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.
At Rajaji National Park, 1994
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.
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.
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.
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.