Sunday, 16 July 2017

Seeing wildlife through hidden eyes: A decade of wildlife camera trapping journey

"As we are nearing to the celebration of the big day, World Rangers Day 2017 on 31st July, I have the pleasure of sharing this personal narrative of my close friend, field companion, my guide to wilderness, a very sincere and dedicated Forester from JSWNP, with whom I set out to field for the first time setting up camera traps, and together we didn't look back. From the tropical plains of Manas in the south till the final ridges of Passamlum in the remote northern mountains, and of course not leaving a nook and cranny around our own Jowo Durshing, we explored the wilderness together in bliss. Mr. Dorji Duba is truely inspirational at least to me."

November in Manas is bliss. The scorching heat of the summer will subside and the mighty Manas River as it flow down swiftly, it would leave behind a chilly breeze making the environment calm and soothing. We at Manas Park Range campus would have a wonderful evening stroll through the woods and along the river banks, enjoying the beauty of nature that shroud us.  Manas despite its unbearable tropical weather in the summer, is a safe haven for all kinds of wildlife including Royal Bengal Tigers, Golden Langur, Great Hornbill, Wild Buffaloes, Guar, and several other prey and predator species. We the foresters are savior of it. One afternoon of November in 2006, we had special guests from Thimphu, a team from Nature Conservation Division (NCD) accompanying a conservation scientist Dr. Yogannan from India. I learnt that they were there to train us how to conduct camera trapping for wildlife survey, a technique I never heard before. The news was so exciting that out of curiosity, I couldn’t sleep the whole night that evening. Imaginations of how camera would automatically capture pictures in the forests and worries of how we keep the camera safe in the wild popped up in my mind. The next morning, no sooner did I finish the breakfast than I set off to excitedly wait for the camera trapping lessons, which were to be taught to us. Sighting of a small boxlike structure brought amusement in me. Then, I didn’t realize it would become my ultimate tool in wilderness.
Duba guiding one of our friends with the settings in camera
 The whole day we were taught the principles of how it work, how we should handle. For many years, I was a forester with hammer and gun as my sole weapon but I could see new tools coming. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) was not so common until I handled the camera traps, another important equipment for the foresters. During my countless journeys in the wild, I have encountered numerous animals and never saw a tiger or other cats. With the new tool, I could see myself photographing tiger and many other wild animals which I didn’t have a clue about their existence.  The next day early in the morning, we had practical session and that was the day I mount the camera trap in the forest on a suitably selected trail for the first time. It was just a beginning.
At Tsokar Tsho at 4300 masl, way to Pssamlum, Bhutan-China Border

My fate compelled me to join Bhutan Forestry Institute in Taba back in the spring of 1999, having strived hard to complete by 10th standard all on my own. It was fateful because despite having a will to study further, every single dream of mine was shattered when my parents divorced without any mercy to me and my younger brother. Then, my objective of joining BFI was to get a job as forest guard to sustain my living and help my brother because that was one gateway that required the least qualification. BFI made me a Forester but I didn’t dream I would become a camera trapper or camera trap specialists with the leading national conservationists and tiger biologists.

 Exactly a month later, Dr. Sonam Wangyal Wang from NCD visited us with a different set of cameras and taught us his way of setting up the camera traps. Besides my usual patrolling works, I embraced that new adventure of going into wilderness with camera traps. I am quite fortunate that such camera trapping exercises came one after another and always had a place for me. In 2008, I joined the camera trapping expedition of Dr. Tshering Tempa and I saw myself more advancing with the camera trapping techniques. However, camera traps have also evolved from simpler Cuddeback and higher resolution Reconyx cameras.  Days during the installation of camera traps are so challenging but when I see the results, I get more motivation to work harder.
Somewhere in the wilderness of WCNP, Duba gaze over the lowlying tiger habitats.

During my early career life, I was least bothered about the diversity of life in forests, their habitats and habits. I was only concerned with hammering and doing patrolling works, which became monotonous. It was the new camera trapping adventure that injected more curiosity in me into the secrets of nature’s beauty. I studied the animal signs and evidences, I studied the diversity of plant lives, and I photographed birds and butterflies. I saw myself growing more passionate towards nature and I realized that these little efforts of mine were having a bigger impact for conservation.

