E.R.C. Davidar – October 7, 1922 – April 7, 2010
Photo Courtesy: Priya Davidar.
A lawyer who was extraordinarily in love with nature. That would accurately describe E.R.C. Davidar. But not enough to do him justice. Let’s add effective conservationist, incredible organiser, charismatic leader and persistent campaigner. Now we begin to understand just a touch more about a man whose life was dedicated to the defence of the exquisite Nilgiri ranges of South India.
Way back in the 1950s, ERC used to run the office of King and Partridge Solicitors in Ooty and in short order, after a brief mentoring by Lt. Col. E.G. Phythian Adams, in 1958, he was handed charge of the Nilgiri Game Association. A shikari himself, he handled the affairs of the organisation for several years until it metamorphosed into the Nilgiri Wildlife Association. The shift from shikar to conservation was a slow but very personal journey for ERC who gave up shooting altogether when he realised that the crossfire of habitat loss and hunting was fast driving the wildlife of the Nilgiris over the precipice. He also happened to be the Secretary of the Planters’ Association of Tamil Nadu between 1970 and 1981, a position of great influence, which in no small part helped put an end to hunting as a way of life for planters of the day. Working with the famous hunter turned conservationist Major Richard Radcliffe, ERC made yet another life shift when the organisation he served was rechristened the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association (NWLEA), a name that holds to date.
His many forays into the jungle quite naturally turned him into one of South India’s renowned photographers with many awards to his name. Quite naturally, the government of Tamil Nadu also appointed him as the Honorary Wildlife Warden of the Nilgiris year after year in the 1980s. By now, with a lifetime of experience under his belt, ERC played a key role as an elder whose advice greatly influenced wildlife policy. Apart from being a member of the Tamil Nadu State Wildlife Advisory Board he was also part and parcel of the Bombay Natural History Society, the World Wildlife Fund-India, the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank. As a member of the Hyena, Caprinae, Wild Cattle and Asian Elephant Specialist Groups of the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), he was able to nudge Indian policy in the direction of the advice proffered by some of the world’s leading wildlife scientists and conservationists.
A prolific writer, his early study on the white bison of the Manjampatty Valley found place in the prestigious Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS) as far back as 1960. But the study he was probably best known for was on the ecology and behaviour of the dhole or wild dog. For many years, he would spend time out in the Sigur forests he loved, recording the hunting behaviour of the whistling hunters and observing their dens to see how they cared for their young. His first hand observations won international acclaim and formed a chapter (The Ecology of the Dhole – Asiatic Wild Dog) in the book titled ‘The Wild Canids’ (edited by M. W. Fox), published in 1975 by Van Nostrand Reinhold Publication (New York).
Not surprisingly, he had very high regard for Dr. George Schaller, who, in the 1970s, encouraged ERC to work on the estimation of populations and herd sizes of Nilgiri tahr in the Western Ghats. This resulted in one of the most ambitious surveys of its kind that lasted a full four years between 1975 and 1978. His work on the tahr was published in the JBNHS and Oryx and still represents the best baseline information we have on the species.
An outdoorsman and naturalist par excellence, at every opportunity he would walk for days on end in the wildernesses he loved. Wherever he went he found local support and he would invariably be accompanied by local tribal guides who he felt knew the forests better than anyone else.
Photo Courtesy:Priya Davidar.
As a member of the IUCN’s Asian Elephant Specialist Group, he conducted the first coordinated census of Asian elephants in South India in 1979 and as a result of knowledge gleaned from a meeting of this group in Sri Lanka in 1971, he propagated a plan to link isolated reserves in India through corridors to enable elephants to migrate between feeding areas. Between 1980 and 1982, a joint BNHS-IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group initiative saw him trace the walking routes of elephants in the Nilgiris and Anamalais. His preferred mode of travel? Foot! And elephant back when the occasion demanded. Those were heady days when much more cooperation between the largest NGOs and experts was the norm. The World Wildlife Fund-India funded the study and ERC pointed out that some of the corridors were really small and easy to establish, but some such as the connection between the Nilgiris and Wynaad involved protecting a 30 km. stretch. Like so many other pioneering works of his, this was the very first systematic work on the elephant corridors of the Nilgiris and Anamalais, which was eventually published in 1981, the heyday of conservation in India and the year Sanctuary Asia itself was born.
Today, the corridor concepts that ERC had mooted so long ago have become accepted conservation wisdom, but the bureaucratic and political hurdles that doyens like him faced in his day have, if anything, multiplied many times over. When I spoke to him about elephants I noticed scarcely concealed anger. At one wildlife meeting in New Delhi he pointed out that we were changing the very behaviour of elephants, turning the free-ranging beasts from being tolerant of humans to intolerant of them. He forecast that the future would present us with unmanageable elephant-human conflicts, a prediction that has come home to roost today.
Unwilling to do nothing because he could not do everything, ERC invested his personal money into consolidating a key corridor through the purchase of eight acres of Revenue land in Chadappati, near Valaithottam. He called this haven Cheetal Walk and he fiercely protected this land in all its pristine glory, refusing to allow anything apart from a small cottage to be built on the property. “This land belongs to the elephants,” he would tell one and all. Had he not fought to keep this land free from encroachment and development, the elephant migration would have been interrupted. He requested that District Collectors have the Revenue land in the area declared Reserved Forest. With the support of all the large NGOs, this was done. Today Cheetal Walk has expanded from the original eight to 31 acres and in 2005 the property was converted into a family charity, called the Sigur Nature Trust whose stated objective is to “protect and preserve this wildlife corridor in a natural state for perpetuity.”
ERC was the quintessential naturalist. Between 1988 and 1990, he spent inordinate amounts of time studying the striped hyena. Sitting over their dens he watched as they cared for their young and began to recognise individuals from the gait, behaviour and markings. One particular hyena, a large male, he actually got to know quite well and was devastated when he discovered that “Mr. Hyena,” as he would refer to him, died as a result of being run over on the infamous Ooty-Masinagudi road, where rash driving is still par for the course.
Newspaper articles, letters to ministers and campaigns to protect his precious Nilgiris… ERC did it all. He wrote for a wide range of magazines including Cheetal, Sanctuary Asia, the Reader’s Digest, and, amazingly, even for Playboy (though I have not yet been able to lay my hands on that piece!). Additionally, he penned as many as eight children’s books and even put together a fictional work on that brigand, Veerappan, who slaughtered the elephants that ERC loved so much. His articles and survey reports serve as a vital archival record of the history of the wildlife of India through the 1960s all the way through to 2010 when he passed away. He will be missed, but not forgotten by those who understand that the protection of wild India is a continuum, a marathon… not a short-distance sprint.
Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXII. No. 3. June 2012.