Field Days by AJT Johnsingh

Field Days by AJT Johnsingh

Published by University Press

Field Days: A Naturalists Journey through South and Southeast Asia by AJT Johnsingh is collections of writings by AJT Johnsignh, who needs no introduction among even the layman with interest in wildlife. Written in a first person account about his travels through various forests, undertaken during his stint with WII (Wildlife Institute of India) as well as his field visits in his research days, it is an easy read. The style makes the reader feels like being his fellow traveller so it is easy to read from start to finish at one go. However, to digest the plethora of information, one needs to revisit this book many times.

In the foreword of this book John Seidensticker writes “There is more to Dr Johnsingh’s records of his journeys than simply documenting change and lamenting loss. Modern conditions and future responses in a landscape can only be interpreted in light of the history of those landscapes. We need baselines to know from where we have come and where we are going. Dr Johnsingh’s stories, besides being entertaining and informative in their own right, provide about the best ecological baselines we have for the most of the areas he has visited and studied”.

There are also interesting incidents mentioned in his book. One of those is about Dr Salim Ali, renowned ornithologist being part of a team involved in tranquilising an elephant. In another incident, Dr Johnsingh has mentioned about an elephant tranquilising effort gone wrong with the darted elephant collapsing on the edge of a nullah on her chest and dying. Unlike other biologists who completely deny that their tranquilisation efforts has resulted in charismatic animals dying, Dr Johnsingh readily takes the blame. The reader thus gets a sneak peek into the values and integrity of Dr Johnsingh.

Fans of Jim Corbett would also be excited to see that the small hamlets mentioned by Jim Corbett during his efforts to kill maneaters had been visited by Dr Johnsingh and the state of wildlife and the wild lands detailed. However, that excitation would soon turn into despair when one comes to know about the devastation of those places. Standing in the shade of an oak tree, and listening to the incessant chirping of cicadas, we imagined Jim Corbett on his four-day march from Nainital to Kala Agar, culminating in the stiff climb of over 3,000 feet. He would have found it difficult, as we did, to believe the changes that have taken place here in a span of seven decades. All along, Corbett would have found only degraded habitat, devoid of large mammals, and rivers empty of mahseer. He would have discovered that he could walk the distance without a rifle and the fear of any animal ambushing him.

He not only documents the degradation but also offers suggestions to arrest the degradation of our mountains. He opines “Degradation can only be arrested if the ecological role of mountain forests (as catchment areas) is given greater importance than their economic role (harvesting timber). Massive afforestation of the denuded mountains, using native species, should be taken up on a war footing. Total control over poaching of ungulates is required to enable sambar, barking deer and goral to stage a come-back. An intensive and extensive education programme to make children and adults realise the importance of forests and wildlife should be launched immediately”. If only these suggestions were understood and implement by the Government then we would have seen far less devastation during the recent Uttarakhand landslides.

In all the chapters he has analysed the situation of the places he visited from a conservation point of view.

Analysing the situation in Sariska Tiger Reserve after all the tigers were poached and answering the question whether tigers should be reintroduced in Sariska, Dr Johnsingh writes “..we do have the technological capability, but our political capability remains questionable. A thumb rule for re-introduction to take place is that all negative factors that led to the demise of the species in the area are either totally removed or brought under control before the species is re-introduced. Although poaching has been attributed as the reason for the sudden disappearance of tigers in Sariska, population modelling studies carried by Qamar Qureshi, a colleague at WII, clearly indicate that tigers in the reserve were gradually falling victim to growing pressures from human habitation, traffic and the pilgrimage to Pandupole temple. Qamar has stated that, without appropriate management interventions, with or without poaching, the population would have perished in the near future”.

We can think of re-introducing tigers in Sariska only when at least four villages (Kiraska, Haripura, Umir and Kankwari) are resettled, both state highways are diverted, and pilgrims are asked to take the Bharthari-Kiraska-Pandupole route outside the reserve.

Similarly analysing the situation in North East, Dr Johnsingh writes “Wildlife Conservation has suffered a massive setback in India’s northeastern states due to shifting cultivation, excessive hunting, insurgency and the fact that the forest department has very little control over the forest land. For example, Mizoram has roughly 88 per cent forest cover, which translates to 15,935 sq km, and of this, only about 7,127 sq km is under the forest department. Similarly, in the state of Meghalaya, the forest department controls only 12 percent of the 8,514 sq km of forests, while the rest is under the control of village communities and district councils. The rapid degradation and disappearance of village and community forests in these two states over the last few decades, due to shifting cultivation and uncontrolled illegal logging, forces conservation planning to be restricted only to the reserve forests and protected areas already established. This also highlights the fact that the forests can be protected only when they are under the strict control of the government. People, who are divided into many factions and have varied interests, cannot, by themselves, save the forests bestowed to them”.

The conservation challenges in all the places he visited have been nicely summarised and the solutions given. Only if there is someone to implement those!

There are some suggestions which can be easily implemented and not cynically dismissed. For example he has given emphasis on what he says as forgotten art of walking in the forests. We may not be able to create new protected areas. We may have problems translocating villages and establishing forest corridors. But the one thing we can and must do, with our existing resources, is control poaching. Our staff needs to be motivated and taught the art of locating and catching poachers, gathering information on poachers from villagers, walking silently and waiting in ambush for the criminals, and also intercepting the mafia that finances most of the poaching. In this regard it becomes crucial that young forest officers revive the forgotten art of walking in the jungle, which many of their predecessors excelled at.

These days a lot of forest officers consider themselves as administrators and I have heard the forest staff complaining that these officers hardly step down from their jeeps. Unless one walks in the forest, he/she is not likely to learn much. The sound of the vehicles drown the sounds of the animals and birds and a part of the experience of wildlife goes away if one is only confined to vehicles.

Field days with 339 pages spread over 37 chapters was published by University Press in 2005. My copy was priced at Rs. 375/- however, I find that the recent price is Rs. 475/- . This book is highly recommended for naturalists, conservationists, researchers, policy makers as well as the general public. Considering that the price is less than a family Pizza, even if you may not have the habit of reading books, buying this book and placing it on the drawing table may help people discover it.

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