Please tell us about yourself

M Firoz Ahmed, a Wildlife Biologist working with Aaranyak in Assam, has been awarded the prestigious Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award 2011.

Firoz is currently conducting research on tigers, prey animals and their habitats in Orang, Manas and Kaziranga National Parks supported by the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. He is also involved in community-based conservation of wildlife in Assam and is a passionate environment educator.

The Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award is given annually to wildlife conservationists, researchers and managers for their outstanding contribution in wildlife conservation and research.

Firoz Ahmed, working with Aaranyak, an NGO based in Guwahati, Assam, is engaged in developing wildlife databases in the North-east. Firoz Ahmed has not only recorded tiger species in the region but also photographed each of the 130 tigers found in three national sanctuaries-Kaziranga, Orang and Manas.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and exciting career?

Hailing from Amoni village in Assam, Ahmed was attracted to wildlife in childhood. Das, from Borkhola village, also in Assam, was obsessed with catching animals. “Snakes intrigued me the most though I could never catch them,” he says.

What did you study?

In 1994, Ahmed joined an expedition to Orang National Sanctuary organised by NGO Aaranyak. Das came in touch with the organisation in 2003 while doing his Master’s in zoology from Gauhati University.

Tell us about your work

Ahmed is a full-time tiger tracker and staff biologist for Aaranyak, a nonprofit organization dedicated to wildlife conservation. He also studies turtles and other reptiles. One of his primary work sites is Kaziranga National Park. The area’s rich biodiversity has earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but northeast India is also home to 40 million people, representing 220 ethnic communities and tribes.

Elephants really, really hate camera flashes.

When conservation biologist Firoz Ahmed installs camera traps in Kaziranga National Park, in northeastern India’s Assam state, he and his colleagues must return every day to check on the reinforced metal boxes.

Often, the cameras have been torn down and trampled. Because the traps are installed in pairs to capture each side of a passing tiger, Ahmed has photographic evidence.

“We’ve got kung-fu elephants. They just come and kick our camera traps,” Ahmed said. “That’s why we go every day, to put the camera in position again. Some camera traps are not touched, and some are every day,” Ahmed told OurAmazingPlanet.

Even a heavy steel box weighing 30 pounds (12 kilograms) isn’t elephant-proof, because tusks can poke inside a camera lens opening, Ahmed said. “We have to have equipment that can sustain an elephant trampling for an hour,” he said. [See images of Ahmed’s work.]

How have camera traps improved our knowledge of tiger populations?

Firoz Ahmed: The stripes of a tiger can never lie. The pugmarks [footprints] can lie. The same individual [tiger] can have different pugmarks. In some places where there were no tigers, [people] made pugmarks out of their own plaster casts.(Personnel were expected to locate tiger tracks and obtain plaster casts or tracings of the pugmarks.) Now they cannot do that, because they have to show tigers from their own camera traps. [Iconic Cats: All 9 Subspecies of Tiger]

OAP: Do tigers try to avoid the cameras?

FA: They recognize the cameras. When we resampled an area, we had less [population] density and we believe it is because they recognized the camera traps. Initially, what we used had a very bad focusing flash, and they figured it out. We’re not using those anymore.

They are very cunning, and they know their habitat very well. When we put up a camera, they come and look at it, and they remember that place. They think, “I know there is a camera here and I don’t like it.” When we go out and monitor our cameras, we see signs of a tiger moving around, then we see them go around the camera, behind the camera, and come out on the road again. So we shift the camera to prevent that. After a week, we shift it 50 meters [165 feet] on one side and 100 meters [325 feet] on the other side.

We have two cameras because both flanks have different patterns.

OAP: You snapped a well-known tiger photograph in Kaziranga in 2010. How did you get the shot?

FA: 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.

OAP: How do you navigate through the forest?

FA: We put cameras mostly on the roads and paths, because the tigers don’t like to go through the grass. 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.

We also carry a laptop into the forest, and I use Google Earth quite a lot because nobody goes there. We know the GPS location to go, but as for how to go there, we use Google Earth, so we don’t get lost in the forest.

OAP: What are some of the challenges of working inside Kaziranga, which is a protected preserve?

FA: There is tall grassland, and sometimes we need to walk through because we know there are nice wetlands with herbivores on the other side. We know that if we put a camera trap there, we will get tigers. We always put a camera trap in a place where there is a maximum likelihood of getting a tiger. So, this place has rhinos, more than 2,000 of them, and we always pray in the morning, “I don’t want to see a rhino.”

OAP: What about poachers?

FA: We have a severe problem with poachers. In the last two weeks, we lost four rhinos to poachers, and in the last six months, we lost about 20 rhinos to poachers. We killed only two poachers. The area is not remote, it is in the middle of the state, but it is a fortress. Only poachers go inside. They get killed or they get their animals. The [Assam] Forest Department is allowed to kill them. [Kaziranga has about 2,200 Asiatic one-horned rhinos, India’s biggest conservation success story.]

We also got poachers. They killed a rhino on Jan. 14, 2011, and we thought maybe we got them on camera, and we did. So we made this poster, because we had a very good profile picture, and spread it around the park. They confessed to the police, and they went to jail for about three months for illegal arms.

OAP: What do you love about this work?

FA: First of all, this is such an interesting job to do, and every day is a new day in the forest, because you don’t know what is there for you, and I love to do new things. Secondly, this is a contribution from my side to the mother earth.That is my motive, and something to the next generation before I leave.