Memories of Ajay Desai

Memories of Ajay Desai


Dr. A.J.T.Johnsingh

IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group

Many conservationists in India and almost all Asian elephant experts are paying glorious tributes to Ajay Desai, who was gathered to Heaven in the wee hours of 20th November.

It was in the year 1982 that I met Ajay Desai for the first time, when he had come to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to appear for an interview, hoping to get selected as a research fellow in BNHS Elephant Project funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I had been appointed to help select and train two researchers for this important project. The late Mr. J.C. Daniel, former Chairman, IUCN, Asian Elephant Specialist Group, was the overall in-charge of the project. Ajay was a post-graduate in marine biology from Karnataka University. He was exceedingly handsome, with dark hair (which in later years turned completely grey) and a finely trimmed black moustache with a fit physique as he was a sprinter and football player and had represented Karnataka University in the inter-university meets. He was knowledgeable and articulate and so he was the first to be selected for the project, along with N. Sivaganesan (Siva), who had done his Master’s in Wildlife Biology from AVC College, Tamil Nadu. He was also a sprinter.

After returning from the Conservation Research Center, Smithsonian Institution, Front Royal in November 1981, and before moving to Wildlife Institute of India in March 1985, I was living in Palayankottai with my wife and two sons. So I started the elephant project in Mundanthurai Plateau, part of present-day Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), as there were four captive free-ranging elephants, a cow and three tuskers. The distance between Mundanthurai and Palayankottai is 60 km, both are in Tirunelveli district, and so it was convenient for me to travel to and fro. The elephants had been brought to Mundanthurai from Anamalai Wildlife Sanctuary to drag and pile the timber that had been felled in the area where the Servalar reservoir has been built. At that time, I had with me about 70 scientific papers on elephants, and we (Ajay, Siva and I) spent time reading and discussing the papers and observing the elephants. With the help of V. Chelladurai, a reputed local botanist, we recorded and identified the plants in the habitat where the elephants were ranging, with special attention to the species on which the elephants had fed. Once, while carrying out vegetation studies on the hill in front of Mundanthurai Forest Rest House, I saw Ajay abruptly leap 2 feet up in the air: the reason was, he was about to step on a 3-feet-long Russell’s viper.

Before I left for the Wildlife Institute of India, we went on several excellent treks in the southern Western Ghats, looking for and observing elephants, other animals and studying the flora. One night, we slept on the terrace of an unfinished building in Thalayanai in Kalakad Range, part of present-day KMTR. That day, we spent a lot of time looking for a group of elephants which were in the vicinity, as indicated by dung and feeding signs, but we failed to locate the group. That night, the moon was full, and around 11 pm, we heard some heavy animals walking over the dry leaf litter. When we peeped over the short side wall of the building, we saw a group of 10 elephants, followed by a tusker, walking along the trail close to the building. The tusks of the bull were gleaming in the moonlight. Although there was no wind and we were silent, the elephants, known for their enormous capabilities, sensed our presence, stood still for some time, and then walked towards the forest boundary.
Ajay always had a lovely smile on his face. @Ravi Corea, AsESG

We spent two nights in Naraikadu, a property of Dhonavur Fellowship, in April 1983. Several decades ago the missionaries of Dhonavur Fellowship used to sit and watch Nilgiri tahr in Kannunnie (5400 feet) peak, visible in the picture, while having their evening tea. Kannunnie is one of the potential tahr reintroduction sites.

Naraikadu, a property of Dhonavur Fellowship, in April 1983 @ AJT Johnsingh

The next morning, we tracked the elephants and found them feeding on the fronds of some palmyrah (Borassus flabellifer) trees which they had pushed down at night. On such occasions of tracking elephants on foot, I made it a point to brief Ajay and Siva of the importance of silence in walking, the wind direction, and the direction of the sun. With the wind on the face and the sun behind, a person if silent and using suitable cover, can approach a solitary elephant very close. This may not work while approaching a group of feeding elephants as the group would often be dispersed. It would be much safer to approach elephants in broken terrain as the steep slopes would give an opportunity to the observer to escape, if he/she was chased.

Ajay took note of all that I said very seriously and later he became an expert in tracking elephants on foot. When I warned both Ajay and Siva that one should never give an opportunity to a wild elephant to chase them, Ajay said with a laugh “I am a sprinter, I can run faster than Carl Lewis and escape the chasing elephant”. It is to be remembered that Carl Lewis is American track-and-field athlete who won nine Olympic gold medals during the 1980s and 1990s. My dictum in the elephant jungle was to see the elephants before they saw us and hear them before they heard us, and this is possible as elephants often make some sort of sound, either while feeding or by rumbling or flapping their ears in hot weather.

