Lessons from Jungle Classroom

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 36 No. 4, April 2016

By Pranav Capila

The deer's hide is coarse, not at all like I had expected. Short stiff hair, deep golden brown, dappled with bright white spots. Like morning dew sparkling on a field of dry grass.

The wounds are a shocking red against the white of her abdomen. I move my hand from her chest to her belly, desperate to find the swell of her breathing. "Rapid or slow?"

Dr. Shantanu Kalambi, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) veterinarian shouts over the engine. I can't make out. I look at the drip chamber of the IV line but can't tell if that's working either. The bag of saline is bouncing like a mad marionette as Shantanu threads the wild rescue ambulance through traffic. I move the thumbwheel up, trying to increase the IV flow. "I don't know!" I shout back; "I don't know if she's still alive!" 

A Very Meaty Mystery

I haven't given much thought to deer, particularly the ubiquitous spotted deer or chital, on previous trips into the jungle. Yes, one thinks in terms of prey base, how it reflects the health of a landscape, all of that. But just as I used to skip the deer enclosures at the zoo, in the jungle it's been a case of, you know, let's get to the ‘real’ wildlife.

My visit this February to Nagarahole and Bandipur (two contiguous Tiger Reserves spread over a combined 1,516 sq. km. in Karnataka) changed all that. But the mad dash to the Mysore Zoo hospital happened at the very end; in the beginning there was a story based around a different chital incident.

At a market on the outskirts of Nagarahole, a man is selling meat out of a polythene bag. There is nothing particularly remarkable about that, but the Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) has been tipped off by an informant: neither the man nor the stuff he's selling is kosher.

A four-member investigative team reaches the spot. "What's this meat you're selling?" they ask the man. "It's just mutton," he says. "My... uh... my goat got sick so I slaughtered it. What is it to you?" "That doesn't look like mutton," they counter. "And where have you come from? We know you're not from around here."

WTI's Tenzing Norsang (right) and Achintya Tripathi set up a jungle crime scene to hone the investigative skills of the STPF personnel posted at Nagarahole and Bandipur. Photo Courtesy: Pranav Capila

"STPF personnel don't have access to sophisticated forensic tools in the field," Tenzing explained, "so this exercise is about honing investigative skills: observation, interrogation, evidence gathering and documentation, the imagination to see the big picture that the clues point to."

Jose Louies is WTI's Regional Director for south India. The 'suspect' and the 'villagers', like the investigators, are STPF personnel posted at Nagarahole and Bandipur. And the entire scenario, playing out behind the Cauvery Forest Lodge deep inside Nagarahole, is a mock-up – part of the Wildlife Crime Prevention Training being conducted by WTI and the Karnataka Forest Department, with support from Aircel.

Earlier that morning I watched as Tenzing Norsang and Achintya Tripathi, both with WTI's training team, set about preparing a jungle crime scene. A pot with some meat (cotton wool soaked in red paint) was placed on a makeshift camp stove, bidis and gutka packets were scattered on the ground, an iron leg trap secreted in the hollow of a tree. A chital's remains (more cotton wool and red paint) were placed a short distance away. Drag marks and a blood trail were created from the spot where the deer had been trapped in a wire snare.

"These guys don't have access to sophisticated forensic tools in the field," Tenzing explained, "so this exercise is about honing investigative skills: observation, interrogation, evidence gathering and documentation, the imagination to see the big picture that the clues point to."

It's a fun session to watch. The 'suspects' are briefed to lie their way out of trouble, even to make a run for it if they haven't been properly secured. And there are several breadcrumbs planted on them for the investigators to follow. Our 'meat seller' for instance is given a wallet with Sri Lankan currency notes among the Indian ones; an airline ticket from Rajasthan with an obscure scribble on it (it reads, in Tibetan: 'bring two tiger skins'); and a memory card with some photographs of wildlife products. He even has a cellphone with a Nepali number in the call list!

Later in the day I meet Prashant S. Honnakore, one of the investigators in the exercise. "It was good practice for us," he says. "We immediately got to know what we had missed and how we could improve, which was very useful."

At 26, Prashant has already been with the STPF for seven years, five of them in Nagarahole and Bandipur. "Poaching isn't such a big issue inside the forests here," he says, "but we keep an eye on the villages on the periphery. Cattle grazing is a problem since it leads to conflict. Forest fires in the dry season. And wire snares: we go out on foot and comb for snares, like Bhat sir has taught us."

