For wildlife enthusiasts as well as lay readers, the book under review is a veritable treasure trove. Packed into its 517 pages is information which both enlightens and engages anyone who happens to dip in. Not just that, it persuades readers to think and to reflect. Having said that, one must hastily add that Wildlife India @50: Saving the Wild, Securing the Future, edited by Manoj Kumar Misra must not be mistaken as an academic exploration of the history of events that unfolded ever since the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLPA) 1972 became operational.
In fact, those familiar with the history of wildlife conservation will find the book a meaningful walk down memory lane peppered with personal anecdotes and nuggets from the thirty writers who populate the pages. The contributors include forest officers, researchers, environmentalists, activists, and journalists. As for ordinary readers, the book is simply a delightful discovery of wildlife conservation and its chequered journey in India over the past five decades.
To marry information, insight and perspective into a package that keeps the reader engrossed is no easy task. For this reason, Manoj Kumar Misra, a former officer of the Indian Forest Service (IFS) and well-known name in the environment/ conservation movement, who edited the compendium, deserves to be complimented. His brief to contributors was clear and all of them have not only delivered, but seem to have enjoyed the task assigned to them. In fact, Misra’s email to prospective contributors was explicit: “I am putting together a book on 50 years of India’s wildlife journey…the idea is to take the reader along on a personal journey in a story format that informs as well as enlightens…please use ‘first person’ as the mode of narration.”
This is storytelling with a difference because these are not fictional forays but the lived experiences of “self-effacing doers”— people who have committed themselves with passion to a field which often does not get the attention it deserves. Indeed, preserving our jungles and the wildlife that inhabits them is often a thankless task that requires courage, conviction, and ingenuity because powerful vested interests are involved who are not only determined to exploit our forests, but also ruthlessly thwart any obstacle that comes in their way.
The book, which touches on virtually every aspect of wildlife conservation, is divided into two parts. The first is focussed on the recollections of those who dealt with matters directly related to the WLPA. The second is devoted to personal accounts relating to people, projects, and institutions. The collection concludes with a peep into the shape of things to come vis-a-vis wildlife conservation in India.
Suresh Chandra Sharma, a former forest officer of the Uttar Pradesh cadre, who later served as the additional director general of forest (Wildlife) in the Ministry of Environment and Forests, kicks off the compendium. He recalls the pre-WLPA days when poaching on animals during the ‘closed season’ attracted no more than a maximum penalty of Rs 50! At other times it was virtually open season for shikaris as well as poachers. Forest officials were literally toothless tigers since they were not mandated by an antiquated law enacted in 1912 to act against offenders or impose any penalty against them. It was left to the local police to act on complaints filed by forest wardens.
Even the Indian Forest Act (IFA) 1927, which prescribed more stringent action against those who violated its provisions, was in retrospect a joke. It treated the tiger as a forest produce. As Sharma puts it: “…poaching, killing or maiming tigers resulted in the same punishment as illegally removing forest produce (like firewood/dry leaves) from a reserved forest.” The maximum penalty was six months in jail or a fine of Rs 500 or both — hardly a deterrent for poaching syndicates or well-heeled hunters.
When the new wildlife protection law, which gave forest officials the power to prosecute, came into effect in 1972 there was a spate of arrests. Sharma remembers apprehending a poaching party led by the sub divisional magistrate (SDM) while he was a wildlife warden in Uttar Pradesh! On another occasion he caught a police inspector in the jungle out on a hunt with a gun.
But how effective was the new law in the long run? Sharma, who was involved in the drafting of the 1991 and 2002 amendments of the WLPA, notes that honest compliance of the law in its totality by the Centre and state governments is “crucial.” For this, adequately trained staff with technical skills in wildlife management and who can also communicate with communities living near reserved forests, is an essential requirement. So, too, is speedy resolution of problems arising out of such issues as animal-human conflicts.
Veteran journalist Usha Rai’s account of how she got into reporting on wildlife and environmental issues is in a word, fascinating. In the 1960s when she joined The Times of India’s all-male reporting team, she was initially not taken seriously since it was thought that “journalism was a fleeting interest” for her before she got married. So, the men cornered all the plum beats — politics, economics and policy making — leaving painting competitions and the like to the sole woman reporter in the fold. Usha recalls how she had to wear sarees to be “taken seriously” and to prove that she was “no butterfly.”
Since she lived close to the Delhi Zoo, she was asked to go there to see if she could find any story to do. She took to the task with great enthusiasm and was soon assigned a beat which included wildlife, animals and nature. Usha not only found the zoo fascinating, but also dashed off story after story that caught the attention of readers.
Through her coverage she became friends with Kailash Sankhala, then director of the Delhi Zoo, who later went on to head Project Tiger. Sankhala inspired the young reporter to pursue stories on wildlife and nature. He was also a man of good humour. Usha recalls how he offered her a night in a zoo enclosure as wedding gift when she got married!
After Sankhala became the director of Project Tiger, Usha’s canvas widened and she began to use her journalism to alert the public about encroachments into reserved forests by builders and industrial lobbies. In fact, it was thanks to her effort that one company shelved its plans to set up a plant outside the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan.
Her journalism of 50 years had several highs as Usha covered virtually everything from poaching by the rich in protected areas, to the state of elephants in the wild, and the Olive Ridley turtles getting trapped in the fishing nets of trawlers off the Orissa coast. But, despite a rich and diverse portfolio of stories, she admits to being consumed by a sense of disillusionment. Despite all the effort put in, she says, “our forests and wildlife continue to shrink” and there is a “crazy rush for development, even if it is not sustainable!”
While Usha’s piece illustrates what journalism can achieve, Asad R. Rahmani, the former director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) gives us a personal and delightful insight into Dr Salim Ali, the conservation icon and internationally acclaimed ornithologist. Thanks to Rahmani, we know that the famed ornithologist was not even a science graduate and was not selected for a job in the Zoological Society of India because he was not adequately qualified! Indeed, how many of us are privy to the fact that the soft spoken and considerate Birdman of India could not tolerate “obsequious people and fools” and loved fast cars and bikes. Well, all that and much more is packed into this warm profile of the great man.
Limitations of space prohibits any review from touching upon the thirty ‘stories’ in Wildlife India @50. They range from managing wildlife in captivity to the existential threat facing our birds and animals. They also look at the climate threat that hovers over our natural habitats and what the future could bring. Having read all of the insightful pieces, one can safely say this collection deserves a prominent space on every bookshelf.
About the book:
Wildlife India @50: Saving the Wild, Securing the Future
Edited by Manoj Kumar Misra
Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd
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