all of 643 square kilometres. More than 150 cameras were fixed in two phases. The third and last phase is about to start.  Wildlife Warden K. Vijayanand said that 22 tigers had been identified by the device so far.

According to V. Gopinath, Kerala’s Chief Wildlife Warden, Parambikulam has a healthy tiger population: 34 tigers. Its tiger sanctuary status has indeed helped preserve the tiger population. The Anamalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu and the Nelliampathy Reserve Forest in Kerala share borders with it.

V.K. Unniyal, former Divisional Forest Officer of Parambikulam and now a teacher at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, said: “I have seen tigers only four times during my tenure there from 1985 to 1989. But forest watchers have seen more pug marks and tigers. We counted 13 tigers then.” He narrated how he once saw a badly wounded tiger, its entire body crawling with maggots. It died the next day. Its skeleton, recovered six months later, is exhibited at the interpretation centre in the tiger reserve.

Unniyal said he was happy to hear that there were more tiger sightings in Parambikulam today. Camera trapping has also yielded other results. For instance, the occurrence of melanism (development of certain pigments on the skin of animals leading to colour variation) has been identified in leopards and some other animals. Deeper studies are required to find the exact reasons for this genetic phenomenon. Camera trapping helps also in the conservation of biodiversity, development of sustained livelihood, facilitation of regulated ecotourism and promotion of conservation awareness.

G. Shaheed is chief of news bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi. N.A. Naseer is a freelance wildlife photographer and yoga teacher based in Udhagamandalam (Ooty).

                                                                                           Frontline, National, 28th December, 2012