Meet Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 25 No. 12, December 2005

Inspired by Jim Corbett, A.J.T. Johnsingh pursued a career in field biology just so he could spend time in the forests he loves. He has trained scores of young biologists and wildlife managers at the Wildlife Institute of India,from where he retired last month. Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Lifetime Service Award Winner 2005, he speaks to Bittu Sahgal about his life and his hopes for Indian wildlife.

You have spent a lifetime working with wildlife. What got you started?

My parents who were teachers, were both involved with nature, basically plants. We lived in a small town called Nanguneri in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. Both my mother and father loved dogs and I recall outings with them hunting small game, which was then permitted. They would encourage me to go swimming in village tanks. Picnics with them were never in city parks, but rather in the wilds of the Western Ghats that people now know as the famous Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. I think I was born loving nature.

And how did this love turn to a career in science?

I used to ask questions about wildlife that no one could answer, so I began to search for answers myself by observing animals. In my view curiosity is the greatest trigger for good science. One of my earliest research projects was on dholes (see Dhole, Dog of the Indian Jungle, Sanctuary Vol. IV No. 3, July/September 1984). My thesis on these incredible canids was dedicated ‘to my father for having taken me to the jungle when I was young and to my mother for having permitted me to go with him.

You have always been a pragmatic conservationist. Whose values have influenced you most greatly?

Without question, Jim Corbett. He loved tigers, but he knew that a tiger that had turned man-eater had to be put down. I find that ‘over-sentimentalism, is often the enemy of good conservation in India. I discovered Corbett accidentally when I picked up a Tamil translation of his famous book Man-eaters of Kumaon in our town library. Corbett set me dreaming of mahseer, goral, tigers and forests full of wildlife.

And your ‘real life influences?

J.C. Daniel of the Bombay Natural History Society (recipient of the Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Lifetime Service Award, 2000). I first met him when trekking up in the Kalakad hills in May 1971. I had finished my Masters in Zoology from the Madras Christian College and was teaching Zoology at Ayya Nadar Janaki Ammal College, Sivakasi. J.C. put the thought in my head that I should start writing down my own personal wildlife observations. He helped me get an assignment as an assistant to Dr. Michael Fox, a world authority on canids, in the Sigur Reserve Forests near Mudumalai in 1973 and 1975. Later, the superb works of Dr. George B. Schaller on various charismatic mammalian species inspired me to make this my life.

You are best known for elephants, mahseer, gorals and dholes. Did the tiger have any role to play in your life?

Very much so. Like anyone else, I too am in awe of this master predator. I even remember the date I saw my first wild tiger - September 6, 1976 - just three years after Bandipur was declared one of Indias first nine tiger reserves. I was following dholes in the forest and the light was fading at the end of a tiring day. Near a lantana patch I heard langur and sambar alarm calls. I thought the alarm calls were for the dholes that I was searching for so I mimicked the whistling call of the dogs. The tiger probably thought that a dhole pack was around and it came charging out of the scrub around 25 m. from me. But it never saw me as I was standing behind a tree. The Bandipur visitor's book at the Reception Centre, may probably still have my excited entry in it.

I used to ask questions about wildlife that no one could answer. So I began to search for answers myself by observing animals. Curiosity is the greatest trigger for good science."

Is the black and white image of a tiger you have in your hand the one you saw?

No. This image was taken two years later. For years, no one had been able to take a clear picture of a tiger in Bandipur. Because my dhole study area was littered with tiger spoor, I always carried a camera around ‘just in case. On May 23, 1978, around 7 a.m., I was sitting eight metres up on a mango tree in the Ministerguthi nullah, which was frequented by tigers whose pugmarks could easily be seen and whose spray markings, I could smell. I sat for around 45 minutes, barely breathing when a movement in the tall grass caught my eye. The tiger walked towards a clearing right in front of me and when it reached a patch of sunlight, I whistled and with a perplexed look on its face, it froze staring straight at me. But the moment it heard my camera shutter, it vanished. Interestingly, a group of langur feeding in the canopy above my mango tree, failed to see the tiger, though I thought they would surely warn me in advance of its arrival. I cannot stop smiling whenever I see this picture.

And what about the elephant picture you took at night on the bank of the Ganges?

I took the picture of this tusker at night sitting on a pile of boulders in the Chilla-Motichur corridor. There is one more tusker (younger) visible in the picture. It was another one of those quiet, unforgettable experiences that make up the life of wildlife people. It was taken in May 1993, on the left bank of the Ganges. The icy snow-melt water had formed an emerald-green pool in which I could see many two kilogramme golden mahseer swimming. Dung and tracks indicated that the pool was frequented by elephants. I guessed that elephants visited the pool at night. My colleague Rawat and I sat down on the nearby embankment at 6 p.m. after asking our driver Navin to return at 10 p.m. Many sambar and chital came to drink at the river and we could hear the musical whistling of the Indian Pitta, River and Redwattled Lapwings, Great Stone Plovers and nightjars. A half-moon shone in the clear sky and the entire scene was ethereal. But no sign of elephants. Around 9.30 p.m., I whispered to Rawat that the elephants may not arrive, so we may as well start packing up since Navin would soon be with us. I had hardly said this, when two bull tuskers, one around 30 years of age and the other, perhaps, around 15, emerged purposefully from the forests on the left bank and literally plunged into the pool. They swam and played for a few minutes unaware of us, which was good as they could easily have reached us. When the larger bull stood facing me, I took the image and the flash disturbed the bulls. They ran to the far shore rumbling and swaying restlessly for some minutes. Then as though nothing had happened, they plunged right back into the pool and played for about 20 minutes. I took more pictures, but they were not nearly as good as the first one. The elephants ran from the pool only when they heard Navin driving the Land Rover towards us. My colleagues tried the same trick later but they saw no elephants. It is not that the experience was dramatic, just that it felt magical.

