In the company of George Schaller

Print edition : May 26, 2017

George B. Schaller inspecting tiger claw marks on a jamun tree in the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand, in February. Photo: Bivash Pandav

A line drawing of a Marco Polo sheep ram. Photo: Gustave Mutzel/Wikimedia Commons

A group of Marco Polo sheep rams (Ovis ammon polii) stand ready to flee, in the eastern Pamir mountains in Gorno-Badakhshan,Tajikistan. This threatened subspecies of argali sheep inhabits the uplands and alpine valleys of the Pamirs. Photo: Beth Wald

A tiger crossing the Ramganga near Dhikala, Uttarakhand, in April. Schaller’s book “The Deer and the Tiger” was an outcome of his study in the Kanha National Park. Photo: Dhananjai Mohan

A mountain in Rwanda. Schaller was the first person to study gorillas. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The chiru, or Tibetan antelope, was once poached for its fine wool called shahtoosh. Vast protected areas in the Chang Tang, the great northern plain of the Tibetan Plateau, may ensure its future survival. Photo: George Schaller

Schaller's book "Stones of Silence" was the result of his studies on the snow leopard and other Himalayan wildlife. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Two adult nilgai bulls fighting in the Rajaji Tiger Reserve; the upper part of their necks and faces are bloody because they are stabbing one another with their horns. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Healthy chital in the Rajaji Tiger Reserve. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The Himalayan monal is a pheasant of the Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Camera trap photo, Wildlife Institute of India

The western tragopan is the State bird of Himachal Pradesh; a rare picture of a male in the wild. Photo: Jainy Kuriakose

A six-year-old male panda at the Wolong Nature Reserve in China. Schaller carried out the first detailed study of the giant panda. Photo: Susan A. Mainka

An 18-month-old female panda, Xi Wang, lazily eating bamboo in the Qin Ling Mountains, Shaanxi Province, China. Photo: Chris Hails

Schaller's much-acclaimed book "The Serengeti Lion: Predator-Prey Relations" was the outcome of his landmark study on the African lion and associated animals in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Photo: Dhritimam Mukherjee

Bivash Pandav showing Schaller the tiger claw marks on a jamun tree. Photo: G.S. Rawat

The author (Johnsingh) with Schaller in the Rajaji Tiger Reserve. Photo: Bivash Pandav

Sanjeeva Pandey, a former director of the Great Himalayan National Park, with Schaller. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The veteran wildlife biologist George Schaller, who has done path-breaking field research for over 60 years around the world, was recently in India in what was essentially a journey down memory lane.

THE peacock standing and preening at the junction of the fire line and the forest abruptly emitted an alarm call and flew away. I was sure that the arrival of our vehicle would not have alarmed it. Just then, a well-built leopard jumped down from a not-so-tall Indian plum tree ( Ziziphus mauritiana, a species studded with thorns), hardly 10 metres from where the peacock was, and in fluid leaps disappeared into the forest. This fleeting sighting at the Rajaji Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand was exciting even for the veteran wildlife biologist George B. Schaller, who has seen wildlife all over the globe at close quarters. Besides George and me, the others in the vehicle were Bivash Pandav (driving the vehicle) and G.S. Rawat, both faculty at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, and A.R. Rahmani, consultant to the Bombay Natural History Society and the Corbett Foundation. The road on which we were driving starts from Ranipur and goes along the Haridwar, Beribara, Dholkhand and Chillawali ranges. The pastoral Gujjars have been relocated from the first three ranges, and the recovery of the habitat there has been remarkable. The midday winter sun was pleasantly warm, and wildlife sightings during that one-hour drive through the reserve were good. The chital we saw in a small herd were healthy, and two adult nilgai males were fighting aggressively, bloodying the upper part of their necks and faces as they stabbed each other with their horns. Six females stood by watching. At a waterhole further down was a family of seven elephants.

