This day thirty years ago, the bodily remains of J. Vijaya, India’s first female herpetologist and turtle field biologist, was found in a forest. She was only 28. The cause of her death remains unknown to this day. A moving tribute to one of the most memorable personalities in Indian wildlife conservation, by Janaki Lenin.
When you delve into the history of herpetological conservation in India, as I did recently, you keep bumping into one personality called J. Vijaya. I have never met her and all I knew of her was that she spent most of her short life working on turtles and that there is a small memorial to her right next to the turtle pond at the Madras Crocodile Bank. Viji (as Vijaya was called) was India’s first woman herpetologist when such a career was unknown in this country.
Viji came to the Madras Snake Park as a volunteer in late 1975. She was then a first year zoology student at Ethiraj College, Chennai. She assisted the keepers in cleaning the cages, made sure that visitors didn’t throw stones at the animals, helped in the office and library and filled in for anything else that needed doing. Shekar Dattatri, then a school boy joined the Snake Park as a volunteer a few months later and remembers her as a very quiet person with the insular, focused interest of a Dian Fossey.
While Shekar played truant from school and spent all week hanging around the Snake Park, Viji could only visit on weekends. Besides doing little projects at the Snake Park, the duo went on short field trips together with the Irula tribals – to Vellore looking for rock lizards, to Mambakkam, Ottiyambakkam and Chitlapakkam and other places looking for small creatures like scorpions, lizards, snakes and geckos. Caring for animals in captivity at the Snake Park and observing wild ones in their habitat was a steep learning curve.
The first published mention of Viji surfaces in the September 1980 issue of Hamadryad, the newsletter of the Madras Snake Park in its early years and later Madras Crocodile Bank, when she wrote a short note on the breeding behaviour of mugger crocodiles. A September 1981 editorial mentions that she was working as a Research Associate on a project (which included checking wild scats and feeding captives) to assess the effectiveness of monitor lizards as rat predators. She had graduated by then and was working full-time at the Snake Park.
A turtle biologist is born
In those early days when herpetological conservation was still nascent, Romulus Whitaker, her boss at Madras Snake Park was assigning various people to different critters – Satish Bhaskar to nesting sea turtles, Valliappan to sea turtles in the meat markets of Tuticorin – and he might have put Viji onto freshwater turtles. Once, Rom and a team from Snake Park including Viji, went to the Indian Institute of Technology campus to catch a couple of crocs that had escaped from the Children’s Park Zoo. Near the edge of the huge sewage treatment ponds, they came upon hundreds of turtle eggshells, dug up and strewn around by mongooses. That was the first inkling they had about how common the Indian flapshell Lissemys punctata and the Indian black turtle Melanochelys trijuga were. Viji began collecting data on the turtles’ nest size, number of eggs per clutch and nest survival (precious few!) and that may have been the decisive moment.
Shekar remembers returning from a field trip to Sri Lanka with Viji clutching an old frayed bag of the Indian black turtles. At the Customs check, she had to open the leaking bag for inspection when the turtles began pissing in unison. It made an already cumbersome procedure smellier. He laughed as he recalled affectionately, “She’d do things that I wouldn’t dream of doing.”
At this time, Edward Moll, the Chairman of the World Conservation Union’s Freshwater Chelonian Specialist Group needed an assistant for a nation-wide survey of turtles and Rom, who was a member of the group recommended Viji, who was just 22 then, for the job.
The first surveys
The survey got underway in August-September 1981 and she traveled up to West Bengal (the major consumer of freshwater turtles in the country) to meet up with Pankaj Manna of the University of Calcutta, the other team member. With Pankaj as translator, they began with the meat markets. Thousands of Indian softshell turtles Aspideretes gangeticus and narrow-headed softshell turtles Chitra indica came for sale during the winter months – when the water was low and the creatures were easy to trap, hook, or catch with bare hands. The price of turtle meat plummeted from Rs. 18 to Rs. 5 per kilo during these months; “it was cheaper than beef,” Viji reported.
From Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, she wrote about the movement of the turtle trade – most went to Bengal but some found their way to Assam. Initially turtle exploitation was confined to the states immediately around Bengal. But by the time of her visit, states further upriver like UP were being hunted for the Bengali markets (Viji would eventually discover that turtle exploitation extended as far up as the Punjab). On a typical day, 10 baskets of 10-20 turtles each, along with freshwater fish from reservoirs and rivers were sent by train from UP alone. The market was big and the business competitive; at least 20 agents worked the River Rapti. Viji also documented how turtles were caught by harpooning and hooking. The hapless turtles were flipped on their backs and their flippers stitched together with binding wire for the journey to Bengal. In 1981, the catchers were already complaining about the small size of turtles (5-10 kg. range); 10 years earlier they were easily able to catch 40-70 kg. ones. Based on Viji’s findings Ed Moll estimated that 50,000 to 75,000 Indian flapshells, 7,000 to 8,000 large softshells and at least 10,000 to 15,000 hardshell turtles were coming into the Howrah market in Calcutta annually. He felt that the latter was probably an underestimate, because on one day in May 1983 (off- season), he witnessed over 350 large hardshell turtles being auctioned off.
