Marathi Johnsingh

text by Atul Joshi & photos by M D Madhusudan


It was the last week of January…winter was retreating. We were in the beautiful landscape of Koyana Wildlife Sanctuary in such pleasant weather; located in the majestic Sahyadri mountain ranges of Maharashtra. The objective was to initiate a project to monitor wildife in this region. Eminent scientists Dr. AJT Johnsingh and Dr. MD Madhusudan from NCF were there to train forest department people. The Conservator of Forests, Mr. Rao, who with great enthusiasm took this initiative of wildlife monitoring, was very happy that Dr. Johnsingh accepted his request to train his staff. Dr. Johnsingh, known as one of India’s pioneering wildlife biologists was introduced to the forest department staff. They were very excited to know that Dr. Johnsingh would be with them in the field to share his observations and knowledge about forests and wildlife.

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A view of Koyana Wildife Sanctuary

Koyana Wildlife Sanctuary forms the catchment of the Koyana River and to visit the interior of the Sanctuary, traveling up the Koyana by boat is a must. The location Maldev, where we wanted to go, was around two hours by boat. We started off from Koyananagar, with Forest officers and Scientists chatting about various issues related to wildlife and conservation.

Mr. Mohite, a range officer, was placed in charge of all the arrangements for our program inside the Sanctuary. He started a discussion about the arrangements in a very low tone with his staff. I tried to listen to their discussion but amidst other sounds, I could hear only one word with time intervals – Shamrao…shamrao…shamrao…
I had no idea who this Shamrao was and why they were talking about him. At the end, Mohite ordered his staff, “as soon as we land there, you six persons will search for Shamrao and bring him to the base camp. In any case, I want him to be with us for next four days.”

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Koyana backwaters

After two hours of wonderful journey through the backwaters, we landed at Maldev. As per the order the six men disappeared in search of Shamrao.

The location of base camp was astounding, we were in the heart of the sanctuary, surrounded by giant hills of dense mixed forests, steep slopes and valleys filled with backwater of the Koyana reservoir. Soon, we sighted a gaur herd grazing on a hill slope and all of us engaged in watching them.

The plan for the next four days was to visit different areas of the sanctuary and walk along the trails, Dr. Johnsingh would explain the traits of various wild animals and plants, and of techniques to identify the presence of wild animals. Conservator of Forests, Mr. Rao was keen to know our plans for the next few days – where we were to go, whether packed lunch was required, where the camping sites were located and other similar issues. But, the officer in charge, Mr. Mohite was in no mood to discuss all these. He had a nervous look on his face, frequently scanning the region for a face he was expecting… After a while, somebody told Mohite that Shamrao had come. Mohite turned around. With a calm face, he whispered, “now I don’t need to worry about the field plan”.

The six soldiers who had disappeared earlier were climbing down a nearby hill. In their midst was a strong old man aged at least seventy years. The six soldiers were very happy and described with bubbling excitement, of how they bravely and cleverly found this man. My curiosity rose when I came to know that this man belonged to a shepherd community and lived in this area.

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In many remote corners of the Sahyadris, where existence of human settlement seems impossible, one can find small hamlets of Shepherd living happily with their cattle, far from mainstream society. For centuries, they have lived in such areas. These people have immense knowledge about the forests and wildlife of the Sahyadris, perhaps greater than any other person or community in this region.

As Shamrao arrived, Mohite told him their objective and asked him to stay with us for the next four days. With a lot of vigour, Mohite started discussing with him about trails we could follow, camp sites and so on… Shamrao became the adviser of this field programme.

The next day we left early in the morning. Along the trail, Dr. Joshnsingh explained the identification techniques of different wild animals, showing signs of their occurrence; Shamrao nodded with admiration of Dr. Johnsingh’s knowledge. At some instances, Shamrao told stories and description of wild animals he encountered; listening to him, Dr. Johnsingh too admired his experience and observations.

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Dr. Johnsingh explaining the field techniques to forest department staff

My interest too was aroused. Slowly, I started gathering information about Shamrao. For over sixty years, this man was living here, roaming around the densely vegetated Koyana valley. In the sixty’s the Koyana dam was built. The tiny human settlements in this valley were rehabilitated. But this man didn’t go. In 1985, this valley was declared as a Wildlife Sanctuary; but he refused to go elsewhere and stayed back alone with his wife and children.

