Meet J.C. Daniel

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 20 No. 4, April 2000

Spanning a lifetime, Jivanayakam Cyril Daniel's tryst with nature began as a young boy. Born in Nagercoil and brought up in Trivandrum, his childhood memories include jackals howling into the night, to the accompaniment of the haunting calls of Hawk Owls. His mother's empathy towards animals and his father's scholarly pursuits encouraged him to frequent Trivandrum's excellent public library, where books on African wildlife whetted his budding curiosity for the natural world. Influenced early in his life by Dr. Sálim Ali, "J.C.", as he is universally known, has been a part of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) for four decades. When he retired as its Director in 1991 he was promptly elected an Honorary Member and is now its Honorary Secretary. He reminisces here with Bittu Sahgal about life, conservation and a better, stronger India. 

Photograph by J.C. Daniel.

You are a repository of natural history knowledge now, but what triggered your own interest?

Where do I begin? Perhaps I should credit Juliet, Brownie and Butter, my mother's favourite cows that were a part of my childhood! Also our four dogs Tess (part terrier), Luxy (whose whiskers suggested Airedale blood), Silky (a cocker) and her daughter Toby. A cat lurks somewhere in my memory, caterwauling after dark. But seriously, my mother, barely educated, but so very literate, was probably most responsible for instilling in me an earthy respect for things natural. And my father, an educationist who obtained his Ph.D. from Columbia, taught me the value of systematic contemplation.

You have influenced the direction of scientific field biology in India through the BNHS. What were your own earliest natural history influences?

I have to say my earliest influences were not always profoundly scientific. I recall, for instance, an interesting story my mother narrated about the Hawk Cuckoo, apparently the spirit of a garland maker who in a fit of anger killed his brother who had spoilt a garland in its making. The bird's call she said was the garland-maker's spirit wailing in agonised remorse. But I also remember the excitement in the house, in the days before bird books, when we identified a Golden Oriole with the help of a professor of zoology.

We used to go on day-outings to Ponmudi, now a tourist resort. Two indelible images of wildlife remain starkly etched in my mind. First the sight of a Kani tribal standing on the hill road to Ponmudi, gun in one hand and a Grey Jungle Fowl cock he had killed in the other. The second is that of an Emerald Dove that had mistaken the white wall of our house for the open sky in its headlong flight through the low tree cover. Living things seemed to mesmerise me. They still do. My mother also encouraged me in my efforts to rear the caterpillars that I used to collect from Calotropis and oleander plants. And I was an inveterate collector of shells and other trivia from the city's seashore.

When did you join the BNHS and how did you come to meet Dr. Sálim Ali?

I joined as a research assistant in 1950. In 1951, I accompanied the Old Man to Chickalda in Berar, what is now the Melghat Tiger Reserve. He had gone in search of the Whitebellied Tree Pie, a bird that had been collected from the area a century ago. In a casual after dinner conversation he asked if I knew a Dr. Jivanayakam of Trivandrum. Apparently their paths had crossed at the various travellers' bungalows of the former Travancore State where they had stayed together, he on his bird survey camps and the former as the secretary of an education commission of the state. When I said the person was my father he was dumbfounded by the remarkable coincidence. It was a story he related to all his students in later years. I think he was also impressed by the fact that neither my father nor I had called upon their friendship when I applied for the job at the BNHS. The rapport then established lasted his lifetime.

Photograph by J.C. Daniel.

What dreams do you dream for the Society?

Yes, it is my life. To me it is much more than an institution. The BNHS is a remarkable achievement by a remarkable group of altruistic people. For the first 75 years it survived as a commensal of Phipson and Co. Ltd., which was the business of the first Honorary Secretary. In the post-Independence second phase, it was Sálim Ali who consolidated its excellence in scientific research and its scientific credibility. Even today it attracts the best brains in science conservation and business who offer it service of immeasurable value in terms of money. My dream for the Society? That its scientific temper continues to be its foundation and that its membership swells from current levels of 5,000 to 20,000 or whatever number it would take to make it financially independent and therefore an unassailably independent voice for conservation. Also that its staff, membership and field biologists definitively shape India's conservation movement and help land managers access knowledge that is based on a natural history data base crafted by focussed, multi-disciplinary studies.

Can you give examples of the kind of knowledge to be gained and used?

Take the case of the fauna of tropical rainforests. Here we see a low number of individuals of species, but exemplarily a rich biodiversity. As we go away from the equator towards the higher latitudes, we see a reduction in biodiversity, but, interestingly, a corresponding rise in the individual numbers of each species. Conservation strategies designed for temperate regions, therefore, may not work at all in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia with its equatorial rainforests, evergreen forests, wet-deciduous forests, dry-deciduous forests, dry thorn forests and grasslands.

The rainforests and evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, for instance, have an abundance of canopy-dwelling fauna, particularly primates. Knowledge of botany and the ecological requirements of species as varied as insects, reptiles, birds and mammals is required to ensure a continuous canopy cover needed by primates. A well-protected tree canopy would in turn prevent soil erosion at the hands of the strong Indian monsoon. Each ecosystem in the Indian subcontinent, with its climatic regimes ranging from evergreen rainforests to temperate and arctic conditions, needs specific studies to evolve specific management strategies. Habitat protection must be supplemented by such knowledge to ensure the survival of our biodiversity.

