I was a 14-year-old adolescent when my adrenal gland malfunctioned. During our nature walk in the thick of Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand, we had come across two hills of what was casually announced to be elephant dung. The wildlife conservationist had excitedly removed his big hat and poked a long stick right through the centre. In those silent seconds, as my heart beat like a drum in a tin can, I was hoping he wouldn’t say ‘it’s fresh’. What did he say? ‘It’s fresh! They are around!’ Mr. Adrenal forgot his function is to fight too, and simply got me sweating for flight while I prayed to the pantheon of Hindu Gods, with particular emphasis on Ganesha, to keep them elephants from reducing me to pulp.
These true feelings from my history I would not have ever confessed, had it not been for the “encouragement” I vicariously received from Rauf Ali’s essay ‘My First Days in the Field’ in this collection. Rauf Ali had sat ‘huddled for an hour’ in Sengaltheri forest for the fear of an elephant, confessing how ‘steaming elephant dung continued to horrify me for a while’.
This reference warmed me up (ignore the pun) to ‘Nature Chronicles of India; Essays on Wildlife’, edited by Ananda Banerjee. I am no scientist, I don’t know Warbler from Babbler, I don’t dream of snow leopards and all I did with my parent’s Down-to-Earth magazines was make cut-outs for my school projects. Thankfully, this collection doesn’t ask for an informed background. In turn, it aims to inform and also entertain as it educates lay-readers about our natural history, conservation of lesser known species, community efforts and personal experiences of conservationists, wildlife experts, researchers, journalists and British colonists. (Yes, them too! Did you know – The process of documenting modern natural history in India started with the colonization of the country by the British? Now you do!)
The book is divided into two sections, Contemporary Writings, which feature writings from modern researches in wildlife conservation from the Indian subcontinent, and From the Archives, which consists of diverse stories by seven British wildlife writers. The editor has chosen those works which unveil lesser-known species, and writings shelved in corners of libraries, hidden by layers of dust and perhaps a lazy librarian.
The essays, in a
nut turtle shell
Just like no two Zebras can have the same pattern of stripes, each essay in the book is unique, in what it aims to convey and how it puts it forth. The information and experiences, both contemporary and colonial, are interspersed with not just meaningful suggestions towards conservation but anecdotal humour straight from the thickets, or from within the writers’ homes.
Jay Mazoomdar’s ‘Community Conservation: A Work in Progress’ reads like a travel narrative, combining food with people with statistics with over-due Olive Ridley hatchings. Jay effortlessly informs us about these turtles and of our pet-mistakes through ‘souvenir anecdotes’. By introducing us to Anna, ‘a villager in his mid-sixties … the face of turtle conservation at Velas’, Jay impresses upon us readers the role communities can play. I do wish I had “seen” the eggs hatch, though. Had not an impatient youngster pleaded – ‘You keep saying they are overdue. Just perform a Caesarean, guys!’?
Krupakar and Senani have been ‘conversing with several generations of wild dogs (dhole)’ and the essay ‘Wild Dogs’ gives us a peek into this elusive species and the travails of trailing them in areas where ‘headlines … like the death of a chief minister in a helicopter crash would reach us a month later’. Mada, in his ‘mini-skirt lungi’ becomes an example of how native tribes can act as invaluable support for researchers, because nature’s lessons are, after all, available for all to learn, together.
Rauf Ali’s account ‘My First Days in the Field’ deserves mention not just for the dung-and-danger connection I mentioned. This memoir shows us in minute detail, the real life of a wildlife ecologist and the tasks he has to master- from learning to drive in a rainforest and communicating with rest house boys without a shared language to managing the red-tape involved in convincing park authorities that the idea of pursuing research on monkeys was not hilarious, and that he did not steal chappals! P.S – He reveals a tiger scam too!
In ‘Are Warblers Less Important Than Tigers?’ Madhusudan Katti argues in favour of keeping the lens of attention on the mini- and micro-fauna too and embracing a broader ecological perspective. Ananda Banerjee’s essay ‘The Flight of the Amur Falcon’ portrays the ground reality of how grants and assistance can convert ‘a scene of massacre (of the Amur) like no other’ in a Nagaland village to one where government campaigns and even the church get together to protect this beautiful migratory bird which covers 22,000 kilometres in a year!
‘Warm Turtles in Cold Waters: The Leatherback’s Journey’ by Kartik Shanker gives us a smattering of surveys and science and ways to save this fascinating creature. And Yash Veer Bhatnagar’s ‘Lunch with the Snow Leopard’ serves us a lovely narrative of how he went looking for the ibex and how he found a snow leopard looking right back at him!
