By Priya Ranganathan
I led the squabbling men down another path, towards our second camera trap, lost in thought. A leopard and a tigress coexisting in the fort was a rare scenario, given the size of Khandar Qila. Unlike Ranthambhore Qila, where tigresses were often spotted preening on the stone walls and suckling their cubs inside the shaded interior of the structure, Khandar Qila was relatively isolated from a steady prey base. What were these carnivores eating, and how far did they range each day in their quest to find prey?
That was when we saw the next set of pugmarks. These, like that of the leopard, were also fresh and accompanied by a still-steaming pile of scat. I dropped to my haunches excitedly, ignoring the rancid odour of the faeces; scat and pellet collection was the highlight of a wildlife scientist’s fieldwork, granting immediate insight into the identity of and diet of the unsuspecting animal. Using a plastic baggie, I delicately scooped up the scat and sealed the cover without staining my hands (a skill mastered after many mishaps). Both the scat and the pugmarks were easy to identify. “There’s a hyena up here as well,” I said excitedly. Neither of my assistants looked half as pleased as I sounded.
“Madam, should we keep moving?” one asked, glancing around the dense grass nervously.
“Hyenas aren’t a threat to humans,” I said easily, stowing the baggie in the empty field pack I had brought for this explicit purpose. “They are very shy, unlike how movies and books portray them.”
The men looked highly unconvinced. “Don’t they eat animals while they are still alive and trying to escape?” one asked.
I considered this. “So do dholes, though,” I pointed out. “And besides, who are we to judge the way animals eat? They must think we are even more barbarian, as we hunt for sport, not just to feed ourselves.” I clicked a photograph of the pugmarks and we progressed down the path towards one of the two tanks – Ramkunda and Lakshmankunda – that were the main sources of potable water for wildlife.
We approached Ramkunda cautiously, our senses peeled for any movement or sound. But the waterside was calm, devoid of large wildlife. Three peacocks pecked at the grass by the water, while a pigeon splashed in the shallow water covering one of the steps leading down into the tank. The scene was peaceful and untainted by human presence. My assistant, who had a strong liking for peacock feathers, looked longingly at the magnificent birds and I glared at him, shaking my head. He sighed gustily and looked up at the sun. The midday sun in Rajasthan was a particularly vicious one, beaming down upon the arid landscape with no reprieve. It happened to be a cloudless day, adding to the dry heat in the atmosphere. We would need to leave the fort before it rose much higher so that we could make it to our field station to rest during the hot afternoon. The evening, with its cool breeze and lengthening shadows, would bring more fieldwork for us.
Beside Ramkunda was our second camera trap, which my other assistant was busily changing as we looked at the birds. He switched the SD cards and patted the camera fondly. “This is our oldest camera, madam. I have been setting it around the park for many years now. It never fails to give good images.”
I smiled at his obvious love for his job. Despite the harsh working conditions and the threat of stumbling across an annoyed tiger, my field assistants were dedicated to their work and the wildlife that they helped to protect. The three of us walked single file down the rocky path towards the next gate leading out of the fort; this was the main gate that led pilgrims up to the tiny fort temple from the town of Khandar. From the gate, we could see familiar buildings, which clearly relieved my assistants. They started down the path at a brisk clip.
Just as I was about to place my foot on the first stone step leading to the path, I froze. My eyes focused on a depression in the soil beside the step. Slowly, I bent at the waist to take a closer look, and it became apparent what I was seeing.
The fresh pugmark of a large tigress was imprinted in the still-moist soil, toes facing the fort.
It appeared that the queen of Khandar Qila was back to reclaim her territory.
I grinned to myself, clicked a photograph of the pugmark, and skipped down the path in pursuit of my assistants. I couldn’t wait to unload the SD cards of the camera traps on my laptop and formally meet our three carnivores.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Priya Ranganathan is a researcher with ATREE working on the CHANSE project. She is a geologist by training, with a master’s degree in Landscape Ecology and Conservation Management. Priya is interested in studying the ecosystem services associated with and conservation management of wetlands in India. Apart from adapting to new techniques and hydrological models, she writes popular science articles to promote knowledge about ecology and current environmental issues.