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Into the wild with Valmik Thapar

Valmik Thapar's book is a reminder of India's sumptuous wildlife wealth at a time when there is a steady dilution of conservation policies

Prerna Bindra 

Author: Valmik Thapar
Publisher: Aleph

Pages: 510
Price: Rs 2,995

The arrival of Wildfire couldn’t have been more perfectly timed: we are, I believe, at the turning point in India’s wildlife history. Let me explain: India’s myriad ecosystems — mountains, coasts, riverine, wetlands, deserts, evergreen forests, scrub forests — harbour an amazing diversity of wildlife. We have managed to retain much of our wildlife wealth for a variety of reasons — our culture, rooted in nature, has lent us a tolerance towards mega-fauna and predators and strict protectionist laws and policies that have been the bedrock of conserving our forests and wildlife. Sadly, the winds of change are blowing. We are witnessing a weakening of political will to conserve, a dilution of wildlife laws and policy, a waning tolerance and a developing view that forests are obstructionist to economic growth.

India’s wildlife today is at its most imperilled. At such a turning point, Wildfire serves as a glorious celebration of our amazing array of wildlife. It is a bittersweet reminder of what we are blessed with and what we irrevocably stand to lose if we don’t reaffirm our commitment and the will to conserve.

Most readers may know the author Valmik Thapar as the fierce and passionate defender of the tiger, not least because he has penned over 20 on the big cat. Few are aware, however, that his battles extend to all of India’s animal kingdom. Indeed, Thapar’s biggest contributions are the ones least known. His consistent advocacy for wildlife protection, contrary to his public image, has been low key — most notably as a member of the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (for forests and wildlife). Another well-kept secret is Thapar’s enviable treasure trove of archival records and on nature. He has a thirst for knowledge, the patience to dig for and sift through material and a zeal for the subject. All this has come together in this fascinating collection of some of the finest writings on wildlife.

The first part of the book is an essay titled “Thoughts from Elsewhere”, which talks eloquently of Thapar’s involvement with the wild and takes you on a grand tour of “Wild India”: from the fecund desert of Kutch to the evergreen forests of the Northeast, the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats, tiger forests of central India, the towering Himalayas. (As an aside, “Elsewhere” is a beautiful hidden gem in Goa that represents a microcosm of the larger picture that the book tries to portray. The environs of “Elsewhere” are a safe haven for the Olive Ridley turtle, the survival of which is increasingly threatened by the land mafia and tourism.)

The essay showcases the grandeur (and not just in the photographs) of our mega-fauna, but it also provides interesting insights on the equally threatened if lesser-known wildlife of the country. For example, there is the obscure and endemic Nicobar megapode, found in just one island in the Nicobar island chain, or the dugongs, the increasingly endangered mermaids of the sea, found in pockets of the Indian coast. Equally intriguing are the stories of the inception and the rise of the Pench Tiger Reserve and the thriving leopards of Jawai in Rajasthan. To know more, read the book!

The second part, which chronicles nature writings from the first century onward, is the most fascinating. Writes Pliny the Elder in 77 CE, rather pithily, “India produces the biggest elephants, and snakes that fight them! And in this struggle both die.” The collection provides a wealth of information: from Emperor Akbar’s collection of cheetahs to the observations of Jehangir, the naturalist amongst the Mughals, though equally passionate about hunting. Incidentally, Jehangir possessed a pair of Sarus cranes named Laila and Mujnu! There are pieces on hunts, both by “native” royalty, and the British, descriptions of dramatic fights between tigers and elephants as well as lyrical prose on the simple pleasures of star gazing. The anthology gives equal weight to contemporary writing, offering insights into the intriguing life of wild animals, from some of the finest writers, conservationists, forest officers and biologists including F W Champion, George Schaller, M Krishnan, E R C Davidar, Khushwant Singh and Ruskin Bond to name a few.

The author also presents a quick overview of the country’s natural heritage: the ecosystems, mammalian distribution and characteristics and behaviour of individual species.

The book’s third section is the grand finale — a collection of breath-taking photographs from the country’s top photographers that simply defy description. The images are not just a pleasure to look at, they inspire and if they don’t instil in the Indian reader a sense of fierce pride for our wildlife and forests, nothing will.

I have been involved in the battle to conserve India’s wildlife for some years now; reading episodes from India’s natural history and looking at the pictorial extravaganza in this book have only deepened my resolve to preserve it. My one issue with Wildfire is that it does not delve deeply enough into the grave threats, the “wildfire”, as it were, that threatens to engulf India’s wildlife.

Despite the hefty pricetag— though the photos alone make it value for money — Wildfire is a must-have. Not just as an excellent addition for your coffee table but to enrich your experience on an India with which our acquaintance is, strangely, sparse.

The reviewer is trustee, Bagh Foundation, and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. She also edits TigerLink

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First Published: Sat, February 21 2015. 00:28 IST