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Answering the call of the jungle

Chinnappa’s pedagogy was distinct. He had a manner of replying to questions with questions, intending to push the asker’s thinking.
Last Updated 28 February 2024, 22:26 IST

Reading that K M Chinnappa is no more, brought back a flush of memories. Chinnappa was a renowned ecologist, known for his passionate endeavours to protect forests.

After years of protecting these ecosystems and reviving the tiger population at Nagarahole Wildlife Sanctuary, where he started his career, Chinnappa resigned from the forest service and took a keen interest in nature education.

It was probably in 2003 that I first heard of him. In a couple of years, I had the pleasure of learning from him in the Nagarahole National Park. 

When I discovered that there would be a nature camp in Nagarahole and Chinnappa would facilitate it, I bunked college and joined a group of nature enthusiasts.

Our group comprised people from various ages and backgrounds, and I was among the youngest. At the camp, Chinnappa spoke with great conviction about his role. 

He recalled various instances where his life was in danger. Even then, he explained that he was only doing his job of protecting forests at all costs. 

After lunch, around 20 of us lined up behind Chinnappa and walked through the forest.

He would stop frequently and ask questions. During the walk, he also filled us in with details about the smells and organisms of the environment. He had a sharp eye and would spot the tiniest spider on the ground.

He taught us in a way that today’s nature educators call experiential learning — Chinnappa’s pedagogy was distinct. He had a manner of replying to questions with questions, intending to push the asker’s thinking. 

Around halfway through our walk, Chinnappa asked everyone to stop. He swiftly moved to the front of the line, sniffing the air. “There are elephants ahead,” he declared and stopped. 

We were at the ridge of a small valley. Across this stretch was the road and we saw two jeeps waiting for us. As we all huddled and peered, we could see that there was not one but three elephants. We also spotted a calf that still had not figured out how its trunk worked.

Chinnappa suspected that it was barely a week old. We were all glued to our binoculars, looking at the elephants.

Suddenly, a tigress emerged into our field of vision, walking right past the elephant. All hell broke loose. The mother elephant chased the tigress away into the forest.

Just as we were settling down, incredibly, another tiger, this time, a male, walked across the valley. This led to more commotion as the elephants trumpeted and crashed through the jungle. The tiger, presumably startled, let out a blood-curdling roar. 

It was evening when Chinnappa said it was time to go. We cautiously descended into the valley. Half the group had gone past where the elephants were last seen when a trumpet scared us to split into two huddles.

The elephants retreated and we all managed to go across the path to the safety of our vehicles. Since then, I have encountered many tigers and elephants while surveying the forests but these sightings have not come close to this unexpected encounter. 

Some of us dropped in to meet Chinnappa at his house a few years later. He had vivid memories of our encounter with the two tigers and elephants. Chinnappa and his wife also talked passionately about their days in the forest. 

In late 2020, my wife and I happened to be passing through what is now the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve. We stopped the car at the Nagarahole camp because I wanted to see how the place had changed.

A forest officer came running and yelled at us for stopping there. The camp is a core part of the reserve and is out of bounds now. Although we were disheartened, we took solace in the fact that the forests were being protected. I suspect that Chinnappa too would have been proud of the forest official for doing his job and will rest in peace. 

(The author is an ecologist)

K M Chinnappa

K M Chinnappa 

Credit: Special Arrangement

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(Published 28 February 2024, 22:26 IST)

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