Remembering E.R.C. Davidar, an early conservationist and the man responsible for highlighting the plight of the Nilgiri tahr.

E.R.C. Davidar (Reggie to his friends), who passed away earlier this month in Puducherry at 87, was one of the early advocates of wildlife conservation. He operated in an era when environmental protection had not been institutionalised.

As the secretary of the Planters' Association in the Nilgiris, Davidar (one of his ancestors was David Nadar) became interested in wildlife through hunting. Based in Uthagamandalam and Coonoor from 1952, he came to know the Nilgiris like the back of his hand. As the honorary superintendent of the Nilgiris Game Association, he took a series of pioneering conservation steps in this wildlife rich area. He enlisted the cooperation of the licensed hunters — before the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 banned hunting — for conservation of wildlife.

Studying the tahr

In 1963, with the help of shikaris, he studied the status of the Nilgiri tahr, the elusive mountain goat endemic to Western Ghats. In 1975 he conducted a detailed census of the tahr and announced that there are only 2200 tahrs left in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Association. The animal then entered the Red Data Book of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and plans were drawn for its conservation.

Reading his notes on tahr, wildlife biologist George Schaller came to the Nilgiris looking for him and stayed with him in Coonoor. In his book The Stones of Silence, he pays tribute to Davidar's work in saving the tahr. Davidar, in turn, learnt field work techniques from him.

Davidar was an archetypical ‘huntin'-shootin'-fishin' planter. He once told me how he got a cattle-lifting leopard near Devarshola, by squatting inside the pen with his rifle on the ready. His contemporary and friend, conservationist M. Krishnan, used to mock his combination of hunting and conservation. “Reggie wants to preserve wildlife on the walls of his drawing room,” he would say. A keen angler, Davidar knew exactly where you could land trout or masheer. He recorded the abundance of masheer in the Amaravathi near Udamalpet. After the dam was built in the 1950s, the masheer disappeared.

Davidar retired in 1981 and devoted his time to conservation. He continued his work on the Nilgiri tahr and drew the attention of biologists to the precarious situation of this mountain goat. Davidar trekked in the habitats of the tahr: the mountain fastness of Munnar and Palni ranges of the Western Ghats, often holing up in caves for the night and produced a seminal report. His articles, published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society and Sanctuary, are evidence of his commitment to fieldwork. It was a volunteer job for him when there were very few wildlife biologists doing field work.

He was active in this field for nearly 40 years and survived an attack by a Gaur surprised by his approach in the forest. “It did all that a Gaur could do,” he later wrote. “It threw me in the air, gored me and trampled me.” Davidar came out of the hospital in one piece and lived out the rest of his life in his rural lair at Padappai, near Vandalur, continuing to plough his lonely furrow. The last time I met him in Padappai, he was, in fact, supervising ploughing in his field.

Davidar's book The Chital Walk: Living in the Wilderness is a collection of delightful essays on his experiences in the forest on the periphery of the Mudumalai sanctuary. He collected a lot of local lore. One such was the story of the bandit Veerappan, locally known as Mozhukkan. Davidar put down what he learnt about the legendary brigand in Jungle Tales.

Writing for children

One of the less known dimensions of Davidar's work was his writing for children. Published by the National Book Trust, titles such as Adventures of a Wildlife Warden combine natural history and a gripping narrative. The other book is Fables from the Jungle in which he writes about the behaviour of 14 creatures under chapters such as “Why the Hyena laughs?” His story “Hunting the Cross Tusker”, about tranquilising and treating a wounded elephant and published in the International edition of Reader's Digest, gained wide attention. When he visited the U.S. for the first time, he recorded his experiences in a memorable article, sprinkled with puckish humour, in SPAN. In all his writings, his deep involvement with the external world comes through.

He had a captivating style of writing. Writing about a stream in front of his property in Masinagudy, he records “Jungle streams are very communicative. The stonier the bed, the chattier they are. Sigurhalla had a lusty musical voice when we first made its acquaintance. It was a delight to listen to. Its song was never repetitive. There was a new tune with every change in the water-level and the tone varied as the composition of the bed varied. One had only to tune in his imagination to read the music.”