A journey in nature

A journey in nature

Walking the Western Ghats
AJT Johnsingh
2015, pp 149, Rs 450

There are voyages of all sorts. And here now comes a voyage undertaken by AJT Johnsingh on foot in India’s Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot rich in flora and fauna, composed of all manner of landscape — rivers, streams and reservoirs, grasslands, mountains and forests. Johnsingh has documented this voyage and so comes the book Walking the Western Ghats.

Co-published by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and Oxford University Press (OUP), the book, authored by one of India’s leading naturalists and field biologists, is a recounting of his many visits over many decades to the Western Ghats, from River Tapti in Maharashtra to Kanyakumari in the southernmost tip of India, running parallel to the Arabian Sea for about 1,500 km, its national parks, wildlife and bird sanctuaries and tiger reserves.

The book, with its over 20 chapters,is like a voyager’s travelogue. It is a journey that Johnsingh began in his childhood with his father, based in Tirunelveli, and going to the Nambiar river in the Thirukurungudi range, now a part of the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. It continued through his working years, a teaching career (at college) in Sivakasi from the late 1960s to the mid-70s, going to the Srivilliputhur-Rajapalayam hills, near the Periyar Tiger Reserve. And subsequently, he went on to conduct research and earn a PhD in 1980, and then was also associated with the Smithsonian Institution, USA and the BNHS after which he worked in the Wildlife Institute of India for 20 years, retiring in 2005. And interestingly, after his retirement, he, along with his colleagues of the Nature Conservation Fund, Mysore, did a survey of the Western Ghats, from the Kanyakumari Hills in Tamil Nadu to the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra “assessing the landscapes and corridors for large mammals”. And it’s based on all these travels that the book has come about.

A specialist on large mammals, Johnsingh’s doctoral research on wild dogs (dholes) in the Sigur forests and the Bandipur Tiger Reserve is considered to be pioneering. He has also co-authored two volumes of The Mammals of South Asia, besides authoring books on wildlife conservation. The pieces in Walking the Western Ghats are, of course, set neither chronologically nor in spatial sequence in the Western Ghats. But each piece is a standalone piece and therefore that consideration doesn’t quite take away from the charm.

If there are the better-known protected areas that are included like the Periyar Tiger Reserve, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Bandipur National Park and Silent Valley National Park, there are also the lesser-known ones like the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve, Mathikettan Shola National Park, Srivilliputhur Grizzled Giant Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary and Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary. Each chapter is also provided with detailed maps.

Most of the stunning and brilliant pictures in the book — of the picturesque and splendid landscapes of the Western Ghats and the diverse wildlife and flora — are taken by the author himself. A picture says a thousand words, but check a sampler of the text: “Clouds caressing the mountains rising to 6,200 feet, steep and rugged slopes clothed in dense vegetation and numerous deep valleys where perennial rivulets merrily flow down to join larger streams characterize the landscape that lies south of the Periyar Tiger Reserve.” Now that too creates a clear picture before the mind’s eye.

The travelogue is vivid, to say the least. The author describes in detail the Western Ghats’ flora, fauna, landscapes, threats to the habitats, conservation issues and success stories too. There are some thrilling incidents too to the adventure that the author writes about. Remarkable is the one where he and a few trainees with him were on foot in the Periyar National Park, and two groups of wild elephants hemmed them in, one group of a calf between seven adult females, and the other of five elephants, both groups trumpeting and flapping their ears aggressively “dangerously close”. And the team was on a “steep trail bordered with dense brush leading down to the river”! It was only after the guards accompanying them fired two shots in the air that the two elephant groups “got the message and stood huddled together, trumpeting and rumbling, with the calf situated safely in the middle. This just about enabled us to walk hurriedly…” and they rapidly made their getaway!

The book is, of course, recommended for every nature and wildlife lover and wanderlust who would like to explore the wilderness and nature at its best, but more importantly for policy makers and environmentalists as it gives useful insights into and information on how to go about protecting the Western Ghats.

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