We also saw a preaching site of the sambar under a Z. xylopyrus tree. During the rutting season, the stags with hard antlers rise on their hind legs and rub the secretion of their preorbital glands up in the branches at a height of well over 3 m. November to March is the peak rutting period for the sambar, and the site below the tree was churned and completely free of leaf litter. From April onwards the same site will be covered with leaf litter. This is one way the rutting stags leave a message about their status to other sambar. I have seen females rising on their hind legs and smelling the location the stags have rubbed. George has written about this in his book The Deer and the Tiger. Interestingly, he quotes A.A. Dunbar Brander ( Wild Animals in Central India, 1923), who wrote that sambar stags preached after giving the rutting call. The fact, however, is that sambar do not give rutting calls like the swamp deer and chital. Rutting calls for a forest-living species such as the sambar would be maladaptive behaviour.

As we drove through the reserve, Rawat and Bivash could identify all the bushes, trees and birds, which impressed George, who strongly believes that natural history, the cornerstone of conservation, should be learned on the ground.

George was in India from February 4 to 13. On the afternoon of February 4, Bivash picked him up from Dehradun airport and drove him through the 150 square kilometres of the Chilla range of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve. They spotted tiger signs such as pug marks and spray sites en route. George even smelt the tiger spray on a tree. He grimaced and said that the last time he had smelt spray was when he was in the Russian Far East. The tiger corridor between the Chilla range and the Corbett Tiger Reserve (also in Uttarakhand) is still intact, and following the resettlement of Gujjars from Chilla in 2003, tigers started breeding in the range, which now has a population of about 15 adults.

We had arranged for George to spend the first two nights of his stay at the Tigris Estate, a farmhouse with a fabulous view of the Shivalik hills on the bank of the Pili river, which flows along the eastern border of the Shyampur range of the reserve. The farmhouse belongs to Rajiv Mehta, a dedicated wildlifer and the reserve’s honorary wildlife warden.

On February 5, we visited the Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve to see the swamp deer and then took a walk along the Machar Sot in the Shyampur range. The nallah was full of buffalo signs as Gujjars have not yet been relocated from this range (130 sq. km). Camera traps have recorded seven tigers here, and tiger claw marks have been seen on two jamun trees.

George was in India at the invitation of V.B. Mathur, Director, WII, to participate in a celebration of natural history in literature, arts and culture held at the WII (February 7 and 8) and the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) in Himachal Pradesh (February 11 and 12). The function was organised by the World Natural Heritage Management and Training Centre for Asia and the Pacific Region, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) category 2 centre that is based in the WII. The programme at the WII included talks by George, who was the chief guest, Stephen Alter, Rahmani, Bikram Grewal and Ranjit Lal. The topic of the panel discussion was “Mountains Speak”, a poetry reading themed on nature and natural landscapes; there was a workshop for journalists and screening of wildlife pictures taken by the eminent wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee. A large number of schoolchildren from Dehradun and students, researchers and trainee officers from the WII participated and benefited from interacting with George.

George’s talk spanned his 60-year career in field research that included surveys in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, United States, and studies on the mountain gorilla; the tiger and ungulates in the Kanha National Park; the lion and its prey around Seronera in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania; the jaguar and its prey in the great swamps of Pantanal in western Brazil; the giant panda in the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan province, China; and mountain ungulates and the snow leopard in the Himalayas. He also conducted surveys, for nearly 30 years, in the highlands of China primarily focussing on the Tibetan antelope, or chiru. The chiru was massacred in the thousands in the past for its precious fleece called shahtoosh, which was used to make shawls. One shawl of pure shahtoosh would require fleece from three to five chiru. In his book Tibet Wild, George writes that even if a shawl is blended with pashmina wool any woman who wears shahtoosh has the bodies of three chiru draped over her shoulders; it is a shroud, not a shawl.

Conservation lessons

Valuable lessons for conservation emerged from his talk. He said conservation was like walking across the Tibetan Plateau, one step at a time and seemingly never-ending. The Chang Thang, the great northern plain of the plateau, is itself about 777,000 sq. km. More roads, more households, more livestock, more fences that impede the movement of wildlife, motorcycles replacing horses and gold mining mar the Tibetan Plateau. As a result of climate change, 95 per cent of its 46,298 glaciers are in retreat.