It can’t have been easy doing this work as most of the places Viji visited were the ‘badlands’ or ‘wild west’ of India – the Chambal ravines with its dacoits, Bhagalpur (at time of the infamous Bhagalpur blindings), crowded, goon-infested parts of UP. But she was totally oblivious to anything besides turtles. The black and white pictures she took of the gory Ridley sea turtle slaughter on Digha beach and in the meat markets of Calcutta, shook the public when India Today magazine ran them in the early 1980s. This was the first media expose ever done on the free-for-all trade in sea turtles and highlights the difference one individual can make for conservation.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took action (another woman who dramatically affected conservation in India) immediately and overnight, sea turtle exploitation was cut to a trickle. Mrs. Gandhi also wrote to the Coast Guard asking them to protect sea turtles, a tradition that still continues. Ironically, the present govt. has abdicated its role as caretaker of India’s wildlife by allowing ports and other developments along the coast that are detrimental to the turtles’ continued survival.
The forest cane turtle
The forest cane turtle (at that time Heosemys silvatica) was at the top of the agenda of the Freshwater Chelonian Specialist Group. Viji decided to go and look for the obscure little turtle in Kerala which hadn’t been seen for 67 years. Only two specimens of the species had ever been recorded by a Dr. Henderson (of the Madras Museum) in October 1911 from Kavalai. Henderson describes the locality as “20 miles from Chalakudi, the starting point of the forest tramway service.” When Viji planned her trip, she discovered that ‘Kavalai’ meant ‘crossing or junction’, the tramway had long since fallen into disuse and every district in Kerala seemed to have a village by that name. She somehow made contact with the Kadar tribals in Chalakudi and sought their help. She wrote: “The ‘Moopan’, or headman, was appointed to accompany me as he was the oldest man available to accompany a girl into the forest. Moopan, whose actual name I was never allowed to address, was a dignified man four and half feet tall with a serene face. Rain or shine, we would go out with his big umbrella and his sickle, which he used to chop off plants to make way in the jungle.” She was finally able to find a cane turtle in July 1982 and that shot her into the international herpetological limelight.
Shekar remembers that first turtle well. “The first time Viji got one back to Madras, she brought it to my house. So long as it was daylight and as long as someone was watching it, the turtle would not come out. When it was pitch dark, it would slowly put its head out. The moment you shone a torch, it went back in. This was the most bizarre creature I’ve ever met.” Perhaps what captured everyone’s imagination most was that Viji saw wild cane turtles ‘dive’ under leaves when frightened, just the way an aquatic turtle would dive into the water. Henderson also recorded the fact that this turtle “did not affect the neighbourhood of water, a fact borne out by the absence of webbed digits.”
In December 1982, one of the female cane turtles Viji brought back laid a clutch of two eggs. She discovered that this species wasn’t a vegetarian as earlier thought. Besides eating fruit and fungi, it fed on invertebrates such as millipedes, molluscs and beetles. From knowing virtually nothing about the animal, Viji made a quantum leap in documenting what this turtle was about.
Unbeknownst to the scientists who considered the turtle “lost” for close to 70 years, several cane turtles were sold in the European pet trade as Tricarinate hill turtle Melanochelys tricarinata or Indian black turtle in the 1960s and 70s. One of the turtle hobbyists who bought several was Reiner Praschag who maintained them in captivity in Austria for many years.
Research and conservation
Rom remembers a clutch of Indian flapshell turtle eggs Viji had been incubating under a tin roof shed at the Croc Bank. It had already been about 300 days when Rom remembers writing them off as dead, but Viji persevered. The Irula tribals had told Viji that the sound of thunder makes turtle eggs hatch. A couple of weeks later, it rained for half an hour and on cue the eggs hatched. Viji excitedly said that there had been no thunder; the rain beating on the tin roof was what did it. It would be wonderful to learn more about this intriguing aspect of turtle behaviour.
By the end of 1982, Viji had a captive breeding group of cane turtles and Travancore tortoises established at the Croc Bank. She set up a field camp in the Nadukkani forest (a very remote and pristine forest, with the least damage wrought by fire), Kerala to study these two chelonians. It was several kilometres from the nearest Kadar village and it was a challenge to get there even on a good weather day. She lived alone in a cave, the former abode of leopards and bears, for several months at a time far from any help should anything have happened.
Here she captured and notched 125 turtles; if any of these turtles were caught again she would know how far they had traveled since being released. She also extended the range of what was being called India’s rarest turtle to Neyyar Sanctuary in Kerala (200 km. south of Kavalai), and to Agumbe in Karnataka (over 200 km. north of Kavalai).