In the summer of 2009, RMNP hosted a very big crew of wildlife enthusiasts from BBC Natural History Unit. RMNP was required to deploy some foresters having wildlife and camera trapping knowledge with the visiting team. My boss have then already recognized me was asked to accompany the team. I was more than lucky because the team comprised of experts in every field and they were with many sophisticated camera equipment, as they were making a documentary of biodiversity with special focus on tigers, which later they produced the renowned documentary, the “Lost Land of the Tiger”.
Duba, in one of his many attempts to submit Black Mountain top while conducting surveys.
(A post on his journey to the Black Mountain coming soon.)

In 2011, I was transferred from RMNP to Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park (JSWNP). I once thought that my adventures would be coming to an end, as JSWNP have more human settlements and I would be busy marking the trees and patrolling the forests. However, luck has it that JSWNP was yet to implement their first ever WWF funded project, in which many wildlife surveys using camera traps were a component. I was initially placed at Khebethang Centre in Phobjikha but my then Park Manager, Mr. Kelzang Wangchuk asked me to come to the park head office in Tshangkha. While In Tsangkha, I was assigned with the lead role to conduct the entire camera trapping works of the project. In September 2012 I completed the Mammal Survey and recorded the presence of 22 mammals. In 2013, I completed the camera tapping works Biological Corridors that connect JSWNP with Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP) and Wangchuck Centennial National Park (WCNP). While I was busy with these surveys, Dr. Tshering Tempa (then Ph.D student) approached JSWNP for his Tiger-prey dynamics study. However, we also had to complete the Tiger Survey in JSWNP so together with UWICE team I along with my friends from JSWNP have set up and monitored over 60 camera traps stations from April 2013 till June 2015. By then we have recorded the presence of 12 individual tigers in JSWNP, tigers going as high as 4200 masl, gaurs approaching nearer to Black mountain at elevation of 4180 masl, 7 species of wild felids and a new record of 39 mammal species, excluding the bats and small mammals. It was also in JSWNP that I had the privilege of attending more training on camera trapping and data management. I also availed my first study tour abroad, i.e Bangkok in 2012, after serving for 13 years.

Yet before I was done with the works in JSWNP, the much awaited National Tiger Survey was planned. I along with two friends from JSWNP was nominated for the National Tiger Survey in January 2014. By then I saw myself more in forests than at home, sometimes stretching over a month. As a part of National Tiger Survey Team, I was assigned to complete the most challenging sites where there are not many friends who handled camera trapping.  The work was huge for me even then I managed to cover the areas of  Nanglam, Shingkhar, Loweri, Jomotshangkha, Martshala and Sonamthang under Samdrupjongkhar Division, Dagala under Tshirang Division, Dangdung, Chala, Simphu and Segtang under Bumthang Division where I could contribute the Tiger not less than anyone. Meanwhile UWICE has called two of us from JSWNP for setting up special camera traps in mountains of WCNP in June 2015. I spent around 26 days in the mountains installing over 40 cameras to the places which were never explored by people. We retrieved the cameras after three months in September 2015. I learnt how we should set up cameras in different ecological conditions.  At times, I was so worried about the functionality of my cameras because my camera traps were running in many different places at a same time. However, as the department published the National Tiger Survey Report 2015, I was so happy to see many tiger which my camera traps have captured.
An illusive alpine cat caught in Dubas camera trap.

Over 11 years, I had explored many secret corners of the country and captured thousands of wildlife images, which is in one way a pride for me. To capture a Tiger is not as easy as we think; we are smart and cameras are smarter but Tiger are smartest. If we need good tiger picture, it is necessary to explore the area and know the subject behavior like where they prefer to walk. Each journey gives us new lesson and the more hardship we take the better the result are on our way. Yes! I did it, satisfaction is always there. We have to do the work with interest but not under compulsion; if we have interest it will not take time to learn and there will be no obstacle to block our track. 

The king of the jungle, image from one of Dubas camera trap in JSWNP

The interesting thing about camera trapping is that we capture the tiger at RMNP and then we capture the same tiger at JSWNP. We find our tiger captured in RMNP in the mountains on JDNP after 5 years, which is so amazing. From that we know where the Tiger belongs and how much area the tiger have covered. Science of conservation begins from our forests. As I reflect on this journey of camera trapping works, I still have my camera traps running in JSWNP and in the Biological corridors. A part of me is always looking after the wildlife, in the darkest of hours and extremes of weather. I express my sincere thanks to all who trusted me with the tasks and gave me the opportunity to work.

Dorji Duba

This story featured in the June 2017 edition of the RNR Newsletter
 The pictures are bloggers collection, until otherwise referenced. 


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