After collecting a record number of cub pugmarks in the biennial tiger census at the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve recently, wildlife officials seem to have struck gold again with another exciting find.
The deadly King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) and the friendly otter (Lutra perspicillata) have resurfaced in the world's largest mangrove forest, the former after over a decade and the latter a quarter century after it was last sighted.
"This is a great find. Wildlife experts had almost written these species off from the faunal wealth of the biodiversity hot-spot," Sundarbans Tiger Reserve Director P Vyas told PTI.
The finds have great ecological significance since the King Cobra, an endangered predatory species which feeds solely on other snakes, denotes a healthy population of snakes in the over 9,000sqkm forest spread across parts of India and Bangladesh.
The Smooth Indian Otter, on the other hand, feeds primarily on fishes and is an indicator of a balanced marine life in the creeks and rivers criss-crossing the forest.
"The Sundarbans has lost many species like the Javan and Indian rhinos, wild buffaloes and the barking deer in the last few hundred years," Vyas said.
Two King Cobras, which had strayed into villages, were sighted in February-March 2003 within a gap of one month - a male snake near the Sajnekhali forest campus and a female one crossing a river into the Rajat Jubilee village near Sajnekhali, he said.
Both were captured by wildlife officials, studied and subsequently released into the forests.
The otters were spotted in a deep creek during the tiger census inside the Chila forest area on the evening of January 19.
"The last otter sighting in our official records pertains to 1985," Vyas said.
The team, which could not get hold of the mammals as they slipped into the forests after getting a hint of human presence, searched for indirect signs and found about 10 footprints.
"There could be many more of them inside the dense forest but we haven't yet sighted any. Since otters fish in water and live on land, it is difficult to track them," Vyas said.
Earlier, there were indications of good news for wildlife enthusiasts when the tiger census indicated a marked increase in the sighting of cub pugmarks since their last count in 2001.
Tiger experts have been concerned with the gradual decrease in the number of the wild cats, from 288 in 1997 to 284 in 1999 and 271 in 2001. Despite 15 tiger deaths recorded between 1990 and 2000 and 21 tiger skins recovered from poachers between 1994 and 2001, the census team is upbeat about the preliminary results this time.
"In all 1,018 pugmarks were collected of which 79 belonged to cubs. This is quite encouraging since the last census (in 2001) found altogether 825 pugmarks with 47 belonging to cubs," Vyas said.
The final results of this year's census are expected to be out within the next four months.
The last Indian census in 2001 had recorded 271 Royal Bengal Tigers and that of Bangladesh in 1993 (conducted using the sampling method) found 350 big cats in that country.
Taking a cue from the census in the Indian part of the mangrove forests, Bangladesh too would begin its first scientific tiger census using the pugmark method from February 25, 2004.
After the Bangladesh census, wildlife experts would collate the data emerging from either part of the forest to provide the clearest picture ever on the wild cats within the next six months.
After Independence, the mangrove area was divided, with 4,264sqkm falling in India and 6,000sqkm in Bangladesh.