A wealth of wildlife

Print edition : January 10, 1998

Beyond the Tiger: Portraits of Asian Wildlife; text and photographs by M.K. Ranjitsinh; Brijbasi Printers, New Delhi; pages 208, price not stated.

M.K. RANJITSINH'S book on Asian wildlife is not a treatise on the problems of wildlife conservation in India, though it does at the outset provide a concise discussion of the issues at stake. And although the book concludes with arguments on precisely this, it is not on the meaning of conservation in developing countries.

Nor, however, is it, as a first glance might suggest, a vapid coffee-table account of the beauty of forests. Beyond the Tiger is, exactly as it claims in its title, a set of portraits of the most important animals in Asian, mostly Indian, forests. These lucid portraits are perhaps likely to do a lot for conservation. Beyond the Tiger reaches out to a large emerging audience of non-experts interested in, and committed to, Indian wildlife and forests, an audience that is often ignored in debate on the future of our wildlife.

What makes Beyond the Tiger riveting is Ranjitsinh's passion for the subject. Much of its material is based on his personal experiences of India's wilderness over several decades. Born in the princely house of Wankanor, Ranjitsinh joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1961, and held several environment-related jobs. As Forests and Tourism Secretary to Madhya Pradesh, he was responsible for the creation of 14 national parks and 11 sanctuaries. Later, he drafted the key Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972, and served as India's first Director of Wildlife Preservation. Ranjitsinh is perhaps best known for his work on Project Tiger , but he also played a crucial role in bringing back from the brink the endangered central and eastern barasingha. The eastern barasingha, cervus d. Ranjitsinhi, is named after him.

The first portrait in the book is, perhaps predictably, of the tiger. The animal is central to conservation for two reasons: its status in the popular imagination, and the fact that its survival at the apex of the biotic pyramid is vital for the existence of a healthy forest ecosystem. Ranjitsinh's account opens with the start of the age of hunting in the wake of the British consolidation after 1857. He suggests that in spite of the period of spectacular carnage, the continuing survival of the tiger was ensured by the fact that much of its habitat was privately owned and zealously guarded by royalty, for whom it was a prestigious asset. The real assault began with the conversion of the tiger's grassland habitats to farmland after Independence, and growing encroachments on forests. Ranjitsinh's authoritative yet simple discussion of the animal and its habits is a good introduction to the tiger.

In contrast to the tiger, the Asiatic lion was well on its way to extinction by the turn of the century, mercilessly hunted through its range from the Caspian Sea to the Sone river in northern India. Its survival on the continent, Ranjitsinh tells us, owes almost entirely to the princely house of Junagadh, which turned down hunting requests at a time when displeasing British dignitaries was fraught with peril. The animal now survives only the Gir, its 1,050 sq km core area declared a national park in 1975, described by Ranjitsinh as a "benevolent jail". The lion's relatively better survival rate in recent days is due to the fact that its skin does not attract the prices commanded by that of the spotted cat. The leopard, the subject of Ranjitsinh's third portrait, has had no such luck. Although a shrewd survivor, remarkably able to adjust itself to human intrusion on its habitat, the leopard has been decimated by the use of poisoned bait, provoked by the tendency of its young to prey on livestock. The recent spurt in illegal trade shows that demand for its pelt has not waned.

SOME of the most fascinating discussions in the book are of relatively unglamorous animals - the wolf, the wild dog and the wild ass. The wolf was decimated in the 1950s and 1960s, since its grassland habitat brought it into direct conflict with goats. It has recently staged a minor recovery.

The despised dhole, or wild dog, comes across in Ranjitsinh's account in its true colours: as a ferocious fighter of great intelligence, and an exemplary community animal that takes responsibility for both the young and the disabled. Interestingly, Ranjitsinh notes that when he drafted the Wildlife Act, he was criticised for placing the dhole on the list of animals that could only be hunted with a special licence, not as vermin. It is now on the list of protected animals. The wild ass, too, comes across as a remarkably sympathetic animal. Capable of maintaining great speeds for long distances, the animal also displays an intelligence that belies its reputation. Ranjitsinh writes of how herds he was chasing in the Rann of Kutch would turn towards areas in the salt pans that they apparently knew would not be able to take the weight of his vehicle. The chapter on the elephant needs to make no such effort to defend its subject. It wan an invincible war animal until Babar's artillery caused Ibrahim Lodi's massed herd to panic at the first battle of Panipat, It is known from the Indus valley seals that the elephant was tamed by 2,500 B.C. Its core habitats have been destroyed by tea and coffee plantations, by the clear -felling of forests, and by the growing encroachment on what little forest remains, a situation that puts question marks over its future in India. Although the poaching of the Asian elephant had relatively minor impact, since only the male bears ivory, soaring prices now threaten the small numbers that remain in India.

The rhinoceros faces a similarly difficult future. Although strict conservation efforts in Kaziranga, Assam, paid dividends in the 1960s and 1970s, poaching is causing havoc now. The price of rhinoceros horn, wrongly believed to have various medicinal properties, is now over Rs. 1,20,000 a kg. The two other types of Asian rhino, the Sumatran and the Javan, are doing no better: the Sumatran rhino, in particular, appears headed towards extinction. Beyond the Tiger concludes with a series of chapters on wild ox species such as the Gaur, and the wild buffalo, tropical deer such as the barasingha and sambar, and a particularly interesting chapter on the crocodile. Although each is fascinating in itself, they illustrate the key point that 'prestige' species like the tiger cannot be saved unless the ecosystem as a whole is protected.

Ranjitsinh's concluding chapter on 'Conservation and the Future in South Asia' briefly lays out the issues, with considerable clarity. "I was trying to persuade villagers not to trespass into the Keibul Lamjao," he recounts, "pointing out that it was the only place where the sangai, their sangai, could live. Pat came the reply - it was also the only place that they could graze their cattle."

Arguments over conservation in Asia, he notes, have arisen because strategies have centered on acquiring land for animals, where the emphasis should have been on protecting the human ecosystem. The arguments for wildlife conservation, of the fauna and the flora "is none other than that for a saner land use and a wiser utilisation of natural resources."

If Beyond the Tiger succeeds in its objective of reaching out to and motivating an emerging audience of nature lovers, particularly young people, it could just give that argument a real constituency in the future.

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