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Shamrao

But, this came at a cost he had to pay for. Shamrao was looking for a girl willing to marry his elder son. To his dismay, none of the girls from his community were ready to stay in such a remote place without a road, electricity nor neighbours to seek help in times of trouble. Shamrao worried a lot about this issue. Finally, he reversed the whole traditional system. He offered dowry to the girl’s father, convincing him for his daughter’s hand in marriage to his son. It was a big lesson for Shamrao and his family. His sons realised the gravity of the situation and left Shamrao, shifting to nearby cities to live their lives in the company of ‘civilised society’.

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Old Shamrao and his wife still live in the company of forests and wildlife from where the nearest human settlement is around 20 km. His major source of livelihood is milk from his cattle. His assets of cattle remain almost static. Each year he loses 3-4 cattle to leopards and tigers, which to him is quite normal. This man roams the deep forests beyond his hut foraging for fodder to feed his cattle, and to collect fruits and wild vegetables for his family; he is engaged by Forest Department personnel to guide them through routes in the forest.

I wondered how this man could wander in such dense forests alone without fear. I was overawed by his fearlessness and sense of place in the forest. Soon, I got his ‘inside story’. I was told of his singular fear from some of the forest staff that Shamrao had his set of fears, not of the forest or wild animals, but.. – his wife! By roaming the forests he stays away from home during the day and from the tempers of his wife. Strange though it seemed to me then, I realised that behind his immense knowledge of forests and his fearlessness, here was a timid man –fearful of none other than his only companion in the forest.

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After walking along the rugged terrain, inside the dense forests for over two days, we reached another camp site. That evening sitting around a campfire Dr. Johnsingh and the Conservator of Forests, Mr. Rao, encouraged Shamrao to talk, to learn of his experiences and observations. Thoughts drifted through my mind – the man was here for the last sixty years, and he is the only witness to all the changes in this landscape. His observations of wildlife over many years have given him knowledge of their occurrence, their favoured trails and an idea of their numbers. The Forest department uses him to show the pathways inside the forests; even poachers might use his experience during their hunts. A singular fact remains-the man is a storehouse of information of this landscape. If he decided to speak freely, it would be a great contribution to the ecological history of this land and to our understanding of wildlife as well.

Time will pass on and this last human from Koyana forests will disappear from Koyana valley. Officially, this area will be devoid of any human disturbance. All his knowledge and experience will remain unnoticed, unrecorded forever.

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The interactions between all of us were going on in the light of the campfire. Everyone listened carefully enjoying the conversations between Dr. Johnsingh and Shamrao. In the quiet of the campfire and the exciting atmosphere somebody whispered,  “aayeella…truly, this Shamrao is our Marrathi Johnsingh!’’

8 thoughts on “Marathi Johnsingh

  1. lovely read. I wonder how many Shamraos there must be in the forests in India and how much knowledge they must be endowed with. Cheers…

  2. Awesome! True Karthik! I hope the next generation has few such Shamraos left to meet and learn from! I am sure, with forests we are also losing the Shamraos! But I also wonder whether its good or bad to lose them!

  3. Atul: Very beautifully expressed..warm, empathetic and funny. Thanks so much for sharing with everyone. Please do keep writing..that maybe the only way some of us will come to know of your experiences during field work (given that often we have no time to talk & share)!

  4. Interesting story and beautiful pictures. I wonder what is it that held him back to the forest? Love of the land? Glad his knowledge is coming to use.

  5. Beautiful photographs of the Koyna Valley. Thank you for introducing Shamrao on your lovely post. The Sahyadris are indeed mesmerizing.

  6. True! Such men of knowledge are wasted by the so-called “civilised” society.

    1. Hi, just wanted to mention that these folks with all this knowledge are not always ‘wasted’, there’s lot of information wildlife researchers gather from them. For instance, in Arunachal, I ask these folks many many questions pertinent to forests and shifting cultivation. The hunters in the community also have lot of species-level information. And well, there is also the field of traditional medicinal knowledge which organisations such as FRLHT (http://www.frlht.org.in/) are documenting. And these are just couple of instances, I am sure there are lots more.

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