60 + Jothi was our companion and guide in April 1983

Atop Kottangathatti (5, 000 feet) under the large rock, we had spent a night in April 1983, This is one of the two areas in Tamil Nadu, Western Ghats which has been approved by National Board for Wildlife for tahr reintroduction. Kannunnie is just south-west of Kottangathatti.

One of our memorable treks was in April 1983 in Thirukurungudi Range, the southern-most range of KMTR and the southern-most habitat of elephants, tiger and Nilgiri tahr in the Western Ghats. We spent two nights in Naraikadu (3,000 feet) a property of Dhonavur Missionaries (to reach this place, one has to walk 9 km from the foothills, ca. 250 feet) and spent the third night below a large rock atop Kottangathatti (5,000 feet) and the fourth night in a ‘cave’ known to Jothi, our 60+ year old local guide. Besides Jothi, three more had accompanied us: a local assistant to carry our provisions; Gurusamy, a famous volleyball player, my college mate in St. Xavier’s College, Palayankottai (we both had played for the College team); and Sridhar who was practicing karate. Both Gurusamy and Sridhar were working in the State Bank of India, Tirunelveli and Sridhar had joined us on the trip seeking ‘adventure’. The ‘cave’ at an altitude of 3,600 feet was only a slanting rock facing east and, in the shelter of the slanting rock, about 10 persons can sleep on the ground.

Kottangathatti (5, 000 feet), Tamil Nadu, Western Ghats @ AJT Johnsingh.

Dusk was setting in and heavy mist was descending as we reached the ‘cave’. As soon as I entered the ‘cave’, I noticed a pair of old leather sandals, a walking stick and a string pouch with some pesticide in it. When I walked to the edge of the ‘cave’ and looked down, I saw a skeleton and it immediately occurred to me that these objects could be evidence of a leopard that had been killed as cattle in summer were taken to the hills in the past for grazing where poisoning of the predators (tiger, leopard and dhole) was common. But when I went closer and observed the object carefully I found that there was an intact bleached human skeleton; it was the size of the skull that I had seen first that had given me the initial impression that the skeleton might be that of a leopard.

A view of rainforest from Kottangathatti, April 1983. @ AJT Johnsingh

Perungundru (5600), Anamalai WLS. Atop Ajay, teacher Natrajan from Varagaliyar and I saw 40 Nilgiri tahr in November 1983 @ AJT Johnsingh

Everyone came and saw the skeleton. Sridhar, on seeing the skeleton, started crying and pleaded with Jothi to take us to some other place for the night, but Jothi firmly told everyone that there was no other place to go to in the gathering darkness. Soon, a good amount of grass was cut and placed on the uneven ground to be used as a bed. The local assistant went down to the nallah below and brought water and firewood. Chapathi and some sabji were cooked and after our frugal supper, the question arose as to who would sleep at the end where the skeleton was lying. Brave Jothi told us that as he was old and was not going to lose anything at this age, would not mind sleeping closer to the skeleton.

Six kg blue-finned mahseer, one of our catches @ AJT Johnsingh

Now, we had to decide who would sleep at the other end. Ajay had a sleeping bag and I had a long loose bag made of silk cloth which could be used like a sleeping bag. So, I told Ajay that since he had the sleeping bag, he could sleep at the other end. Before I could finish saying this, he promptly threw his sleeping bag towards me and said that as I was older than him, I could sleep at the other end while he would happily sleep next to me on the inner side. Gurusamy gave Sridhar some gin to drink and encouraged him to sleep in the middle, where, he was told, he would be totally safe. After that, there was no further discussion about who will sleep where, and the long walks during the last three days in the mountainous terrain had made everybody tired and we all slept peacefully.

In November 1983, once we climbed Perungundru (5600 feet) in Anamalai Wildlife Sanctuary, and saw about 40 Nilgiri tahr. In the same month, Ajay and I trekked along the Vengoli Ridge (3675 feet) in Parambikum Wildlife Sanctuary and saw 12 tahr at the end of the ridge. Now, tahr are seldom seen in Vengoli Ridge. One of our favourite places to stay in Parambikulam WLS was Thunakadavu Forest Rest House, right on the south-eastern shore of Thunakadavu reservoir. Our great attraction there was the abundant blue-finned mahseer in the reservoir.

