An interview by Nishant Andrews
With eyes transfixed at a life size painting of tigers, the first time I saw Sher Singh in the WWF-India office, I found him gaping at a curation of three big cats lying in a dull brown patch of forest, all peering back at him from the wall.
Coming from the forest lands of Uttarakhand, he’s spent a lifetime sighting tigers, leopards, elephants and sloth bears in the wild, with a few of them being memorable encounters. Yet, his eyes are still enchanted at the sight of a painting of three big cats.
Hailing from a distant hamlet in the mountains of Uttarakhand, Sher Singh has been supporting WWF-India’s work for years, through his indigenous knowledge of the forests and budding interest in the conservation of the species. I had the opportunity to sit with him and talk about his experience and tales of the wild.
Who gave you an idea to start working with the forest department?
I remember, growing up watching my father work for the forest department, while being brought up in a small village, in the heart of what is now Rajaji Tiger Reserve. Since the time of my grandfather, our family has been involved with the forest department, by helping them with plantation and other works, and in turn finding a source of livelihood.
Over the years, I have worked with the forest department in many capacities making or maintaining roads, clearing bushes, digging holes for tree plantations, serving as a beat watcher and patrolling the forest with beat officers, training forest guards and rangers in deploying camera traps, deploying several thousand camera traps over the years and, walking transect lines, and initiating many researchers and field assistants to the ways of the forest and its wildlife.
How did you receive education/training in planting camera traps or going on line transect walks?
Before 2004, I was involved in a lot of part-time jobs with the forest department and other daily wage jobs with local vendors and contractors. After my family left Rajaji (the area was declared a national park), they settled in Rasoolpur village at its eastern edge. I started working with the forest department on a regular basis. Here, as a beat watcher I would often accompany forest guards and range officers on their extensive foot patrols, as I knew these forests intimately, having grown up in them.
With a stick in hand, I would walk all remote crags and into deep gorges in eastern Rajaji National Park, looking for animal signs and signs of illegal logging, snaring, etc. It was around 2007 when I started accompanying researchers and biologists from WII and WWF to the field, walking transects with them, carrying camera traps, and soon learned how to deploy these.
Since how many years, have you been doing this?
For a really long time (laughing loudly). Adding all the years before and after getting a beat watcher’s job with the forest department, I’d say around 20-22 years.
During this time period, I even got a well paying job in the city, wherein I’d work daily from 8am till 4pm in a factory. But soon enough, I started missing my village and most importantly the forests. So, I came back (laughing a little more)
In so many years of you working in Rajaji, is there anything that you’ve seen changing about its forests or feel is different?
Well, I’ve seen the animals increase in numbers. You can feel their population increasing inside (eastern) Rajaji, with the increased frequency of sightings one has in a day.
What has also changed and has caught my eye too, is the incessant growth of lantana throughout the forest floor, and today dominates most of the forest area. While it might be useful for few rodents and wild hares as they find protection from aerial predators under the thick lantana bush, but for most of the herbivores it’s a bane. Literally, nothing grows along with lantana, and thus there’s zero growth of grass or seeds for arboreals to feed on along with chitals, sambars, wild boars, etc.
Any incident that you remember, fear and would like to share ?
This was quite a few years back, I was told to assist and support a filmmaker visiting Rajaji to shoot a documentary. So, I used to take him out on trails frequented by tigers, leopards, elephants and sloth bears. Each time we sighted a leopard in vicinity, his hands would start shaking while handling the camera. I would calm him down and tell him to not be worried about leopards, tigers, bears and boars, as they are as wary of humans as we are of them, but it’s the elephant that requires more caution.
One day, we came across a female elephant roaming around with her calf in small jungle clearing. She must’ve been some 100 m away and was busy feeding her calf and herself. Even on giving continuous warnings, the cinematographer kept on closing in on the distance between him and the animal, until the mother saw him nearing in too close and lifted her front leg, staring down at him preparing to charge. It was just a matter of seconds, before she started running towards him.
I for one, had already looked around for all possible escapes and was carrying a Gandhi gun, incase of situations similar to this one. As she ran towards him, I swiftly struck the potash filled pipe on the ground to cause a loud explosion hoping to scare away the giant. Instead, she stopped in her tracks and stared down at us, while her calf scared to death by the noise ran inside the forest. On seeing her calf scurrying away, she slowly turned around and left.
Remembering that incident sends a shudder down my spine, each time. It could’ve gone either way, anytime!
Where did you receive all the learnings of nature and of animal behaviour?
No one, except nature itself. Since childhood,I have been very observant of trees, plants, animals, the rivers and the streams. Without even knowing what is what, you still get an idea of how one behaves during different seasons, different circumstances. So, nature in that way has been a huge mentor for me.
What are some of the challenges that you face in the forest?
The terrain first of all, is the biggest challenge. Walking up and down the hills, covering every single patch of forest, crossing streams and tributaries, braving the heavy torrential rains are few of the everyday challenges that you can easily come across in the forests of Uttarakhand.
At this point, Sher Singh looked down at his pants, and while tugging at them he said, “Last year, during winters I got these pants tightened as they were getting loose and baggy. Now, since last month during the camera trapping exercise that’s been going on in Lansdowne Division, I can again feel them slipping down again and again. There's so much to walk and climb that you end up losing a lot of weight...”
WWF-India has been working in the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL) since 2000 with the aim of ensuring habitat integrity and connectivity across the landscape for key wildlife populations while providing alternate livelihood options for local communities within an enabling policy and institutional environment.