Shy Tigers and Kung Fu Elephants: An Inside Look at Conservation Biology in Kaziranga National Park

Recently, OurAmazingPlanet published a fascinating interview with Firod Ahmez, a full-time tiger-tracker and conservation biologist for Aaranyak, a non-profit organization based in Assam, India. One of his typical work days involves a trip to Kaziranga National Park.

This protected area is home to the world’s highest concentration of wild tigers, and other park residents include water buffalo, one-horned rhinoceroses, and nine primate species. Mr. Ahmez also noted the martial arts skills of another park denizen. “We’ve got kung-fu elephants,” he said. “They just come and kick our camera traps.”

Conservation biologists primarily use these ‘camera traps’ to monitor wildlife throughout the park. Though the equipment is housed in protective boxes that weigh 30 pounds and are made from reinforced steel, they are an easy target for passing pachyderms, who have been known to thrust their tusks into the box and uproot it from the ground. “Some camera traps are not touched, and some are touched every day,” Ahmez said. “We have to have equipment that can sustain an elephant trampling for an hour.”

Tigers, on the other hand, are somewhat camera-shy. The big cats are able to not only recognize the camera boxes, but also remember where they are located and avoid them altogether. Ahmez also said that tigers will flank the camera traps differently, depending on the direction they are facing. For this reason, each trap includes two cameras; the biologists periodically adjust the positions of the cameras in order to capture optimal images. “We put cameras mostly on the roads and paths, because the tigers don’t like to go through the grass,” he noted. “In the grassland, they can’t go [through the grass] on their own. The holes that the elephants and the rhinos and the buffalos make, that becomes the highway, and then the other animals follow.”

Ahmez admitted that one of his most famous tiger images — captured in 2010 — was achieved completely by accident. “I was lucky to take this, actually, because in Kaziranga, you don’t see a tiger. The tiger can see you, but you don’t see a tiger.This tiger, we saw it from a distance, and we went close to him and took this photograph. Then he realized that there was somebody around and he sped off.”

But in addition to amusing anecdotes, there is a tragic side to Ahmez’s job. The area surrounding Kaziranga National Park is densely populated — 300 people per square kilometer, in some places. This has led to unhealthy levels of deforestation, as locals compete for natural resources and engage in illegal timber harvests. Ahmez said he and his crew must also contend with a high volume of poachers; these days, rhinos — not tigers — are the primary target of illegal hunters; the animal’s horn is valued between $20,000 and $30,000 per kilogram on the black market. “In the last two weeks, we lost four rhinos to poachers, and in the last six months, we lost about 20 rhinos to poachers,” he said, adding that park law enforcement officials are legally entitled to shoot poachers on site if they are caught in the act. A particularly ugly incident took place in 2009, when the poaching of a tiger, elephant, and rhino led to a shootout between park officials and the illegal hunters (who later escaped).

Near the end of his interview, Ahmez urged people in the United States to learn about Indian conservation efforts. “People in the United States should know that the tigers are very important,” he said. “They should know they are disappearing from large tracts of forest in India and other range countries and try to help as much s they can. They can come and contribute on their own and they can come and volunteer, and help local villagers understand the importance of tigers in the area. They can do home-stay instead of staying in big lodge, so money goes to local people directly. And Americans can use less resources.”

To learn more about Aaranyak’s conservation efforts in Kaziranga National Park and other protected areas, please visit the organization’s official website.