It was just another workday for Parambikulam’s ‘Tiger’ Sreenivasan when he chanced upon a tiger and its cubs, barely three metres away from where he was standing.
Upon seeing Srinivasan, the tiger, who was being protective or feeling threatened, charged at him and the terrified man, who is a capable tiger conservationist, was certain that death was imminent.
“But, something made him retract at the last moment. Or maybe, I just got lucky,” he recalls.
Surprisingly, this incident was not his first, or last, dangerous encounter with the big cat.
“Once, a tiger crept up really close to me. We were face to face. Fearing death, I thought of my kids and started tearing up, thinking that this was the end,” recounts Sreenivasan, in a conversation with The Better India.
He got lucky that time also, as the tiger left after a while on its own. “I guess it could recognise my smell,” Sreenivasan shares with a smile.
As thrilling as it may sound, for the 38-year-old, such experiences are frequent. In his 20-year-long career, he has over 2000 direct trysts with tigers.
“I spot tigers more than ten times a month. They spot me more than I spot them,” he chuckles.
Ancient knowledge of forest meets hard-earned expertise
For the past two decades, K Sreenivasan has been working as a forest watcher at Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in Palakkad, Kerala. He presently resides in the forest with his wife Rupa and three children.
For his brilliant expertise in tiger monitoring and conservation efforts, he has earned the nickname ‘Tiger’ Sreenivasan among the forest officials.
In 2019, Sreenivasan received the highest honour of his career as he was honoured as the Best Forest Watcher in the country by National Tiger Conservation Authority, which got him a cash reward of Rs 1 lakh and a coveted certificate of honour for his incredible work.
Hailing from the Malasar tribal community of Parambikulam, Sreenivasan grew up in close quarters with the forest and its wildlife. Traditionally, members of the Malasar community are known for their encyclopaedic knowledge of flora and fauna in the Western Ghats. For generations, they have lived in perfect harmony with the mighty forest and the beasts residing in it, including the tigers.
Needless to say, Sreenivasan’s tiger expeditions started early, as he grew up locating pug marks and tracking tiger movements in the jungle. His father Karuppan, who worked as a mahout, passed away when he was young. Hardships forced a young Sreenivasan to drop out of school in the fifth standard, and he has been solely dedicated towards the forest ever since.
“My father was a mahout, and so was my uncle. In fact, there have been many forest workers in my family. But I am the first one to be involved in tiger conservation and camera trap work,” the father of three declares with a sense of pride.
Endless trysts with the national animal
In the initial days, Sreenivasan worked as a fire watcher, followed by a short stint in monsoon watching. However, it did not take long for his expertise in tiger monitoring to impress the Forest Department, and soon he was engaged as a Tiger Monitoring Watcher in 2003.
He started by locating pugmarks or tiger footprints on the forest bed, which is the ideal way to track a tiger’s movement. At present, technology like radio collars have eased the work of a tiger watcher, but Sreenivasan belongs to the handful of people in the country who enjoy the arduous efforts in finding the correct set of pugmarks for tracing a tiger.
Over the years, Sreenivasan mastered the skill of camera trapping, which aids in maintaining records about the tigers in the forest. He has even trained several youths in the work who now constitute an integral part of his core team.
Besides Parambikulam, he and his team have also been invited to set up camera trapping in forests across Kerala. “I have photographic evidence of sighting tigers around 2000 times, but in reality, the number is way more, as many of the times I didn’t have a camera to capture the moment,” he shares.
Courage and patience is the key
A typical day for Sreenivasan begins at around 8 AM. After signing the office register, he sets out in his work of setting up cameras in the deep interiors of the forest, sometimes walking almost 30 km for the task.
For each observation, around 1000 cameras need to set up. It takes him almost a month to set up the cameras, one month for the inspection and surveillance, and another month to take down the cameras.
“In each month, I get around 4 to 5 days of rest. But I take only one day off,” says the passionate tiger watcher.
It is not just the tigers lurking behind the tall grasses that pose a threat to his life every single day. Once, a wild Gaur had kicked him, severely fracturing his legs. It was in one of the obscure parts of the forest, and the nearest road was 5 km away, but he dragged himself and eventually got help.
What many don’t know is that Sreenivasan is also an excellent wildlife photographer, and his brilliant snaps now adorn the walls of the Forest Office at Parambikulam.
One of the most appreciated one in his collection happens to be that of a tigress surrounded by four cubs— an extremely rare sighting, and supremely challenging to capture with the camera. Several of his photos have been published in renowned wildlife magazines and displayed at exhibitions.
“Sreenivasan knows the operation of camera trapping by heart, which is why we have selected him as a trainer for our other watchers and staff. He conducts all practical training very efficiently. He is also an expert forest guide. Many important people who have visited Parambikulam have always opted for him as their guide. It is their strong belief that they can only spot a tiger in the company of our Sreeni,” shares Mujeeb Rahman, the forest range officer at Parambikulam.
“His courage and patience to roam alone in the deep forests (to spot the tigers) is extremely laudable,” adds Rahman.
The need to protect our tigers
Sreenivasan believes that the altering ecosystem is harming the tiger population in the forests of Kerala. With the slow encroachment of grasslands, the deer population is being adversely affected. Their young ones are being preyed on by wild dogs. This, in turn, is affecting the tigers who feed on them.
“If we conserve our grasslands, forests, lakes and waterfalls, the deer population has a much better chance at survival, and thereby the tigers can also access their food. This will increase the tiger population as well,” explains Sreenivasan, highlighting the importance of tiger conservation to preserve the territorial food chain of the forest.
Receiving the award has been a dream come true for him. He expresses his sincere gratitude for the eminent dignitaries like photographer Suresh Elamon and others who recommended his name to the panel.
But, at the end of the day, it is the thrill of the work that excites him the most. Tiger Sreeni can hardly wait for another day of working in close quarters with the royal beasts of the jungle.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)