On Jim Corbett’s Trail: A Review of AJT Johnsingh’s new book

A naturalist ventures into the forests to capture the reality of nature, which can be terrifying, magical, static and cinematic

In J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, the author describes his intense, all consuming, transformative relationship with a pair of Peregrine falcons in the English countryside. At the end of the non-fiction account, the author’s consciousness is fused with the bird — he thinks, feels and sees like a falcon.

Seeing through the eyes of a wild animal is something naturalists strive for. If Baker thought like a falcon, Johnsingh appears to think like all the wild animals he describes in On Jim Corbett’s Trail. From dholes, tigers, mahaseer fish, serowto rhinos, Johnsingh’s gaze not only describes, but also explains the enigmatic other — the wild animal in its wild habitat. Wildernesses like Nandhour (Uttarakhand), Gir (Gujarat), Mishmi Hills (Arunachal Pradesh), the Sundarbans (West Bengal), Tiruvannamalai hills (Tamil Nadu) are for field observation and preservation, and the author seeks to persuade you why.

Gazing at forests

The narratives are full of a kind of drama the casual observer may miss. Forests require a careful gaze, and there is a lot of heft in what the eye can’t easily see: birth, quiet moments of coexistence, the undocumented struggle for life, and finally, unmourned deaths in the wild.

Johnsingh describes the tender bond an old male dhole had with his pups, and then notes the animal is gone — which in the animal world, means a quiet, anonymous death. “He appeared to be the leader of the pack and was extremely fond of the pups. When the pack made a kill of a small animal, the pups would run to him pestering him to regurgitate extra meat,” he writes. The wildness and freedom of the dhole left a deep impression on the author.

“I soon developed a strange affection for this aged hunter who flitted freely through the forest. He led a daring life. Alone and unafraid he slipped without any hesitation through the thickets which I entered with much reluctance, with bated breath and a tense body. When he suddenly disappeared in April 1978, I felt a pang of sadness which stayed with me for a long time.” There are hours of similar ecological observation in the book.

Not everything described in the book is an event and that is the strength of the book. When in the wilderness, time is not a linear construct confined to man-hours. You could be there for hours with nothing “happening”. Equally a lot of action can happen in a matter of minutes — a chase between tiger and prey, running into a large, obligate carnivore, or as the author describes, climbing a tree to escape a tiger, only to find a leopard in the adjacent tree. Thus, time in the wilderness is not a time that can be easily mapped, or predicted. Patience is a key ingredient of ethology — the study of animal behaviour, and jungle-craft both. True to this, there are passages in the book where nothing happens, or what is intended does not happen. He waits to take a photo but cannot because a noisy bird, the Red-wattled Lapwing, flies overhead, disturbing the scene; he walks for hours or days, drenched by rain, unable to sight the species he is looking for.

That is the reality of nature — it can be terrifying, it can be magical, it can be simultaneously static and cinematic.

The author also attempts fiction towards the end of the book, the story of a tiger in the 1960s that became a man-eater. The young tiger watches his mother die in a poacher’s trap. It then grows up, surrounded by threats, and eventually kills man.

History repeats itself

If you come away scratching your head on who is to blame for large animals that go rogue, then the book would have succeeded in demonstrating the worldview of the tiger — one that is threatened, wild and brutal, yet fully sentient. And, history repeats itself.

Fifty odd years hence, similar stories of man-eating and conflict are playing out in India. A tigress with cubs in Maharashtra has been accused of man-eating and is being tracked, to be shot or captured. In Assam, authorities are on the trail of a tigress that has killed several cattle. The prescriptions for conservation are never simple, but Johnsingh suggests they cannot be reached without understanding what the wild animal experiences.

He also suggests solutions which may be unpalatable for some. These include allowing tourists to track lions on foot in Gir to aid revenue, and fencing off large parts of Bandhavgarh tiger reserve to funnel wild animals towards Sanjay Tiger reserve.

The book rolls out like a podcast, like an oral narration rather than a written one. The style alternates between accounts told over camp fires and a barrage of dates, names of people and facts, not all of which fits seamlessly. So it is best absorbed episodically rather than as a single, cohesive narrative.

However, the authenticity of the accounts of a man who has lived, breathed, and walked Indian wilderness never falters. This is not a coffee table book to be quickly flipped through. It is instead a book to be chewed slowly, absorbing India’s wild places, and matching step with unpredictable jungle time.

This first appeared in The Hindu

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