Some biologists have claimed that the Chilla-Motichur elephant corridor is not really very important.

They are entitled to their opinion, but they probably do not know the facts. V.B. Singh wrote in the 75th volume of the Journal of the BNHS, when he was Chief Wildlife Warden of the former Uttar Pradesh: “Not long ago, the banks of the Ganga between Haridwar and Rishikesh were fully forested, except for a few inconspicuous hamlets like Raiwala. Every summer, a wildlife spectacle of elephant congregation occurred on the banks of the Ganga, as it now happens on the banks of the Ramganga near Dhikala in Corbett Tiger Reserve."

Elephants from the forests on both banks gather to bathe, play and drink, and feed on the sprouting green grasses of Kunaun chaur, an area of about 15 sq. km. If we establish this corridor, we will have a 6,000 sq. km. continuous tiger-elephant habitat between the Yamuna and the Gola rivers near Haldwani. Such a large contiguous habitat may not occur anywhere else along the Himalayan foothills.

So why did this spectacle vanish from Raiwala?

By human design. Populations grew and ‘development was ushered in to Raiwala, on the right bank of the Ganges, turning it from a hamlet into a township. The Indian Army built an ammunition dump here in the early 1960s. Then 90 Tehri dam oustees were resettled between Raiwala and the Motichur rau in three settlements. On top of this, the 13 km. long Kunaun power channel was cut into the left bank of the Ganga in the early 1970s. The Kunaun goth (village) grew in size and Gujjars encroached upon most of the chaur. Then the residents of Gangabhagpur Thalla village abandoned their landslip-prone homes in the mountains and settled on the chaur between the channel and the Ganges river. Despite all these traumas impelled by ancient urges, the elephants still use the passage. I continue to see chital, sambar and elephant bulls moving between the forests on both the banks of the Ganges. But this will stop and another nail will be driven into the elephant coffin - unless the Chilla-Motichur corridor, proposed 20 years ago, is re-established.

You turned 60 this year. Any regrets? Are there choices you made that you might like to change?

No. I would change nothing. My wife Kousalya and I, and our two sons, Mike and Mervin, have had a blessed life. Every day has been an adventure. Of course, there have been ups and downs, but I am still a trekker in the hills and know that the ups and downs only serve to make journeys more interesting.

“I wish we had been able to convince powerful people including politicians to be more strongly supportive of wildlife conservation."

Disappointments at work?

I wish we had been able to convince powerful people including politicians to be more strongly supportive of wildlife conservation. In our beloved country everything works in slow motion. We took ages to eliminate Veerappan, even longer to imprison Sansar Chand and we have been discussing the crucial Chilla-Motichur elephant corridor in the Rajaji National Park across the Ganges for more than 20 years.

You and I have worked on this initiative together for a decade. Do you actually think we will see the corridor revived before we die?

Yes, we will. While bad news seems to be the order of the day, I can make out that the many warnings we have been giving over the years about the impact on our water security from forest loss have been internalised. The only thing is that a system used to moving in one direction does not know how to change. I am still confident that the emergency measures we have recommended for the corridor will be implemented and that the elephants will get back their ancient migratory route before either of us die.

What about the lion translocation project from Gir in Saurashtra to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh?

The less said, the better. We must translocate a pride, but before that we must ensure that the meticulous plan to restore Palpur Kuno in Madhya Pradesh is implemented. Gujarat does not want ‘Gujarati lions to leave the state. The villagers in Palpur Kuno who have expressed their willingness to move are not seeing the kind of support they expected from the M.P. government. It appears that the tiger crisis in the country has made the authorities forget about the lion translocation programme. A Sariska type situation could strike Gir, but instead of poachers it could be disease that wipes out all the lions. For the sake of saving ‘Gujarati lions, we need to urgently establish a second population far away from Gir.

You have now retired after a lifetime devoted to wildlife conservation. Will you miss the Wildlife Institute of India?

My 20 years with the WII were the best years of my life. I will never forget my colleagues or some of my students. The good thing about my stint with the WII was that while I was teaching, I was learning. What is more, I lived right next to the Corbett landscape where tigers, goral, king cobra and golden mahseer fish roamed free. The WII will be a part of me till I die and even though Kousalya and I will now be settling down in south India, I expect to be back at the WII frequently as part of their training, research and teaching programmes.

This photograph of a rusty spotted cat by Dr. Johnsingh was probably the first taken in Gir in the wild almost a decade ago. Dr. Johnsingh feels that the tiger crisis in the country has resulted in authorities taking their eyes off lions, which are equally threatened.

Any advice for young field biologists?

Learn from nature. Let your curiosity take charge. Be fit physically. Read everything you possibly can about the hidden secrets of nature. And dont let this remain a book-involvement. Protect nature. Be an active conservationist and work with others who share your values. Learn also to work with the powers that rule the land and try to influence them to take the right steps to benefit nature conservation. Stay away from bitterness and destructive rivalry as this will only cause you to fritter away your precious time, energy and resources.

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