The section From the Archives is a fascinating window into the forests of yore through accounts of British civil servants and naturalists, army men and ornithologists. The seven essays also offer a peep into the mind of the colonizer, a foreigner looking to nest in alien territory and among exotic species.
‘The Lonely Tiger’ by Hugh Allen is a beautifully told story of an orphaned tiger cub. But before Hugh makes us sit on a fork made by a giant tree to look around for the tigers, the essay documents how the first criticisms against ‘over-keen sportsmen’ and the idea of gaming trickled in. Sadly, it required ‘much more plain common sense’ than was abound at that time. Alternating between heart-warming descriptions of a tiger family to wrenching ones of injury and death, this essay moves the reader. The Lonely Tiger’s image like that of – ‘a small boy pondering the cruel fate that had killed his mother first and then his sister, and so condemned him to the heartache of loneliness and unexciting games played on his own’ will linger.
A very short essay called ‘The Seven Sisters’ is so full of wit that even the ‘disreputable-looking’ Babblers would not mind the honest portrayal Frank Finn gives of them. A Babbler is ‘in about the same stage of moral evolution as that represented by the public school boy’ and it ‘could not be dignified if it tried’, says Frank, in all frankness. Oh, and Dehra Dun, my hometown, is probably inhabited by a particularly ‘war-like clan’ of Crateropus canorus. What can I say but beware!
Edward Hamilton Aitken’s ‘The Bats’ is another hilariously enjoyable read. Aitken’s amusing love-hate relationship with this ‘sort of incarnations of Satan’ with ‘extraordinary detective apparatus’ will keep you hungering for more, much like the bat hungers for unripe berries all night long. Almost as an afterthought he mentions their virtues but also says that ‘beyond this in their praise it would be affectation to go: their virtues are not of the striking sort’. I would agree!
‘The Indian Leopard’ by Richard Lydekker is packed with a lot of scientific information about the species. ‘The Kharakpoor Hills’ by Edward Lockwood, ‘The Sal Forests’ by Captain James Forsyth and ‘The Mysore Jungles’ by George Peress Sanderson are significant for the panoramic picture they paint of places and the people inhabiting them. It is an interesting perspective of our homeland by foreigners, and one which we were yet to arrive at. In case you are wondering, no offensive colonial gaze directed towards the natives was found in them (except once or maybe twice) and by and large the descriptions of the various tribes and forest dwellers was ‘truthful and honest almost to a fault’. These three essays document how man and nature coexisted. (As an aside and quite ironically, while Captain James finds the Byga tribes ‘most terrible enemy to the forests’ he enjoys his game, hunting for meat to finally spend a ‘Christmas of considerable joviality in that remote wilderness’ with the dinner consisting of meats of many kinds. Ahem!)
Wow moments of truth
This review cannot be complete without an interesting list of trivia I gathered from the book. Did you know:
- The sex of a sea turtle hatchling is determined by the incubation temperature.
- In the abundance of summer, the ibex selects its forage based on the nutritional value of the plant.
- Many trees in forest fires smoulder for months!
- A white-bellied sea eagle usually pairs by the age of six and uses the same nest for the rest of its 30-year-life.
While we as humans cannot follow the ways of the white-bellied sea eagle (age of six!), there are myriad ways in which nature and its creatures hold valuable lessons for us. ‘Nature Chronicles of India’ tells you of the contempt the migratory birds have ‘for human geopolitical boundaries’. The Babbler may be appallingly ugly but with devoted courage this ‘feeble-winged creature will rush to the defence of a comrade held in the grip of a trained hawk’! Even the bats have one lovely virtue – family affection.
The essays on wildlife contained in this collection can be enjoyed by young and old, informed or not, alike, because they take us beyond Rudyard Kipling and Corbett’s adventures and into the unknown wild. They re-present tales of yore, revive interest in the lesser known creatures, remind us of how we as a community can help in conserving nature and most importantly restore our faith in the basic goodness that runs as a common stream between both the plant and the animal kingdoms.
However, the book cannot rid you of fear; fear in the middle of a forest with nothing in sight except two hills of just-launched, steaming elephant dung!
Well, at least I tried!
'Nature Chronicles of India; Essays on Wildlife' is a Rupa Publication, 2014
[This review was commissioned by Rupa Publications. Views are my own.]