Before the tigers were included in the endangered species and technology was not used for wild life activities, the only way of counting tigers every year was the Water Hole Census. In this method a person or two would sit for 24 hours with the forest guards on the ‘Machans’ made on the trees inside the core area of the jungle. This activity use to take place in the month of May on ‘Budha Purnima’ when the moon light was brightest in the night. They would then observe, count and note down the names of all the animals including tigers which would come there to drink water from the lake, waterhole or any other water body. There use to be around 200-300 Machans in each forest where the same activity would happen and at the end of it they would all come together and make an approximation of how many tigers and other animals were present in the jungle.
Slowly with introduction of new technology, a new method was adopted for the census called as the ‘Camera Trap Census.’ In this method the night vision cameras were placed at different spots inside the jungle, where there were more chances of sighting the tiger. The camera would click a photo immediately, as soon as any animal would cross in front of it. The forest officials would then review the images in the cameras and then make the exact note of the number of tigers present in the jungle. They would recognize the tiger by their unique stripes on both sides of their body.
This method was a big advancement in tiger census as it would give the exact number of tigers available in the jungle and required very less man power unlike the waterhole census where huge man power was required to manage the event. Only one time investment was required in buying the highly efficient cameras which would then be placed inside the jungle every year.
But this ‘Camera trap’ census method did made lots of forest guards unemployed as very less man power was required now. It also took away the experience of sitting on the Machan in between the core, dense forest on a full moon night and experiencing the forest in its original and wild form.
But in this age of technology there is still one place on earth where the ‘waterhole census’ method is still practiced along with the ‘camera trap’ census. This place is called Melghat Wild life Sanctuary which is at the northern part of the Amravati district in Maharashtra. Melghat was declared a tiger reserve and was among the first nine Tiger reserves notified in 1973-74 under the Project Tiger.
Every year on Budha Purnima in the month of May, Melghat Forest officials organizes the ‘waterhole census’ in the name of ‘Nisarga Anubhav’ (Experience the forest) and invite people from all over the world to participate and volunteer in the event. The booking is done through their official website. This year all the 380 Machans got booked by people from all over India in just one hour. A record was made in the history of Melghat Tiger reserve. Even local and national newspapers covered its news.
All the information like Dos & Don’t, precautions, jungle rules, etc were properly informed to all the participants via email. The reporting time was 9 am on 30th April at different points at Melghat. Ours was at Semadoh Forest resort which is in the core area of the jungle.
So on 30th April almost everyone reached Semadoh by 10.30 am. There was 100 percent attendance and there was no one who didn’t show up. At Semadoh there were almost 70 people ready to go to their respective 70 Machans spread over the jungle. A warm welcome was done by the forest officials and all the volunteer participants were given the brief about the event. A small presentation was presented on the flora and fauna of Melghat and the problems related to the Melghat forest were discussed. The weather was hot and the temperature was reaching 43 degree by 12 noon.
The Machans were allotted to everyone by the chit system. There was no partiality on appointment of guards and Machans to any individual. All the participants were given a Melghat Coffee table book, Tourist information book of Melghat, pack of biscuits and chocolates as a token of appreciation.
After having lunch at the guest house canteen we all started our journey to the Machans. Each Machan housed one participant and one forest guard who are trained in spotting animals and living in the forest. All participants were given a Can of cold water and packed food for dinner. By 3 pm everyone was transported by the forest vehicles to their respective allotted spots. Each Machan had an approximate 2km distance between them.
The Machan allotted to us was 4 Km from the guest house and was made on the Banyan Tree inside the dense forest, beside the almost dry river stream at the height of almost 18 feet above the ground. The river was flowing downstream and the non evaporated water accumulated in front of the Machan, making it a perfect site for the animals to drink water. All the machans elsewhere were also made on such similar locations where water was accumulated or flowing.
Kantilal, the forest guard with me belonged to Melghat only and had a vast experience of 20 years of working in the jungle. His eyes and ears were naturally trained to spot animals and danger in the jungle. He was a non talkative person which made him the perfect person to be with as the wild animals don’t come if they hear a human voice. He kept it to himself looking closely at the forest and responding to any activity happening around.
The most important thing in tiger census is patience. We are not use to sitting at one place for long time. So sitting on machan for the whole night is really a big task and we have to indulge and control ourselves in over reacting or making any noise or getting off the machan.
At exact 5 pm that evening we spotted our first animal, a Sloth bear walking down the hill behind our machan. It was huge and walked fast. Kantilal warned me not to make any noise and movement as Sloth Bear are very sensitive to the human presence and do not think twice in attacking them.He passed quietly from below our machan and stopped at the river in front of us to drink water. We quietly, without moving much kept watching the bear in front of us. After 2-3 minutes the bear disappeared into the forest.
Then at around 6 pm a group of Bison visited the river and drank water. I have never seen a Bison from so near and realized how big and strong they were in real.
As the sun was setting down it was starting to get darker inside the jungle and everything was settling down. We could feel the slowing of the activities in the jungle, birds returning to their nests, animals returning to their shades. Just then Kantilal pinched me and pointed towards a spot which was approximately 50 meters from the Machan. “It is a Leopard” he said. But I was not able to see the leopard as it was so well camouflaged in the forest. Then the Leopard jumped quietly without making even a single noise of the leaves and landed in front of our machan to drink water. The leopard kept drinking water and we kept watching him for a long time. I never expected that we would spot a leopard in the jungle. It was one of the most memorable moment of our journey.
The real fun of staying on the machan started after the sun sets The jungle becomes pitch dark. There is a pin drop silence in the jungle and even a small movement of any animal can be heard clearly by the human ears. And it is frightening! You can hear the noises made by the animal’s footsteps coming there to drink water. It was a full moon day and the moon light was the brightest that night. At 12 pm midnight the moon was exactly above us and illuminated the whole jungle with its beautiful and soothing white light. Any animal walking from nearby was visible by the naked eyes to us. Me and Kantilal had our dinner sitting on the machan under the moon light.
At around 2 am a Tiger passed our machan. We were not able to see it clearly but were able to hear the Tiger roaring nearby. May be the tiger was roaring at us! It was really frightening hearing a tiger roar thrice in the night.
We stayed at the machan till 10 am next morning and then left for the guest house when the forest vehicle came to pick us. Till then we had seen 3 Sloth Bear, 2 groups of Bison, 1 Leopard, 1 Tiger, 1 group of Deer and Sambhar, 3 peacocks and a wild pig. It was a very satisfying sighting as we saw almost all the animals except wild dogs. More than anything the experience of staying in the jungle on full moon night was one of the most adventurous experience on can every have.
All the participants submitted their reports to the forest officials the next morning. The forest officials welcomed everyone back and gave them the participation certificate. It was a mixed experience for everyone. Few sighted lot of animals and some sighted none. Few sighted tigers and most of the participants didn’t. But in the end everyone was happy that at least they got the chance to be the part of this one of the type activity of experiencing the forest and wild life in its raw form.
Piyush Pande Films