It takes risky treks and keen observation for a sighting of wild animals in its habitats – the deep forests.
And that is exactly the expertise any forest watcher requires.
'Tiger' Srinivasan, the Tiger Monitory Watcher of Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, who won an award for the best forest watcher of 2019 by National Tiger Conservation Authority, has an impeccable skill in spotting tigers. He was named for outstanding contributions to tiger conservation, along with five other forest officials.
K Srinivasan, who belongs to the Malasar tribal community of Parambikulam, covers 20km inside the forests every day.
Involved in conservation initiatives of the Reserve for years, he is also a guide to the research students and also a treasure trove of knowledge, when it comes to the flora and fauna of the Western Ghats.
Srinivasan's 20 years of expertise in Tiger Monitoring has benefited forest officials across Kerala. He is also a master trainer in the art and science of Camera Trap Deployment.
He was involved with many teams engaged in tiger monitoring in all forest landscapes of Kerala, as part of All Kerala Tiger Monitoring and All Indian Tiger Monitoring exercises. Apart from these, he is also a renowned wildlife photographer who has published works in conservation magazines and exhibitions.
Srinivasan has been familiar with Parambikulam forest since his childhood. He started off his tiger expeditions way before Parambikulam was named a Tiger Reserve, by collecting pug marks in the forest.
The work was laborious but not accountable to estimate the exact number of tigers, he says. “Pugmark of the same tiger may vary according to the soil and also the pace of the tiger. It was important to find the correct set of pug-marks which was humanly difficult. But things have now changed with technology,” says Srinivasan.
Srinivasan, whose schooling ended in the fifth standard has immaculate knowledge about the forest. He now dons the role of an expert in camera trapping who also trains many forest officials across Kerala.
Tigers are now identified from photographs based on unique stripe patterns found using camera trap to count the tiger population.
A day in the life of Srinivasan starts with a walk to his office at 8 in the morning.
He signs the register and starts his work by keeping records of the animals captured in the cameras set up in various areas in the forest. A walk through the forest along with a 12-member team also makes sure whether the batteries of the cameras are changed properly.
Srinivasan, 38, has recorded around 2,000 official sightings of tigers so far from forests in Kerala.
“Unofficially, I have seen more and have had more experience with them as well,” says a proud Srinivasan.
Forest officials and researchers, who fondly call him 'Tiger Srini', believe that there is no tiger in the Reserve which does not know Srinivasan.
“Srinivasan knows what animals to spot, where to find them and has the best field knowledge about Parambikulam Tiger Reserve considering the fact that this reserve has higher chance to encounter wildlife. He has helped a lot of forest researchers like me and also makes sure to help us reach back safely. Even if you close his eyes, he will walk inside the forest with ease,” says Sandeep Das, a research scholar who has worked closely with Srinivasan.
Right place at the right time
Walking in the forest is also an art according to Srinivasan. He too 'prowls' like a tiger without disturbing the animals. He sits a little away from them and observes them.
“I have worked in many forest ranges, but I have never seen someone as well-informed as Srini. He goes alone in the forest as part of his work without any fear. Four days ago, we spotted a tiger at Parambikulam and I felt like it knows Srini. We were very close to the tiger but I am sure he could have gone much closer if I was not with him,” prominent wildlife filmmaker and photographer, Suresh Elamon, said.
While working for a film on Parambikulam, Elamon's guide was Srinivasan.
Srinivasan is a true observer who would even figure out an animal's presence in a jiffy, thanks to his experience.
As a forest watcher, Srinivasan had many encounters with tigers and most of his stories are so great that many thought his rare experiences were not genuine.
“I don't have to lie about what I see. There was a time when people did not believe what I saw,” says Tiger Srini.
“It was a forest officer who gifted me a camera and I started taking pictures of my sightings. After that, many started believing me,” he added.
In 2010, Srinivasan took a picture of five tigers in a single frame – a very rare picture from Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.
If he did not have a camera, people might have ignored it as just another 'brag'.
The risk he takes is huge, but Tiger Srini is not at all scared of the forest.
He trusts the forest which gave him shelter and a living. He believes all it takes is to live in harmony with the wild, respecting inhabitants of the forests.
Srinivasan panicked only once in the forest. “It was just another usual day while I was walking in the forest that I met a tiger with its cubs. I was just three metres away from it and somehow the tiger charged towards me. I got scared and thought I was dead, but something made him turn away. I was just lucky,” he says.
Once, he met with an unexpected accident in 2010 during a tiger census.
A Guar kicked him hurting his legs.
The road was 5kms away from the spot and he had to drag himself to find help. He was bedridden for three months.
But such risks do not deter him from protecting the forest.
The award for his contribution in field of tiger conservation came as a surprise to him.
“I never thought I would get an award. I am definitely happy but I am more happy when others spot tigers and animals in the forest,” says Srinivasan.
Srinivasan and his wife Roopa live in Parambikulam along with their three children. He will be receiving the award of Rs 1 lakh and a certificate for his work.
Based on a Forest Department monitoring programme in 2017-18, the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary holds the largest tiger population in the State followed by the Periyar and Parambikulam tiger reserves, where 25 tigers each were captured in camera traps.