Ajay was extremely fond of playing tricks on others and he was awfully good at it. One day while staying in Thunakadavu, he went out with my fishing rod and beaming, brought a 4-kg mahseer and told everybody that he had caught the fish with the rod. When the fish was checked, we found that it had already been killed by an otter which had chewed its head and left the remains on the shore, an inexplicable behavior of otters.

Siva and Ajay observe the magnificent cut-tail tusker in Theppakadu elephant camp. 1982 @ AJT Johnsingh

Ajay and Siva observe Dr. K checking the tusker, 1982 @ AJT Johnsingh

Our major study site was Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and the place of stay of the research team (Ajay, Siva and the famous Elephant Doctor Krishnamoorthy), was a building renovated by BNHS with permission from the forest department. This was in Upper Kargudi, where elephant and gaur often walked through the area. Sloth bears were also frequent visitors and in fact before renovation the building was often used by sloth bears as their den. That’s why the building was called Karadi (sloth bear) bungalow. I may be correct that there were five rooms. The central room was used as a hall to receive visitors and served as the dining room. A kitchen, bathroom and toilet were behind the main building. Siva’s room was at one end and it had a glass window and Ajay’s room, also with a glass window, was at the other end.

As I said earlier, Ajay was fond of playing tricks on others. He did not spare even elderly Dr. Krishnamoorthy, a chain smoker. Ajay would take out tobacco from Dr.’s cigarettes and fill them with elephant dung. Later while smoking Dr. would say “Ajay, the flavour of this cigarette is different”. Eventually Dr. came to know about this but being a good- natured man he with a sense of humour accepted it light-heartedly. Dr. was an excellent cook and to assist him there was Bomma, a kuruba tribal, 4 feet tall. Sometimes Bomma would go with us to the field, like all tribal assistants for our safety he would go in front in the elephant jungle, and while going through tall grass often only his unkempt hair would be visible.

Ajay was respected and loved by the Kuruba tribals @ AJT Johnsingh.

Cross-tusker (Koodu komban). Eventually the tusker got poached @ Ajay Desai

One night after Siva went to sleep, Ajay covered himself with a dark woolen blanket, went out of the building and scratched the glass window close to Siva’s bed. Siva got up and saw a black form outside and then Ajay growled, and Siva thought it was a bear and so he screamed and ran to Ajay’s room to tell him about the angry bear that was just outside his window. When he found that Ajay was not on his bed and his blanket was also missing, it dawned on him that Ajay had played a trick. This became a joke to talk and laugh about for several months to come. There was great fun in the field station.

Ajay’s work in Mudumalai involved studying the behavior of elephants and finding out their ranging patterns and habitat use, and for this, he even radio-collared some elephants. One radio-collared female known as Wendy and her group even crossed the traffic-high Kallar corridor which is on the Mettupalyam-Ooty Highway (NH 181). This capability of Wendy to range ca. 90 km came to light only because of radio-collaring. Ajay was a guru, friend and advisor to Krupakar-Senani, Mysore based great friends, who have made the internationally famous film Wild Dog Diaries.

Ajay talking to Kansas University students in Mudumalai WLS. @ Geetanjali Tiwari

Ajay with the elephant radio-collaring team in Barnawapara WLS, Chhattisgarh, May 2018

The Mudumalai landscape continued to be the main study area of Ajay. But he also visited other elephant areas in India, and over the years, his knowledge of elephants grew so much that he had the distinction to be Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group and a member of several other important committees in India related to elephant conservation. Apart from India, he also worked on elephant and other large mammal conservation and the training of field officers in a range of countries - Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia. Christy Williams, then working with WWF-International, facilitated most of Ajay’s visits abroad.

As Ajay was knowledgeable, good-natured, humorous, and dedicated to conservation, he was immensely respected and liked by most of his colleagues, although some were put off by his overbearing and argumentative nature. He had developed a special rapport with the Kuruba tribals in Mudumalai WLS who have an excellent knowledge of the forests and its denizens. Taking immense time and effort, he trained many students from AVC College, Mayuram, Tamil Nadu, in various aspects related to elephant research and, as rightly pointed out by MD Madhusudan, a good friend of Ajay, this was remarkable as these students were from a rural background and poor in basic knowledge of wildlife and in spoken and written English.

Ajay in Upper Kargudi @ AJT Johnsingh

While working in Mudumalai WLS, he had applied for a faculty position in Wildlife Institute of India. He was selected for the ‘C’ position and he did not join as he possibly rightly thought that he deserved the ‘D’ position. Interestingly, in 1994, I had signed all five copies of his thesis on the Ecology and Behaviour of Elephants in Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and had asked him to submit the thesis in Saurashtra University where he had registered under my guidance. Soon after signing, I left for Vietnam for three months and for reasons only known to Ajay, he failed to submit his thesis.