The Importance of Homework

In another life Nagaraj Bhat, age 49, was an electronics engineer who worked as a field repairman for Panasonic. His abiding love for wild lands won out, bringing him to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in 2002. He has walked every forest in Karnataka and is a fount (a particularly ebullient fount) of practical jungle wisdom. Since 2011 he has worked with WTI in Bandipur, acquiring a reputation for his mastery of the anti-snare walk.

"I'm successful because I do my homework," he declares. "Snares are placed near the edges of the forest, so I try and see, first, if there is any intelligence about suspicious movements around a particular range. I then ask the forest guards about animal movement in that part of the forest, so I can look for trails that snares are likely to be deployed on. It helps that I can think like a poacher, having spent a lot of my youth with such people!"

It is just past dawn and we are out on patrol, walking a seven-kilometre circuit along the boundary of the Kalala range, leading up to the Karmadu gate of Nagarahole. With us are an STPF guard, a forest guard, and Ravichandra, Bhat's young field assistant, who ever so often darts through a gap in the lantana, returning with a shake of the head: no snares today.

Bhat will GPS-tag every spot a snare is found in, add it to a WTI database, and send a report to the relevant range office. I ask him how many snares he has personally removed in these forests. "About 900 GPS-tagged, officially confirmed in Bandipur over the last five years," he says proudly, "and 36 in Nagarahole since we started combing here a few months ago."

If even 10 per cent of those snares would have snagged an animal, that's nearly a hundred wild lives saved.

Nagaraj Bhat and his trusty GPS on the anti-snare walk at Kalala Range, Nagarahole. Photo Courtesy: Pranav Capila
Snares removed by the STPF in Bandipur-Nagarahole. Bhat has GPS-tagged some 900 snares in the last five years in Bandipur and 36 in a few months in Nagarahole. Photo Courtesy: Pranav Capila
A dead tiger with the snare by which it was killed in the Bandipur National Park. In these tiger reserves, foot patrols offer the best way to comb for snares placed by small-time poachers, often on the periphery of the park. Photo Courtesy: Pranav Capila

A Gathering of Geeks

It strikes me on our journey back to the training venue, Bhat holding forth on the wonders of Terminalia elliptica, the matti tree (fireproof bark that is also a diarrhoea cure, a trunk that stores water in the dry months), that the trainers assembled here are all, well, complete nerds, in the best possible sense of the word: utterly immersed in their fields of expertise, rhapsodic about the things they've seen and learned, and, crucially, eager to communicate with the trainees, whether officers or footsoldiers.

It makes for a compelling menu of sessions. T. P. Pradeep, senior inspector with the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), exhorts the trainees to "develop a wild imagination" so they can anticipate every scenario. "You are not tourists; each one of you must behave like an intelligence officer," he urges, drawing on examples from his stint in the Narcotics Control Bureau to show how intelligence gathering, still sadly neglected in cases of wildlife crime, can be a force multiplier.

"Section 100 of the CrPC (the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973) is the Bible, the Quran, the Gita for all of us," declares former Kerala forest officer M. I. Varghese in his session. And while he waxes eloquent about the "poetry" in his favourite definition of a mahazar (or panchnama; an official evidentiary document), Varghese is no mere desk jockey. A 39-year veteran of the IFS, he busted, as DFO of the Vazhachal Forest Division in 1976, an ivory poaching racket that led to the arrest of 41 people. He is now an educator on forest and environmental laws. "Our people are not well trained in the procedural aspects of law enforcement," he tells me, "we must show them the powers and privileges that forest officers have."

