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South Asia's Encyclopaedia Mammalia

The first compilation in many decades of South Asia's mammal life

Prerna Singh Bindra 

India, indeed all of South Asia, is a fascinating place for naturalists, with unparalleled diversity of habitats and biomes supporting incredibly varied, and often endemic, life forms. Huge swathes of these habitats have been declared biodiversity hotspots, which support a spectacular assemblage of wildlife - the most prominent of which, of course, are mammals.

Paradoxically, while many and field guides on birds of the subcontinent are available, there is a paucity of a comprehensive record, a field guide to the mammals of the region - the last such tome was S H Prater's The Book of Indian Animals (1948), to which one still turns for reference. There were others before, the prominent ones being T C Jerdon's Mammals of India, R Pocock's The Fauna of British India, and Robert A Sterndale's Natural History of the Mammalia of India and Ceylon. While these are useful and provide detailed information on taxonomy, habitats, ranges and so on, they are thin on the ecology and behaviour of species. Importantly, they are dated. Since these worthy men recorded the subcontinent's mammalia in the past century or thereabouts, much has changed. There has been much progress in scientific knowledge and research on species and habitats; threats have escalated; and the ranges of species have shrunk. Indeed, since that time, the entire perception of how we view wildlife has taken a dramatic turn from consumption to conservation. Take the tiger, the mammal we know best - then perceived as trophy or pest, it is now the centre of the world's biggest conservation initiative.

Mammals of South Asia fills this huge information gap. It promises to be one of those acquisitions that will entrench themselves in your space, and leave you wondering how one managed before their arrival. The compilation is a valuable and detailed source of information on 547 species of mammals (in two volumes). It includes those that are usually overlooked, such as the insectivores (hedgehogs and shrews), which comprise the third largest order of mammals but escape the public eye owing to their small size, and cryptic and largely nocturnal nature. The also contain information on another neglected, if not maligned, order of mammals: chiroptera - that's bats to you and me. There are no less than 1,100 species of bats worldwide, constituting a quarter of all mammals. They are also, in case you dismiss them for their eerie reputation, sometimes "the only pollinators and seed dispersers of many natural forest trees and commercial crops" - occupying a crucial niche in the ecosystem.

Other orders include primates and carnivora. Obviously, one is inclined to favour the chapters on tigers, lions and other big cats - they make for fascinating reading, even though many books have been written on them. Equally enjoyable are the articles on the other, lesser-known carnivores: wild dogs, wolves, otters and even mongooses. I am especially glad to note that each species has a detailed note on its conservation status, "surely now a basic aim of most studies," writes pioneering biologist George B Schaller in the Foreword. Interestingly, Mr Schaller's classic The Deer and the Tiger (1967) was the first field study of the tiger in India.

Species also include those new to science like the Arunachal macaque, the only new macaque to be discovered in over a century since the Pagai macaque was last described from Indonesia in 1903. Yet, even such rare happy stories are tinged with impending disaster; the region where the Macaca munzala was found is now reportedly slated to be submerged by proposed hydel projects.

The countries covered in this book include India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The range and depth of information are remarkable; each of the chapters is authored by an expert on the subject, adding immense value to the book (though this is not an easy companion in the field, given its weight). Surprisingly, the reading is easy, interesting to even those for whom nature and conservation are not a profession, or even a passion.

This comprehensive guide has been produced by editors A J T Johnsingh, one of India's most experienced wildlife biologists and former dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, and his one-time student Nima Manjrekar, who has spent many years in the Himalaya studying black bears and ibex, together with over 40 experts. It is well illustrated with colour plates and photos, though I prefer the beautiful illustrations by Maya Ramaswamy that precede each chapter and lend the book much elegance.

This book is the first of a two-volume series; the next will include elephants, rhinos and marine mammals. These two compilations are simply a must for naturalists and conservationists, a tribe to which I like to think I belong.

The reviewer is Senior Consultant, WCS India, and Founder-Director of "Bagh". She is also a member of the National Board for Wildlife

Edited by A J T Johnsingh
and Nima Manjrekar
Universities Press (distributed in India by Orient BlackSwan)
766 pages; Rs 1,750

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First Published: Tue, March 05 2013. 21:20 IST