Dr. Asir Jawahar Thomas Johnsingh, popularly known as AJT Johnsingh, is one of India’s foremost vertebrate ecologists. He was the first Indian to study a free ranging mammal – his study of dholes in Bandipur forests in the Western Ghats helped unravel the secret life of dholes and highlighted their role as one of the apex predators in tropical Indian forests.

Dr. Johnsingh, along with his students, has worked on a wide array of taxa like dholes, lions, elephants, mountain goats and others, in his career spanning over four decades. His key contributions for tiger science and conservation are manifold. He knew many tiger habitats of the country intimately, and the Sariska debacle involving loss of all tigers from Sariska TR in Rajasthan was exposed partly due to Dr. Johnsingh’s effort. His effort was crucial in establishing a few tiger reserves in the country. Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, at the far end of the Western Ghats, is one example.

At the age of 69, Dr. Johnsingh is still an avid trekker, tirelessly scaling precipitous slopes of mountains and forests all across India. His incredible stamina and physique are hallmarks of a great naturalist who has inspired and trained hundreds of naturalists, biologists and serving forest officials. Dr. Johnsingh continues to guide the scientific and conservation community with his sage counsel.

1. Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in natural history and wildlife?

I grew up in the southern end of Tamil Nadu, not far from the Bay of Bengal, where the sea is separated from my village only by some red sand dunes. Although the place I grew up in is in the rain-shadow area of the Western Ghats, tanks were almost perennial in those days as a result of copious rain. We could swim and fish in them, and climb nearby hills.

1(4)At Rajaji National Park, 1994

2. With respect your interest in wildlife, what were the advantages and disadvantages of growing up in a rural area?
 
We were close to nature. Jungle cats used to raid our chicken-house, there were cobras and saw-scaled pit vipers around, and one could hear grey partridges calling morning and evening, from our house itself. As small-game hunting was allowed in those days, we had the opportunity to go after black-naped hare, teals and ducks in winter, and grey partridges in summer. During holidays, the entire family including my mother and sisters would spend a few days at the foothills of the Western Ghats. So, living in a rural area gave us lots of opportunities to be one with nature, which definitely was an advantage.

3. What was the turning point when you decided you wanted to study wildlife as a profession?

After obtaining my Master’s degree in Zoology from Madras Christian College (MCC) in 1968, I was working as a lecturer in Ayya Nadar Janaki Ammal College, Sivakasi. In the summer of 1971, when I was in Kalakad hills on a trekking trip, I met Mr. J. C. Daniel (from Bombay Natural History Society) and Romulus Whitaker. When Daniel, himself a student of MCC, learnt that like him, I too had studied Zoology there, he encouraged me to take up observations on wildlife and write about them. In the course of time, he helped me do the study on dholes in Sigur Range near Mudumalai WLS for five months in 1973 and 1975, and eventually my PhD work on dholes in Bandipur Tiger Reserve in the late 1970s.

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 Photographing Nilgiri Tahrs at Eravikulam National Park, 1995
 
4. What were the difficulties you faced in the pursuit of wildlife as a profession? What were your primary sources of support and inspiration?
 
I had to leave my permanent job as a lecturer, but WWF-India supported me while doing my field studies. Late Dr. Eisenberg and Dr. John Seidensticker from the Smithsonian Institution, Washington-DC, were of immense support by providing me a post-doctoral fellowship which enabled me to go to the US and get some experience there. Jim Corbett and Dr. George.B.Schaller were a source of inspiration.

5. At what point did your curiosity about that wildlife turn into concern about its future, about its survival?

In recent years, my concern for wildlife has grown significantly. In most states, there is no continuity of thought and action, for strengthening conservation. Our inability to establish the corridor across the Ganges, between the two halves of Rajaji National Park, even after thirty years of realisation that it is an important corridor, is a good example of the above statement. We are helpless against the rapid degradation that is engulfing our wildlife habitats. Many of us are not even aware that this is happening. Some, with ignorance, even say that nature will take care of it.