Completely out of their element in the jungle, but crime geeks all the same, are Ketan Desai and Manoj Dubey of Ketan Computers, developers of a Call Detail Record (CDR) software. The use of CDR – the analysis of cell tower data near a crime location to shrink or expand the suspect pool as needed, or track a suspect/victim's movements – is fairly recent in India, but Desai and Dubey are already on the speed dial of law enforcement agencies around the country. CDR analysis is even more nascent in wildlife crime (the technical sessions here were the first at any wildlife training event in India) but it has already paid dividends. Jose used Ketan Computers’ software to help the WCCB and state Forest Departments generate leads in a case last year. What started as an elephant poaching incident in Kerala culminated in a 538 kilogramme ivory seizure in Delhi six months later!
I ask Jose about his own work in the Nagarahole-Bandipur landscape. "See, our role here, across south India in fact, is to support the Forest Department however we can," he says. "WTI isn't running some mega project here. We have a small team on the ground, working on crime prevention – we've helped build a reliable local intelligence network – conflict mitigation and training events like this one. We help with anti-snare combing, where Bhat is in great demand. And of course there is the Mobile Veterinary Service (MVS) in Bandipur, launched just last year. You'll see what that's about when Shantanu gets here."

Trainees and trainers gather for a group photograph at the Cauvery Lodge, Nagarahole. The trainees were exhorted to anticipate every possible scenario while investigating wildlife crime. Photo Courtesy: Pranav Capila

Wild Wild Vet

Shantanu arrives at the Cauvery Lodge carrying a large cardboard box. As he peels back a corner of the cloth on top, I take an involuntary step back: the meanest yellow eyes I've ever seen glare out from the dark. The eyes of a raptor. "It's a Short-toed Snake-eagle," Shantanu says, "rescued with a sprained wing 10 days ago. We'll release it on our way to Bandipur."

At the Metikuppe range barrier we watch the snake-eagle stumble out of its box, flex its wings and take hesitant flight. "That's your motivation right there?" I ask in an awed tone. "It is some experience," he agrees, then laughs, referring to an incident of the previous year: "But don't forget I've also tranquilised a tiger. That kind of thing won't happen in my private practice in Pune."

We head out for daily rounds the next morning. From the STPF camp at Mel Khamanahalli (where the MVS unit is based) to the Kundere range of Bandipur and the villages around its edges. Lokkere, where Shantanu checks up on a cow he had previously treated and finds signs of foot and mouth disease in a number of the cattle. Through the Kaniyanpura-Moyar elephant corridor to Buradharahundi, where there is a cow with glaucoma, a dog that needs deworming, and more instances of foot and mouth. To Mangala, where we meet Sunita Dhairyam, wildlife artist and founder of the Mariamma Charitable Trust. Sunita, an amateur conservationist, runs a free medical clinic for villagers, helps them file compensation claims for cattle killed by tigers and leopards, and supplements, largely from her own pocket, whatever compensation they receive from the Forest Department. That her efforts have borne fruit is evidenced in the significant decline in retaliatory killings of big cats in the area.

I have wondered about all the dogs and cows that Shantanu has been treating, but now I begin to understand. With some 200 villages around the Bandipur forest periphery and a particularly large big cat population in the reserve, the area is a hotbed of human-wildlife conflict. The MVS policy to treat domestic animals, like Sunita's work, is a form of community outreach. "If they're familiar with me, if they know they can call on me when their cattle are sick or injured, they are also less likely to react badly when I come to rescue a tiger or leopard that has attacked their cattle," Shantanu affirms.

For now though he is worried about the foot and mouth outbreak in the villages: it gets passed on to wild ungulates, slowing them down, making them easier prey. "I suspected there was something wrong," he says, "because I'm getting less conflict calls. Things are usually a lot more frantic around here."

I get a taste of the frantic life just as I'm preparing to leave the next morning. An emergency call comes in about a chital that has been impaled while leaping the gate of one of the resorts in the area. We hustle to the range office where Shantanu sedates the deer, sets up a saline drip and, after looking over her wounds, decides to rush her to Mysore Zoo.

She makes it to the hospital alive but I learn, weeks later, that she didn’t survive. The anxiety as much as the injuries themselves probably did for her. Chital, you see, like many deer species, are susceptible to a condition called 'capture myopathy', wherein skeletal muscles begin to degenerate in response to extreme stress. If you place your hand on the flank of such an animal you can actually feel its powerful muscles dying, a slow crackle beneath the dappled hide.

It's the sort of thing you can never forget, which teaches you to remember, next when you visit the jungle, not to look past the real wildlife. 



In a world far removed from his private practice, WTI veterinarian Dr. Shantanu Kalambi, releases a Short-toed Snake-eagle near the Metikuppe range barrier in Nagarahole. Photo Courtesy: Pranav Capila
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