Mornings arrive with it charismatic sambar calls and smells…a distant streak of light symbolizes the presence of the Sun God, that is yet to rise eastward of my position today. I could see a dense layer of cumulus clouds too stretching as far as the eye could see almost drawing a white sheet over the Mhadei valley. I watch with awe a crested serpent eagle scout the landscape by using the early morning thermals as even as I lift camp and move on for the day.
I intend to scout a dense primary forest patch today accompanied by Namdev, not with a particular agenda in mind, but to familiarize myself with this side of the wilds. Without much ado we set out, backpack laden with gadgets and goodies, and rainwear, just in case the Rain Gods decided to bless our beings.
Walking through one of Goa’s wildlife sanctuaries, the Mahdei is like literally living out of a dream…dark mystic forests, gushing clear waters of this Mother river, hidden trails marked by Gaur and Sloth bears and an verdant green tree canopy that is alive with who’s who of the bird world-hornbills, woodpeckers and paradise flycatchers to name a few! I caress the meter long buttress of a dipterocarp and am awed in its presence. Trees like these are ancient symbols of the Western Ghats forests and need to be revered I tell my self for their contribution to the ecosystems of which we too are a part.
I move on and a wisp of fresh air gives solace to my mind and legs, until I pick up a distinctive scent that whips me off my romantic self. My next few steps are taken unknowingly as I come face to face to a tell tale sign of one of India’s most revered and charismatic mammals on a wet earthy path created by a flowing stream. I kneel down in veneration and astonishment and pronounce my thoughts aloud- Sher Khan has returned. Yes, the Indian tiger has returned to its forests in the Mhadei valley. And this time he is going to stay.
The tiger has been revered in Goa since time immemorial. With places like Vagheri in Keri, Vagurmen near Ponda and Vagona in Canacona to name a few and with a strong presence in folk literature and songs this large feline also finds a place in the temples of the Goa including the Shantadurga temple of Vaghurme, the Ravalnath temple of mauxi in Sattari and the Paik Dev temple of Cortali Sanguem . In fact, the local folk deity of Vagro Dev or Vageshwar like the one in Bicholim is worshipped with veneration by one and all and is a unique example of human-nature relationship.
I have been following the trail of the tiger for a decade now, under the guidance of Shri Rajendra Kerkar in Goa and earlier as a volunteer with the Center for Wildlife Studies in Bangalore. Having participated in Censuses, camera trapping and scat collection surveys prior to choosing herpetology as a career, I have always been in awe of the lord of the jungle and have still not completely come full circle.
The trail has led me past the Mhadei WLS in areas like Surla, Hivre, Charavne, Anjunem reservoir and Ponsuli forests (where sightings and prey kills have been reported by Dhangars) through the Mollem National Park where pugmarks have accounted the presence of this large cats during past wildlife censuses and also reported by field staff from time to time. In Netravali WLS, it is another story. The locals have sighted the majestic feline and also reported cattle and Gaur kills in the past one year in areas ranging from Nrtravali, Salgini and Verle to name a few. In Cotigao WLS again the Forest Department field staff have accounted for the presence of this large cat in areas like Ravan Dongar and forests around Kuske while news from reserved forests in Quepem too needs thorough investigation.
At this stage, I must admit that I am not a large cat biologist and my interest lies only in the primary fact that Goa’s tigers need habitat and individual protection. The sensational killing of a tiger in Keri village of Sattari a few years ago has exposed the vulnerability of this national animal and steps taken towards creating awareness amongst people in areas that overlap with our prime tiger habitats is the need of the hour.
That the contiguous Protected areas network of Maharashtra-Goa-Karnataka that include Dodmarg forests, all of Goa’s wildlife sanctuaries and the Anshi tiger reserve areas have been acknowledged as a Tiger Conservation Unit (Mark II) by WWF International is a fact that cannot be ignored as is the demand by various conservation bodies, ecologists and wildlife activists to declare this region as an inter state Tiger reserve.
Several National Reports and Panel recommendations specifically state these areas need scientific study and that an enhanced amount of protection and restoration of prey base can easily sustain a breeding population of large cats in the region. The National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Western Ghats panel have also noted the facts that this is now tiger country.
We do have a long way to go…and the trail has just started…but the pugmarks are as clear as the writing on the wall and repeated sightings suggest that the tiger has finally returned home to Goa to stay. With Vagheri peak in sight and a silent prayer I hope this majestic cat gets the support and respect it deserved from us Goans for its survival. Keep the faith.
By- Nirmal U Kulkarni.