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“Today, search the forest floor for elephant dung piles,” a resource personnel informed the volunteers at a forest division lying to the north of Bandipur National Park.
Rajkumar D, resource person and head of Wildlife Conservation Foundation NGO, explained the significance of the exercise to the volunteers. “Not many know that an elephant defecates 16 to 18 times a day. The rate is largely the result of the amount of food they eat, which is between 200 to 250kg. Their diet includes grass, leaves, tree branches, et al. Data pertaining to the density of their dung is crucial for us,” he said.
Director of Bandipur National park T Heeralal said, “Density of the dung piles is an indicator of elephant population in a region. Dung encounter rate in all segments of a forest division helps us construct a detailed map of relative or absolute elephant density across the entire state.”
He added that a mathematical formula, which would take the mean values of elephant defecation rate and dung decay rate, would be used to calculate population density of elephants in a specific region of the forest. “Data from this dung count, known as indirect count method, will be correlated with direct count data to arrive at the population of jumbos,” Heeralal said.
Volunteers and foresters strolled along the clearly marked lines, drawn before the start of the census exercise. “Each line transect – a narrow pathway – was around 1 to 2km long. An observer from the census team walked along the line, while the other members of the team documented entries of dung encounters made. I took count of 40 dung piles,” said Naveen BN, a techie from Bengaluru, who has volunteered for the census.
GPS readings of the starting and termination point of the transect, along with the coordinates of the location where a pile were also carefully documented. One key duty for the forest staff was to ensure volunteers did not stray from the defined path in search of dung piles, since such incidents could have resulted in anomalies in the census data.
Pointing out that elephant dung acted as a micro ecosystem in itself, a forest department official said, “It also helps in seed dispersal, germination, in addition to providing food for insects. A sizeable presence of dung is an indicator of a healthy forest population in the forest.”
Age, gender no deterrent for these volunteers
Besides having to trek for miles in a forest, volunteers have had to face other challenges during the census exercise. From living in anti-poaching shelters, and remote parts of the forest, to putting up with lack of utilities that would otherwise be taken for granted, it’s been an eye-opening experience for the many volunteers. Forest department officials, however, said that there had been no complaints, even from the aged volunteers.
Pointing out that all volunteers had faced the adverse conditions admirably, an official said, “At least 10 volunteers deployed at Bandipur and Nagarahole are more than 50. Also, there are quite a few women volunteers participating in the census. We appreciate their interest and enthusiasm.”
In fact, at the division close to the Kabini backwaters, 11 of the 13 volunteers are women, among whom are techies, doctors, and school teachers. Chayamani, one of the citizen volunteers, recorded a herd of 61 elephants on Wednesday, much to her joy.