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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 98-99

Field Days: A Naturalist's Journey Through South and Southeast Asia

Centre for Wildlife Studies, 1669, 31st Cross, 16th Main, Banashankari 2nd Stage, Bangalore 560 070, India

Correspondence Address:
Divya Vasudev
Centre for Wildlife Studies, 1669, 31st Cross, 16th Main, Banashankari 2nd Stage, Bangalore 560 070
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Vasudev D. Field Days: A Naturalist's Journey Through South and Southeast Asia. Conservat Soc 2008;6:98-9

How to cite this URL:
Vasudev D. Field Days: A Naturalist's Journey Through South and Southeast Asia. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2020 Jul 14];6:98-9. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/1/98/55772

A.J.T. Johnsingh, Field Days: A Naturalist's Journey Through South and Southeast Asia. Universities Press, Hyderabad, India. 2005. 256 pp. INR 350 (Paperback). ISBN 978-81-7371-552-5.

Being a young and aspiring wildlife biologist, and one who has had the privilege to walk with the legendary naturalist Dr. Johnsingh, it is only natural to expect a wealth of information from any form of writing that he undertakes. Field Days is not a disappointment. A collection of articles previously published by Dr. Johnsingh in various places, from 1972 to date, from those that have featured in the Wildlife Institute of India Newsletter to the in-flight magazine of Indian Airlines, this book amply reflects his varied experiences in the wild.

The articles are organised geographically, so that one is taken on a long journey starting from the very south of India, though central and north India, to the northeastern states and beyond into Nepal, Bhutan and Vietnam. Each chapter is an experience in itself, dedicated to exploring to the maximum, the chosen area of wilderness. The reader, on this journey, not only alights upon familiar places, such as the Gir forest and Bandipur National Park, but also many along the unbeaten path, to locales that are still little heard about.

Originally written as articles intended to incite a love for nature amongst the general public, Dr. Johnsingh weaves a story around each place he visits. All articles are written in the first person, providing a personal touch and stripping the book of any resemblance to a travelogue. He talks not just of the excitement of seeing tigers or elephants, though these do feature aplenty, but also of the wait for these animals. Sometimes he just takes the reader on a walk through the forest. Through his eyes, readers see not a romantic view of the wilderness, but the forests themselves in all their raw beauty and complexity. The author provides a bounty of information on each place he has worked in or visited. Its history, landscape, residents and importantly, conservation problems, are all enclosed within the pages of this book. Often people familiar with the place of interest are included, and this provides insights that would otherwise be invisible to a visitor's eye. Dr. Johnsingh never fails to give a historical perspective of the forests he has visited, and in some cases, even gives a postscript of happenings after the article was written. What results is not just a snapshot glimpse of a few days, but a panoramic view spread over time.

The non-human inhabitants of these forests that have been written about will be well satisfied with Dr. John-Johnsingh's treatment of them. It is true that the mahseer and the tiger are mentioned copiously in the book, but other animals like the hoolock gibbon, the pig-tailed macaque, the blackbuck and of course, the gaur and the elephant get their share of mention. A detailed account of the habitat-in terms of the type of forests and the common trees found-brings to life each place he has visited. However, when these are specified as Latin names, these accounts get too technical for the reader. But where species are identified or described by their common names, they give a holistic picture of the forest, its fauna, and their interactions with each other and their environment. Bird lovers often number many among wildlife enthusiasts and they will be happy to know that Dr. Johnsingh always seems to have been on the lookout for rare and unique species of birds.

Meant more for the interested layperson than the scientist, these renditions of history and habitat are often softened by personal accounts of Dr. Johnsingh and his associates. From amusing incidents of his associates losing their way to heart-rending tales of the dangers of the forest, there are glimpses into the exciting life of naturalists in the forest. Sitting on trees, waiting at waterholes, long walks, and patient waits are all part of a naturalist's life, as we get to see in these articles.

Dr. Johnsingh also dwells on the lives and customs of the local tribes of the forests he visits. From hunting customs to involvement in conservation with the Forest Department, he discusses people mainly from the point of view of their possible effects on wildlife and forests. Dr. Johnsingh's pleas for guaranteeing inviolate spaces run true in his writings. Where he still sees the need for rehabilitation of people, he states the same in no definite terms. While he does express his sympathy for certain tribes forced by law to change their ways of life, especially hunting tribes, his note of urgency to protect critically endangered species from extinction rings loud from his writings. While elaborating on the forests and tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, he says, '...when guns replace bows and arrows, and when hunting for personal larders gives way to supplying meat demands in nearby towns, and when threatened and endangered animals are hunted, it is difficult to accept such killing as a way of life in the present day.'

The conservation perspectives in this book do not end there. Often the visits to different areas coincide with projects undertaken by graduate students from the Wildlife Institute of India where he taught for over 20 years. The results of these studies, therefore, regularly appear along with many insights. Unusual areas of study such as Pin Valley National Park in Himachal Pradesh and Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram, and accounts of radio colcollaring of elephants and lions are some examples. Also mentioned are some observations that are of great significance and interest-of tigers killing bears, and the confinement of tigers to Core-I areas of Sariska Tiger Reserve are just a couple of examples. Also worthy of mention are the Forests Department's conservation initiatives, which have received much credence in this book. The mammoth effort to effectively relocate villages from Bhadra Tiger Reserve for reducing habitat disturbance is just one of these.

Probably the most insightful chapters are the two on Bandipur, where Dr. Johnsingh studied dholes for his doctoral dissertation and the one on Rajaji, where he has spent many years instructing the students of the Wildlife Institute of India. His extensive experience in these two areas, especially Rajaji, and his intense connection with them can be felt in his narrative.

What make a rendition of this kind particularly fascinating are the glimpses we get into the life of animals that can be achieved only by educated observation. Years of such observation have made Dr. Johnsingh a renowned naturalist, and his knowledge of the world of animals is beyond question. These insights find their way into this book in the form of small anecdotes. However, this is probably the only aspect where this book does not meet expectations. For instance, in the chapter on dholes, Dr. Johnsingh hardly mentions their behaviour or even ecology in sufficient detail. If there is such a thing as seeing too many leopards, there are times when you feel this might be true for the author, for he, on occasion, spots one on a trail, in the middle of dense forests and (in narration) just passes on, a feat inconceivable for a lot of us. Some interesting accounts of animal behaviour do feature, and where they do, they are fascinating.

The collection of narratives that makes up this book is made colourful by sixteen colour plates, which are of very good quality. A couple of photographs are of the kind that could be an incentive to dive into the book. One of these is probably the first of its kind, a photo of the rusty-spotted cat in the wild. Apart from these, a famous photo from Gir, of a leopard with a langur in its mouth features on the front cover. There are also black and white photos in each of the articles, to illustrate and help visualise the area or animal being written about.

A treasure-trove of a seasoned naturalist's thoughts, as he travelled through India and beyond, this book reflects his experiences and his perspectives on conservation. But more than that, through its narratives it becomes an invaluable account of wildlife and forests of twentieth century India, not easy to come by. It is this quality of being dated beyond general knowledge, while not being history, and of being widespread enough in its range that makes it valuable. Importantly, it comes at an opportune time when public interest in wildlife has reached an all-time high. All-in-all, it is an interesting read for conservationists and wildlife biologists, for wildlife enthusiasts, and even for those just on the look out for a vacation communing with nature.


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