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 Eravikulam National Park, 2006
 
6. In our country of over one billion people, what challenges and opportunities do you see for wildlife conservation?
 
Our enormous population, which is growing rapidly, poses many threats to our wildlife. For example, unsustainable exploitation of ground water is making our landscapes increasingly arid. Instead of treating our rivers with immense respect like our blood vessels, we treat them like sewage drainages. A small farmer is able to keep his field free from all exotic weeds, but we, with more than one billion people, have allowed weeds to take over our wildlife habitats, drastically reducing their capability to support wildlife. The nation needs to have a common goal to have a noise-free, filth-free, garbage- free and weed-free country, with clean and productive ponds and rivers.

Protected areas like Anamalai Tiger Reserve and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary have many dead teak trees as a result of debarking by elephants. Such trees can harvested, sold and the money can be deposited with the Foundation in Anamalai Tiger Reserve and used for resettling people in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.

Recent research by Mahseer Trust, United Kingdom, and other mahseer biologists, has found out that mortality in mahseer as a result of catch and release program is negligible. Therefore catch and release program of mahseer can be promoted along river Cauvery to maximize protection to mahseer which now are killed by dynamiting by fish poachers.

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 Crossing the Kunthipuzha river while on a trek between Mukurthi and Silent Valley National Park, 2009
 
7. Where do you see people as a threat, and where do you see them as assets, in the task of conserving our wildlife and natural heritage?
 
India’s large population can be a great asset to conservation, if people are motivated to help clean the country of garbage and weeds, raise plantations of forage for livestock, firewood and timber and help in protection of wildlife. They can also help in alleviating the problem of climate change by raising thousands of tree species such as neem, ficus, peepal and jamun wherever possible and by maintaining as many water bodies as possible.

8. From having been India’s first wildlife biologist, you have trained dozens of researchers and hundreds of foresters. Can you tell us a bit more about your time as a teacher and what your most rewarding and frustrating moments were?

My rewarding experiences largely come from the time I spent with students and trainee officers, in the field. Since I learnt wildlife largely by myself, I had very little to offer the students, many of whom are exceptionally brilliant, in theory classes. But, I had considerable knowledge to pass on to them with regards to the field situation. This, I would attribute to the knowledge I acquired by spending time, often alone, in the forests of Mudumalai-Bandipur and Rajaji NP. So, most of my students and forest officer trainees remember the time they spent with me in the field. Occasionally, very brilliant students failed to write about their research findings and that was frustrating.

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 At Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary, Sikkim, 2013
 
9. What do you see as your biggest legacy? How would you wish to be remembered? As a teacher? As a researcher? As a conservationist? As a student of natural history?
 
My biggest legacy is some of the brilliant students and dedicated forest officer trainees whose freedom, sadly, is often curtailed by bureaucracy. I may be remembered as one genuinely interested in practical conservation, interested in the welfare of the students and the poor of the land.  One example of practical conservation I have in my mind is in the beautiful district of Coorg or Kodagu – people may be legally allowed to hunt prescribed number of wild pigs every year but no one should poach barking deer, sambar and gaur, which will make the enchanting landscape of Coorg immensely richer.
 
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On Chatwapipal Bridge across the Alaknanda River near Rudraprayag
 
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 At Uttarey, Sikkim, 2013
 
10. What advice do you have to a youngster interested in pursuing wildlife as a profession today?
 
My advice will be that only those students who are exceedingly brilliant and physically fit should take up wildlife as a career. There is no future for mediocre students in wildlife. Be sincere and honest to the core, seek knowledge all the time, and communicate your findings and knowledge by all means to as many as possible.

We would like to acknowledge the help of M.D. Madhusudan, N Lakshminarayan, Kalyan Varma and Divya Mudappa for their valuable contributions to this interview.