We are settling into one of our many nights in the forests of Umling, to the western part of Royal Manas National Park. The night is devoid of any human voices, and all we could hear is the river gushing below, and the wind blowing in the trees. There is only the light of the moon, penetrating through the canopy and we are cautioned not to light fire nor switch on torches. The rangers check their guns, put the safety lock on and put it under their pillow. It is 7 p.m., and we are done with dinner. We are at Kukulung, a place very close to the Indian border and infamous for militant activity and armed poachers. There have been infrequent past encounters between these intruders and the Bhutanese counterparts, and the tales of these encounters sends chill down the spine. There are dangers also from the elephants and gaurs (also known as the Indian Bison), both known to be notorious for attacking people. Here, they can be seen in big herds.
I am in Royal Manas National Park, studying tigers. Royal Manas National Park is the oldest protected area in Bhutan and was established in 1964. The national park is located in the southern foothills of the country and is known worldwide for its incredible biodiversity and scenic landscapes. It has seven species of wildcats in an area of 1054 square kilometers, one of the highest density of cat species in the world and I have always wanted to come here and work. I am currently a wildlife biology student at the University of Montana, and as a part of my thesis research, I am studying the genetic make-up of tigers in the Bhutan Himalaya landscape. I am using non-invasive survey techniques to collect poop samples for obtaining DNA which would provide information on genetic diversity and connectivity in tigers of Bhutan. Insights on ecology and spatial distribution are increasingly becoming available, but information on genetic make-up and diversity is highly lacking and thus, lack explicit consideration in tiger conservation strategies in the country.
I come to Royal Manas National Park because it has tigers, a lot of them compared to the rest of the country and the national park has enjoyed momentous success in tiger monitoring and conservation over the years. The park was applauded recently for an amazing feat: the tiger numbers have doubled over the last three years.
With a team consisting of two research assistants, myself, six armed rangers and three porters, we set off to collect tiger poop. With every poop we found, we celebrated immensely; there was joy on each of our faces. But we were always careful and alert. Few rangers would walk ahead, we would walk in the middle, and few rangers would be at the back. We had to be quiet and maintained a steady pace; some eyes looked up front, some sideways and there were few of us looking at the trails for poop, scrapes, and pugmarks. It was one of the most enriching and adrenaline filled days of my life.
We were always ready by 7 a.m. in the morning, and the day’s journey would take a walking of at least 7 hours. We would cross dense forests, grasslands and rivers, tread river beds and climb ridges. By noon, our porters would cook us delicious food. We would retire by 4 in the evening, cook dinner near a water source, have it there, put out the fire and go somewhere else to sleep. We would choose a vantage point to camp, under a tree canopy and close to a river. The weather seemed erratic and we prayed it never rains for we had no tents with us; it was February and it hardly ever rained in February. The camping sites were always shifted, we never camped at the same place. We would be sleeping scattered across the forest floor and never together. It was the usual drill, and quietly, we would slip into our sleeping bags by dusk. We would watch the moon and the stars and fall asleep. This would be our routine for all the days we were in the forest.
I feel extremely lucky to be getting a sizable number of tiger poop in Umling, and the fieldwork went much smoother than I anticipated. Next, I will be visiting Manas Range on the eastern side of the park. The fieldwork will be equally daunting. I will also be visiting other tiger hotspots across the country to collect more samples. Many of whom I had consulted with had not observed much tiger poop deposits in the forests, and I was very nervous. I visited monasteries and lit butter lamps for blessings, and it is typical of what many Bhutanese like to do when they need something urgent. I was also nervous because of the history of some of these places I was visiting. But I was determined to take it as a challenge, and, I didn’t have a choice.
Fieldwork and patrolling along the borders are always this nerve wrecking. Park rangers are on average 15 days away in a month in the jungles patrolling, camera trapping, and carrying out fieldwork for other research purposes. Many decades have passed this way, and they handle it well; their families have learned not to miss them more. The rangers put their soul into their work and their love for nature is genuine. Their sweat and perseverance are returning results: tigers are doubling in numbers and illegal logging is subsiding. They are very happy about these positive developments, and I could it feel from their smiles as they spoke about it. However, they train every now and then and are always alert and fit; complacency has no room in these jungles.
Acknowledgement: My masters is supported by WWF-EFN Fellowship, University of Montana, Wildlife Conservation Network and Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research (UWICER). The current study is funded by National Geographic Society, Bhutan Foundation, Animal Ark Sanctuary, UWICER and National Tiger Center, Bhutan. I am also very thankful to the management and staff of Royal Manas National Park for rendering support in the field. I remain grateful.