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Are jungles falling prey to development?

P. Devarajan

"As boys, when we read Jim Corbett's stories, we had visions of the hills around Pati with plentiful goral, the forests around Devidhura populated by sambar, with antlers as big as the branch of an oak tree, and the Sharda full of big mahseer. The years have changed this wildlife abundance. Instead, everywhere, we saw evidence only of human abundance."

IN a foreword to the book On Jim Corbett's Trail and Other Tales from Tree-Tops by A.J.T. Johnsingh, John Seidensticker of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park writes: "One of the biggest barriers in thinking about and understanding the manifestation of ecological change and imparting concern about change to a wide audience is what environmental historians call our collective ecological amnesia.

A father can tell his son how it was, but the son, who has never experienced what his father has seen, simply cannot appreciate the changes in nature that are happening everywhere. For this reason, our collective idea of what is natural changes, usually for the worse.

Ecologists recognise this and have given it a name: the shifting baseline. Consequently, our environmental history is not grounded and we simply do not see or understand the deterioration that is occurring."

This observation could apply to the present generation keen on building a power station adjacent to the Silent Valley in Kerala and damage an important bioreserve. This generation may not be aware of the movement, led by Dr Salim Ali and others, to preserve the Silent Valley in the 70s and 80s and the firm intervention by Indira Gandhi in their favour to leave the small patch of forest undisturbed.

Only the remnants of a few fine tropical and deciduous forests remain in India for today's children of yesterday's parents and Johnsingh pleads for protecting them from hydel, mining and tourism projects.

The author lives in the "foothills of the northernmost mountain ranges of India," though he was brought up in a housing colony called Sankar Nagar, near Nanguneri in Tamil Nadu. One afternoon he came upon a Tamil translation of Jim Corbett's Man-eaters of Kumaon and "as I greedily turned its pages it cast a spell on me that still has not lifted," writes Johnsingh.

His father, Joseph Asirvatham, was a Physical Education teacher in Sankar Reddiar Board High School and a member of the volleyball team of the then undivided Madras State for seven consecutive years. He preferred the outdoors — a habit that Johnsingh carries in his genes.

One day Johnsingh decided to walk the lost trail of Jim Corbett. In late April 1993, 84 years after Corbett's visit, Johnsingh with his colleague, Dr G.S. Rawat, travelled 300 km in a jeep between Kaladhungi and Tanakpur, where Corbett had shot the Mukteshwar, Champawat, Chuka and Thank man-eaters.

The dense oak and scrub jungle near Devidhura that Corbett saw has been lost to cultivation. Yet, they heard the cooing of the rufous turtle dove, calls of the great hill barbet and the songs of the cowherds, and one wished one had been on that trip.

"As boys, when we read Corbett's stories, we had visions of the hills around Pati with plentiful goral, the forests around Devidhura populated by sambar, with antlers as big as the branch of an oak tree, and the Sharda full of big mahseer. The years have changed this wildlife abundance. Instead, everywhere, we saw evidence only of human abundance."

Of Johnsingh, Seidensticker says, "He walks to live, and lives to walk — and it shows." The man treks the forests in rubber hawai chappals as they are best for wading in water and climbing trees. "I had to climb trees several times in a week to avoid elephants and find a comfortable and safe perch to wait for and watch dholes," he says.

Wearing flip-flops made him vulnerable to the Russel's viper and the common cobra but that is the risk he is prepared to take. Dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) are not liked by most wildlifers.

Pythian Adams, writing in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, described the dholes as "perfect swine" and was in favour of doing away with them. In 1964, E.P. Gee spoke up for the animal with little enthusiasm.

Johnsingh has studied dholes and reports an incident when they, instead of chasing him, turned back with a short, alarm growl. He calls them the whistling hunter and though they look like dogs, do not bark.

"The most interesting call of the dhole is a whistle. How it produces the sound is an enigma. ... . Dholes separated from the rest of their pack whistle to discover the whereabouts of its pack members," Johnsingh says.

In the last essay, Tracking the Lions of Gir, the author expands on the fast-disappearing skills of junglefolk. "When dependence on jungle-based livelihood is reduced, traditionally acquired jungle craft also disappears. While the efforts of the conservation community dilute pressures on forests, sadly, they also wash away skills based on physical fitness and the ability to see, hear, smell and then logically interpret signs in the jungle."

When the villages in Melghat Tiger Reserve are taken out, the reserve will miss Sukh Lal and Phaltu, with their genetic ability to sight, smell and hear animals from far. This collection on forests and wildlife is worth owning and reading.

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