Book review: 'Jim Corbett’s Trail...', by AJT Johnsingh

The author has mostly walked these landscapes to narrate these essays.

The book cover of  'Jim Corbett’s Trail and Other Tales from the Jungle'. Credit: Amazon.in

There are very few books, especially ones written by a wildlife biologist, that talk about Indian wildlife and the length and breadth of the different landscapes of the country. AJT Johnsingh’s new book, Jim Corbett’s Trail and Other Tales from the Jungle, bridges the gap and provides the reader with very interesting narratives.

The author, AJT Johnsingh, an acclaimed naturalist, teacher and biologist, takes you on a journey from the tiger and elephant landscapes of Uttarakhand to the grassy swamps of Assam, from the dry forests of Gir to very green shola forests and grasslands of the Western Ghats, and from the snow-capped mountains of Sikkim to the mangroves of Sunderbans.

However, the interesting part is that when Johnsingh writes about tiger landscapes, he includes neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. This makes a lot of ecological sense as animals are not moving based on administrative or political boundaries.

The author has mostly walked these landscapes to narrate these essays. In the foreword, John Seidensticker, an American wildlife biologist with vast work experience in Nepal, writes, “He walks to live, and lives to walk” — an apt description for a man who, even at the age of 70, hates being overtaken by anyone while walking in the jungles. But what makes a walk with Johnsingh more intriguing is his ability to weave relationships of plants with animals and the landscape, which emanates from his vast field experience. At a time when field natural history is becoming a rare commodity and projected as an ‘outdated’ skill, Johnsingh is an exception popularising this subject among students, forest officers, nature enthusiasts, children, and many others.

As the title suggests, the book certainly takes you down the lane of legendary Jim Corbett’s journeys hunting down man-eating tigers and leopards.

He retraces the path, villages, and forests from which stories on man-eaters of Champawat, Mohan, Tella Des, Kanda, Thak, Chuka, and others have originated, taking the reader on a history trail.

The author, himself a small game hunter in the past, can perhaps relate a lot to Corbett’s adventures.

He interweaves Corbett’s stories with the natural history of the species and compares the changes in the landscape between the past and the present. However, all changes are not negative. He also mentions of the recovery of wildlife in some of the areas. One terminology that caught my attention is the word ‘Corbett landscape’.

The author possibly refers to the large mammal landscape, but to me, it highlights the area of operation of the legendary hunter, which is very relevant in the context of this book. The minor details of the landscape, observations during his walks, all bring in the vista into the drawing room along with the sights and sounds of the jungles.

Through the entire length of the book, he demonstrates his extra love for mahseer fish, goral, and the tiger. Very few books on Indian wildlife provide detailed accounts about dholes, popularly called the Indian wild dogs. Johnsingh, who carried out his doctoral work on these bouncy dogs in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, has a full, interesting chapter on these whistling hunters. His study was the first PhD work by an Indian biologist on a free-ranging large mammal.

The book has an informal tone with loads of anecdotes from his jungle walks.

My favorite one goes - “I wanted to wait and see whether the tiger would return to the kill, and so I climbed a small tree with dense foliage nearby. Climbing the tree through dead branches, carrying a rucksack and a camera, was not accomplished silently. By this time, my assistant attempted to drag the kill closer to my tree, and while making a final check for the exact location, he saw a leopard perched on the higher branch of a taller tree behind me. He signalled to draw my attention to the leopard, and when I turned around, I saw it watching me from a distance of 8-10 metres. Most likely, the leopard had climbed the tree to avoid the tiger”.

The book would not only interest all Corbett fans, but also anyone interested in natural history.

The book has an interesting mix of photographs and illustrations. Obviously, there are no pictures to demonstrate Corbett’s experiences but are compensated through illustrations to give a visual narrative of some of the interesting moments of the hunter’s man-eating expeditions.

The book does have its fair share of shortcomings. It would largely help if the book were accompanied with good maps right at the beginning and in various chapters, as the reader is lost with the various directions and locations given therein. This would help orient the reader to the locations and the landscape.

The book could also largely benefit with a bit of careful editing as introductions to many characters that are peppered across the book, are repeated, and in addition, would also help connect the different chapters in a more meaningful manner.

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Book review: 'Jim Corbett’s Trail...', by AJT Johnsingh

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