Shekar also mentions Viji’s incredible sense of direction. He said anyone going into the forest with her didn’t have to worry about keeping track of where they were going or mentally marking particular trees to find their way back. She could wander through an unfamiliar forest for kilometres, without stopping to take stock of her bearings, and yet unerringly find her way back without an effort. Besides, while the rest of the group was cautiously keeping an eye out for elephants, she merely strolled through paying no attention to leeches, ticks or elephants. She was completely at home in the forest and no inconvenience fazed her.
In addition to capture-mark-releasing of turtles, Viji also carried out the first studies in Indian forests on tracking the movements of turtles. In 1983, Viji’s operating budget was about Rs. 900 a month (including salary). There was no way that the Snake Park could afford radio telemetry equipment but she did the best she could with what was available. She stuck a spool of thread onto the carapace of the turtles with Araldite and let them wander. Following the thread, she could then get at least a general idea of daily activity patterns and even figure out the approximate home range of the animals she was studying.
Ed says Viji was an excellent field biologist whose best traits were her perseverance and her ability to observe. She did not have a strong biological background to interpret the data she was collecting and Ed invited her to Eastern Illinois University to do her Masters. In September 1984, Viji left for the States to do her post graduation under Ed Moll and later returned to India to do field studies. In April 1987, she was found dead, of unknown causes, in the forest she loved; she was 28.
In 2006, 19 years later, her name was formally given to the cane turtle that she spent so much of her time studying – Peter Praschag, the son of Reiner Praschag, and several other herpetologists analysed the DNA of Reiner’s now-dead turtles and recently re-named the turtle Vijayachelys silvatica in her honour. It is a monotypic genus, which means that there is no other turtle like it to share the name of Vijayachelys. Just as there are very few other people like Viji.
This article was based on interviews with filmmaker/conservationist (and one of Viji’s few friends), Shekar Dattatri, Rom Whitaker and Ed Moll, her professor.
My sister Viji
Special Correspondent, The Economic Times (II Floor),
TOI Bldg, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi 110002 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
When Viji’s remains were found in the summer of 1987, life turned to a sepia-toned freeze frame for us, her family. For years, my sister and I shared an intense relationship, so intense that I felt all her pain within my flesh and blood, but was helpless to change anything for the better. She was three years older than me and I loved her beyond measure and was even in awe of her. Months after she died, I would hold the locks of her curly mop in my hand and feel the body warmth emanate. If I could have died instead, I would gladly have in a nanosecond. Years after she was gone, she communicated with me through amazingly surreal 3D dreams. As in life, she seemed intense, committed, exceptional and magnetic.
Ironically, as much as she crafted a facade of immense strength against the vicissitudes she faced in life, I was caught completely off guard at times by how vulnerable she really was. As a result, I grew to be secretively very protective of her; she would have rejected any overt display of this. Nature was her real family. A special family where she belonged intrinsically, it was her special, secret retreat. When she transformed this passionate calling into her profession later in life, I think she invested all her energy and emotion into this family and expected a reciprocal investment. But when she went, she perceived herself quite alone and lost; the ground beneath her feet had caved in. Unfortunately, my family and I could help little, as she was already lost in the labyrinths of that world.
What made Viji special was her deep rooted commitment to the things she believed in, coupled with a strong sense of social justice. When she was a mere child in Bangalore in the early 1970s, we watched our perfectly ‘normal’ mother succumb to schizophrenia. Viji, then seven or eight, must have been terrified and helpless. But she transformed herself into a bulwark of strength that protected our mother from our grandmother’s taunts, shepherded her sisters together and defended our family, with clenched little fists, against assaults from the outside world (our father was usually posted out of town on work). She became extremely sensitive to the underdogs of the world, unmindful of the cost. How much of a toll it took on that little girl I cannot even begin to fathom.
When she was only about eight, she taught us social justice by making us experience the life of the underprivileged. She made us cook rice in earthenware pots in the open and eat it with salt and green chilli pepper like the domestic help did at home. She taught me why not to use the word ‘negro’, after hearing a story from a granduncle in the army, which made a deep impression on her. To date, she is the only eight year old I know who invented three different class versions (super rich, middle class and dirt poor) of the same game.
Viji could identify planes high up in the sky by their tail lights, and converse with cats and dogs; she crafted ‘expeditions’ where the two of us would troop off to trace the mouth of the Cooum River (and I didn’t know how to swim and both of us nearly drowned in the sea when we got there). When she was 12 she shinned up vertical pipes three floors high and scared away two cooks from our house by waving at them from the window while we anxiously watched from below with a prayer for a trampoline. For me, she was George in the Famous Five series, Jo in Little Women and Scarlett in Gone with the Wind. Like little Nan, she taught me how to strengthen myself emotionally by ramming my head at top speed into a wall!