Even 50 years after the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to wild sheep, caribou and grizzlies, the area may not be safe from oil companies clamouring to drill in the biologically rich part of the refuge. A road and a railway track may break the Serengeti National Park, a World Heritage Site, and the Chinese will never give up using tiger body parts in medicine, he opined.

George also pointed out some positive things. Now, there are nearly 2,000 pandas in 25 isolated habitats in China, an improvement from the situation in the 1980s. When two pandas died in the snares that residents of the area had set for wild pigs, the authorities went to the extent of executing the culprits. George was not appreciative of this method but was of the opinion that strong measures were needed to prevent endangered animals from getting killed by snaring. In January 2017, a few tigers died in the periphery of the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, Karnataka, because of snaring intended for wild pigs.

Ecotourism success

As a result of successful ecotourism, nearly 500 gorillas survive in the Virunga Mountains, a range of volcanoes in Rwanda, and revenue from tourism is used to provide schools and health services for the people who live in the area. Dedicated anti-poaching teams risk their lives to protect the gorillas. Similarly, ecotourism is helping in the survival of the jaguar. Earlier, jaguars were shot dead when they preyed on livestock, but now because ecotourists wish to see the jaguar, the big cat has got a new lease of life.

We drove for two days for 400 km along narrow mountain roads to Sai Ropa near the GHNP (905 sq. km). We started the journey on February 9 with a visit to the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun, which the British built in 1929. The programme in Sai Ropa included a talk by George in which he spoke about the Pamirs, a mountain range in Central Asia that is home to the Marco Polo sheep ( Ovis ammon polii), the wild icon of the Pamirs. While speaking about the Tibetan Plateau, George hoped for a better future for the endearing pika, a small mammal that looks like a combination of the rabbit, the guinea pig and the vole. Ironically, it is poisoned and killed because it is said to compete with livestock for grass. George concluded that the chiru population was increasing in the Tibetan Plateau because of conservation efforts and the religious ethos of Buddhism.

Another highlight of the programme in Sai Ropa was the detailed presentation by Sanjeeva Pandey, a former director of the GHNP, about the steps that led to the declaration of the park as a World Heritage Site in 2014. He paid tribute to Anthony Gaston, the father of the GHNP, who initiated the first surveys of the park in 1978-80. Pandey highlighted the involvement of the area’s residents, particularly women, in overcoming conservation problems at the park. The landscape around the GHNP, including the Pin Valley National Park, was around 3,000 sq. km (may be 1,000 sq. km under rocks and permanent snow) and it would continue to be home to the snow leopard and its major prey, the ibex and the bharal. He emphasised that the park had received world heritage status only because of its significant natural habitats, its potential for insitu biodiversity conservation of endangered species and the presence of threatened species of outstanding universal value. The species to be noted are Meconopsis aculeata (Himalayan blue poppy), Taxus baccata (common yew), the western tragopan, the monal, the musk deer, the brown bear and the snow leopard.

George, who is 84 years old, was an exemplary researcher who took copious notes in the field, emphasising the dictum that even the palest ink is much more powerful than the strongest memory.

Almost all people from the Western world who travel on Indian roads are afraid of the mad traffic. George, who had a front seat in the car, was no exception. Often, I saw him crouching back into the seat on seeing the oncoming mad rush of vehicles. Here was a man who was not afraid of approaching gorillas unarmed (he had been warned that they would tear him to pieces; he, however, was careful to avoid bears in Alaska, in the Dachigam National Park in Jammu and Kashmir and in the Tibetan Plateau) but was “frightened” by the traffic on Indian roads, which over the years has killed more animals than poachers have.

A.J.T.Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru; WWF-India; and the Corbett Foundation.

(The author acknowledges the contribution of Dhritiman Mukherjee, Beth Wald, Dhananjai Mohan,Jainy Kuriakose and Nandini Murali in the putting together of thisarticle.)