As you have often stated, this is really a battle to prevent the extinction of species. Are you hopeful that such strategies will succeed in India?

We must remember that, on a geological time scale, extinctions have been a part and parcel of life on earth. What we are fighting against are human-caused extinctions. I can vividly remember the time in 1949 when news came in of the Maharaja of Surguja's slaughter of the last three Indian cheetahs. There was no conservation movement to speak of and Sálim Ali's was the lone voice in India when he condemned the dastardly act through his editorial footnote in the Journal of the BNHS. That was it.

Today, 51 years later, I find myself deeply concerned that the same fate might befall several single-population species such as the lions in Gir, the hangul deer in Dachigam, the brow-antlered deer in Manipur and the hardground barasingha in Kanha.

What about the tiger and leopard?

Being more widespread, these animals are relatively safer than the ones I mentioned. The leopard is a great survivor and provided we can control its commercial exploitation at the hands of the illegal wildlife trade the balance is tilted in favour of its survival in our many national parks and sanctuaries. In the case of the tiger too, the key to its survival depends on whether or not we are able to prevent its habitats from being consumed by humans. I must confess, that I worry however, about what is emerging as a single-minded focus on the tiger. This might be blinding us to the imminent demise of several other less 'spectacular' species. If the single-population animals mentioned earlier were to get even a fraction of the attention and hype reserved for the tiger they might actually escape the spectre of extinction that stares them in the face in the 21st century.

And the elephant?

We can save the elephant, provided we are able to ensure the viability of its migratory routes and corridors. When we interrupt their paths, as has been done in the Rajaji National Park near Haridwar and Dehradun by the Chilla Canal, we confine the pachyderms to tracts that hold limited resources. In such a situation, elephants are likely to destroy their habitat through overuse. The elephant ranges defined by Project Elephant can ensure their long-term survival if this is combined with effective population management.

The Ministry of Power has announced plans to build the world's largest dams in the Northeast, in some of the world's most biodiversity-rich forests. It appears not to share your concern for elephants.

There cannot be a greater folly than the building of large dams in the Northeast. Quite apart from the impact of forests that are a treasure trove of biodiversity, the entire region is seismically active and the siltation rates would negate any imagined benefits in a few short years. The devastating Assam earthquake of 1952, which E.P. Gee then wrote about in the BNHS Journal, seems to have been conveniently forgotten. I would advocate a series of micro-hydel projects for flood control and hydroelectricity. The smaller scale would also ensure that the benefits flow to local people instead of to distant industries or cities.

What about that other threat… biopiracy?

Clearly we have to protect ourselves from this very serious threat. But we continue to be smothered in apathy and inaction. We need to discuss the manner in which India's biodiversity wealth should be monitored and managed, to prevent our national heritage being sacrificed for monetary gains. Medicinal plants for instance desperately need protection from multinational pirates on the prowl. In the age of WTO and patent laws, we probably need to cover the nation's biodiversity wealth with a legislative blanket of laws enforcing national sovereignty before it becomes too late.

Photograph by J.C. Daniel.

If you were in charge of all the field biology institutions in India what changes would you herald?

In that unlikely event one would strive to cultivate a work ethos unrelated to office hours and encourage students of any discipline to take up wildlife studies without any qualification fences. I would encourage the scientific temper and not merely rely on those who somehow manage to gain a doctorate. Remember, some of the finest naturalists this country has ever produced had what might be considered doubtful basic qualifications. This would include Charles McCann, a top class botanist, mammalogist, herpetologist, entomologist and a fine writer as well. It would also include S.H. Prater and Dr. Sálim Ali (who was eventually conferred an honorary doctorate for his lifetime's work). Today in some quarters these all-time greats would be called 'anecdotal scientists'. But such people have actually been the backbone of the BNHS and their work constitutes the vast majority of the Journals of the BNHS.

And why did you not write a thesis for your own Ph.D., despite the fact that you have been a guide for as many as 11 Ph.Ds. and seven MScs.?

In my book a Ph.D. can only be earned if you dedicate 24 hours a day, seven days a week from start to finish. Considering as how it took me 23 years to finish my reptile book, I could not possibly have given it that kind of time priority. In more ways than one perhaps I consider myself to be a naturalist, rather than a scientist. I would say, for instance, that there are two or three elephants in a range, or one or two hatchlings in a clutch of five might survive. Modern scientists in search of elusive accuracy often suggest numbers like 2.39 elephants or an average of 1.65 hatchlings! Sometimes their reliance on sheer statistics is too literal for my liking.

At another level I think there is need for reform of the Ph.D. process. For instance, guides should not be the examiners and theses should also be sent overseas for external examinations… but all this is far too involved to really get into here.

Any advice for budding young wildlifers?

Be active, but base your activism on hard facts. Do not be needlessly aggressive and fundamentalistic. If you are, you will merely put people's backs up and even fence-sitters might find it difficult to support you. Try and stir people's imagination and conscience in support of your cause. A certain amount of idealism is vital for a conservation involvement or career. And please don't come in search of get-rich-quick opportunities in this field, or you might be forced to compromise both your principles and your science.

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