As a child, she was enthralled by tales of Africa narrated by our granduncle, an army doctor who invented Bridge cards in Braille . She wrote a beautiful poem as a tribute to Africa, titled that. It featured the Serengeti and Victoria Falls and all the fauna she longed to see. She wanted to grow up in a hurry and work there. When we were in school, she collected old copies of National Geographic and made the likes of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas, Jacques Cousteau and Reinhold Messner her special heroes.
She used her pocket money to become a proud member of the Jersey Wildlife Trust when Gerald Durrell first launched it, and cried copiously when the Durrells broke up. When she was a schoolgirl, she befriended homeless animals of all sorts and brought them home to love. Our pets included monkeys, white mice, a chameleon, sand boas, and once, even a little fox. There was Massey, the bonnet monkey (she was banished from the main house for almost three days by my father for keeping it, but Viji finally won), Melvin (the flat nosed, pink cane turtle), Emma (the plain Tranvancore turtle she brought back also from the Silent Valley) and Millicent, the giant spider who birthed several hundred hairy children all over our bedroom. The plant she planted at my father’s place is now a 22 year old giant, and shades the entire width of the road.
When we were kids in Bangalore, she would lead her sisters, Vid and I, into the real school of the world, through fields, rivulets. She taught us about birds and and sounds, that baleen was the hair in the mouth of the whale to trap plankton, and that you used salt to ease leeches off your legs in the jungle. She taught us to handle a gecko’s eggs carefully while cleaning the house so that they hatched. She taught us an alternate reality where eternal values like Truth and Beauty merged into a seamless spiritual whole.
Viji’s choice of a vocation was a natural progression. The day Rom Whitaker agreed to accept her as an assistant at the Snake Park, she was elated and took to her work like fish to water. That was in junior college. But as graduation drew near, she had to battle acute criticism, as with other decisions in her life. Even our rather progressive father suddenly had his doubts when he realised that Viji intended to become a ‘glorified snake charmer’. Years of field trips, projects and research followed. These were really Viji’s happiest, most fulfilling years, with Rom as her mentor. When she returned from the Chambal ravines, the Sunderbans or Silent Valley (both us attended protest lectures against the proposed dam), she had exciting and scary stories to tell of dacoits, crocodiles, tiger pug marks and pachyderms almost mauling her in her little tent at night. Absorbing her tales while massaging her tired feet, I would forget my bottled-up anger over her ‘borrowing’ my favourite jeans for her trip! She loved the Wynad district and urged, in right earnest, my father to buy some land in the forest.
Viji was a fiery, attractive young woman in her twenties when she had to sort out her inner devils. She sought to throw herself deeper into her work as many of us do. But on the work-front she suffered a crisis of confidence when she felt that others were staking claim to her life’s work. She was devastated when she perceived the failure of friends and colleagues to place confidence in her abilities .
All this was just before she left for the US. She wrote several pained and confused letters then and I gleaned that her personal crisis was only worsening there. After one particularly disturbing letter, I made her come home immediately because we wanted her to sort herself out at home first. When I later visited my father’s home on holiday, the immensity of Viji’s breakdown hit me. I watched my strong and beautiful sister unravelling into a mass of nerves, virtually turning into a little child. All attempts to comfort her and absorb her pain did not help to exorcise her personal demons. To make matters worse, she perceived rejection from the very people she considered her real family. Sadly, many of them could not comprehend the contours of schizophrenia.
When she described the experience of an ECT prescribed by the rather conservative psychiatrist I could have ripped the man apart, limb to limb. We thanked the powers that be that cerebral lobotomy was an outdated psychiatric practise to treat mental illness by then. Despite taunts, we took the informed decision of getting her out of hospital treatment and involving ourselves actively in her therapy. My father scouted for a progressive psychiatrist and found Dr. Rudran at Schizophrenia Research Foundation. In those terrifying days, if there was an ephemeral glimpse of the Viji of old, it was when she returned from visits to the Crocodile Bank. Strangely enough, just before she was found dead after several weeks of disappearance from home, she seemed to be regaining an iota of her former confidence. She smiled more often. And then she was gone and there were only bones.
Some of her favourite songs were Yellow Brick Road by Elton John, The Logical Song by Super Tramp and Vincent by Don McLean. Her favourite poem was The Road Less Travelled by Robert Frost. For us, the news that the forest cane turtle was named after her is a 19 year catharsis, a long frozen denouement, a vindication of a faith kept in Viji’s worldview. For Viji, who loved to quote from Frost’s ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’, the honour bestowed on her would be a soul-warming homecoming and the final sleep resting on the benediction of promises finally kept.
Compiled by Janaki Lenin
P.O. Box 21, Chengalpattu 603001, Tamil Nadu, India
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