From my field blog 15th July 2009: http://bit.ly/5x9aZp
Mandanna climbed out of the jeep sniffed the air along the side of the road, stopped and looked down. To me he had ceased his investigation above what could have been a tyre mark on the verge. To Mandanna however, one of South Indias top Tiger trackers, this was a sure sign that Panthera tigris had passed this way. With a record of over 50 sightings in the past two years I wasn't going to question anything.
He picked a clump of grass and offered it to me for a whiff. 'Tiger pee' he said in his softly Spoken English. I couldn't smell anything but Mandy, as his friends call him, assured me that this was it. 'it must be about a week old' 'if it was fresh you could smell it from here' he said standing back several yards. The 'tyre' prints were, as Mandy explained, a sign of Tiger prowess - 'this was probably a male and this, it's paw mark'. I could now make out the deep sweeping motion of a disturbingly large paw and several gauges where it's claws had sliced through the surface. The Tiger wasn't trying to be descrete or cover up his doings, he was unceremoniously flinging it as far as possible. He was marking his territory. We walked several metres down the track and there was another one, we walked a little further still and Mandy pointed out several deep pug marks leading down the side of the verge.
Then we stumbled upon a pile of scat, tiger faeces,'several weeks old - probably a Samba deer' he said. The Samba had been reduced to a fading clump of gray hair and the scat was a mere shadow of it's former hot and steamy self. I don't think I've ever found cat poo so interesting - certainly not interesting enough to photograph it from every possible angle. This was Tiger country and things were hotting up. This track was obviously a regular latrine, a tiger toilet. I looked out into the dense forest and wondered if some large cat was sitting looking back dying for the loo and wondering what on earth we found so fascinating.
Later that day we returned with our camera traps. Anything warm blooded passing by would be caught in the action, snapped for prosperity. Mandy has camera trapped hundreds of rare mammals. Helping scientists to estimate populations of some of the more elusive forest dwellers. Civets, the shy mouse deer, the tiny slender loris, the small clawed otter, the leopard cat, and the brown mongoose amongst others. He has snapped poachers sneaking through the forests and has helped local officials to identify the culprits. But it's the Tiger that excites him the most. The stripes on a Tiger are like a fingerprint, each unique to the individual. By photographing them Mandy has been able to estimate a population of more than 40 individuals in the BR Hills Reserve and with 50 sighting it's likely that he's seen most of them personally. His eyes light up when he tells me how opening a camera trap in the morning is like tearing open a present on Christmas day. 'I always hope for a Tiger inside but anything is a treat'.
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