Central Reserve Police Force training in jungle craft, Manglapatti, on the bank of Moyar River, Sathyamangalam TR, January 2011. Ajay on the left, AJT Johnsingh in the middle and Ravi Kumar on the right

His recent assignment was as a part of the three-member committee (the other two were Justice K. Venkatraman, former judge, Madras High Court, and Praveen Bhargav, Trustee, Wildlife First) appointed by the Supreme Court of India to help the Government of Tamil Nadu establish the Sigur (Singara) corridor, a crucial elephant pathway in the Mudumalai landscape. Ajay went with the Committee to the Corridor area on 7th November and this was the only field visit Ajay had made, during the entire covid-19 period. In the corridor area, they had all climbed the Vibhuti hillock, from which one can get a good view of the corridor, and they also went to Ooty. According to Praveen, Ajay did not show any sign of discomfort either while climbing the hillock or while walking around in Ooty, which is at an altitude of c. 7,500 feet, c. 4,500 feet higher than the corridor landscape. Ajay was very dedicated to the establishment of this corridor and most likely this may have given him the extra energy for the field trip, suppressing his health problems about which possibly he was silent and which were not known to others.

Ajay with Justice K. Venkatraman in the Singara corridor, 7th November 2020. @Praveen Bhargav.

Soon after his demise I learnt from Shanthi, his wife, that due to Covid-19 he had been totally homebound with no exercise. Most of the time, he sat in front of his laptop and worked on conservation-related documents day and night. He suffered from gout and yet he was fond of non-vegetarian food including red meat. Possibly, all these factors gradually had taken a toll on his health, which he, being who he was, was not willing to talk about even to Shanthi who had repeatedly requested him to take life easy. Besides ignoring her pleas, he never went for a thorough medical check-up. He was not a smoker and avoided alcohol and I remember him telling me that his father had an early death due to his drinking habits. Shanthi told me that although Ajay was working hard he was not bringing much money to the family.

Ajay with Jayantha Jayewardene, Vivek Menon (Chairman, AsESG), AJTJ and Ajay Desai, AsESG meeting, Guwahati, November 2016. @ AsESG

Neeraj Khera, GIZ, New Delhi, with whom Ajay was working and developing guidelines for addressing human-wildlife conflict in India, told me that when she spoke to him on 19th November, he had told her that he was suffering from high blood pressure. She immediately advised him rest, and his reply was that he was taking medicines, that he would be alright and that there was nothing to worry about. After saying this it seems he continued to work through the night and died of a massive heart attack in the wee hours of 20th November.

In the Mohan man-eater story, Jim Corbett has narrated the story of a woman who, frightened by the man-eater, fell from a rocky ledge and broke one of her legs and several ribs. To carry her back to the village, her companions had to go to the village to bring back some men. A young girl was left behind to stay with the injured woman. The young girl sat on the ground in front of the injured and both had conversation in whispers. Suddenly the injured woman gave a gasp and the young girl, seeing the look of fear on her face, turned her head to see the man-eater approaching them. Corbett writes that sometimes we have terrible dreams at night and wake up frightened and then after realizing that it was only a dreadful dream we would thank God profusely. But it was a not a dream for this girl, and when the villagers arrived on the scene, they found the injured woman unconscious and there were splashes of blood on the ground where the young girl had been sitting.

Ajay has left an immense void in the life of many who knew him well…….

On the evening of the 20th, I came to know about the extremely painful news of Ajay’s death and I was unable to control my tears. I requested my friend K. Ravi Kumar, a talented plant taxonomist and a good friend of Ajay, to come and stay with me for the night. We both had supper, and talked and talked about Ajay and then around 11.30 pm, I went to sleep. Ravi stayed awake, checking messages in his mobile. I woke up around 3.00 am and the first thought that came to my mind was that Ajay was no longer alive. Warm tears streamed down my cheeks and I wished and prayed that it was only a horrible dream but that was not to be. Ajay has left an immense void in the life of many who knew him well, and has gone forever. Only time will slowly fill that enormous emptiness.

Ajay Desai, at IUCN SSC AsESG members meeting, Bangkok, April 2018 @ AsESG

Thanks are recorded to Madhavi Sethupathi, Kedar Gore, S. Murali and Mervin Johnsingh for the help with this write-up.