This is a useful book for every aspiring conservationist.
CONSERVATION in India is going through an unprecedented crisis. Although the country has only lost one common, large mammal species (cheetah) in the last century and now has 663 protected areas, which form 4.83 per cent of the total area of the country, many of its plant and animal species are critically threatened and endangered. The blame is usually put on the rapidly increasing human population, lack of political will, and poaching.
These problems are really serious. But new threats such as the lack of motivation and clear-cut vision in those who matter for conservation, the growing abundance of unpalatable species and the insufficient regeneration of palatable species in wildlife habitats, and the killing of hundreds of animals by speeding vehicles (there are about 50,000 kilometres of surfaced roads through forests) and trains, deaths that usually go unrecorded, threaten the survival of many species. Against this dark background, Glimpses from India's Natural World: A Book for Nature Education by A.K. Sahay, who was an officer in the State Bank of Mysore, is like a flicker of light.
Sahay had the opportunity to serve in wildlife-rich Karnataka and in scenic Goa. It is difficult to imagine a bank officer writing such an immensely useful book that covers such varied topics. His inspiration to turn to wildlife came from reading books by Jim Corbett, Dunbar Brander, F.W. Champion, Salim Ali, George B. Schaller and J.C. Daniel.
It is remarkable that Sahay, with the unfailing support of his wife, Sangita, spent so much of his own money and time visiting numerous wildlife areas such as the Ranthambhore National Park and the Keoladeo National Park (Bharatpur), both in Rajasthan; the Kanha National Park and the Bandhavgarh National Park, both in Madhya Pradesh; the Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand; the Sundarbans in West Bengal, the Eravikulam National Park and the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, both in Kerala; and several places in the Himalayas and north-eastern India.
This enabled him to observe several endangered species, such as the Nilgiri tahr, the grizzled giant squirrel, the wild buffalo, the goral, the hoary-bellied Himalayan squirrel, the hangul, the monal, the tragopan and the wreathed hornbill, in their natural habitats. Some of Sahay's observations such as the following are worth noting: that a visitor after spending four to five days in a tiger habitat may see a few tigers but not a jungle cat even when its occurrence there has been confirmed and that many people often mistake a Russell's viper for a python as a result of some similarity in colour and behaviour.
Proudly quoting the naturalist Stephen Mills, Sahay says that the whole of Africa has just 10 species of cats, whereas India has 15. He is happy to harp on the fact that India is one among the 12 mega biodiversity countries of the world, which together reportedly contain 60 to 70 per cent of the world's total biodiversity. He goes on to speak about two biodiversity hot spots in India: the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas. He compares the biodiversity values of India with those of China, which is three times the size of India. Yet China lags behind India in the number of butterfly and reptile species. In the number of birds and mammals, both countries are almost equal.
He pays glowing tributes to the tiger, the pride of India and the flagship of the Indian wilderness. He rightly says that this magnificent species is fighting a grim battle for its survival. In spite of the richness of the wildlife in the country, Indians, he laments, show little interest in increasing their awareness about wildlife. They go on vacations usually to hill stations or the seaside.
Ecotourism, which can benefit wildlife and local people, is still not common in India. He urges people to take some interest in the conservation of India's magnificent forests and splendid wildlife because together they play an important role in ecology and are humankind's assets. But before people can become interested in wildlife conservation, it is important for them to know that India has a varied and wonderful natural world. This knowledge may trigger, at least in some, a keenness to protect wildlife. Sahay has written this book in the fervent hope that it will stir in Indians some interest in and respect for their magnificent natural world.
J.C. Daniel of the Bombay Natural History Society edited the book and the renowned wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee, along with other photographers, provided several wonderful pictures. Belinda Wright, who has been waging a war against poachers in India, comments that the text of this book is evocative of the difficult battle being fought to save India's natural heritage. The world-renowned biologist George B. Schaller wrote the enlightening and inspiring foreword.
Sahay has given succinct notes on 52 bird, 19 butterfly, 49 mammal and 11 herpetofaunal (amphibians and reptiles) species. He has also given some information about 16 of his favourite wildlife locations in the country. He offers many valid recommendations, such as appointing dedicated officers to be in charge of protected areas, keeping them free from political interference and recruiting the required number of young staff and goes on to suggest that newspapers and magazines publish more articles on conservation so as to educate the public. Besides this, the book provides information on 13 eminent crusaders in conservation, such as Billy Arjan Singh, Kailash Sankhala, M. Krishnan and Salim Ali who are no longer alive.
The author rightfully says that India's biodiversity is still very rich though continued neglect is making inroads into it. He argues that animals take only as much as is needed for their survival. Human beings alone excel at plunder. The expanding human population and the resultant encroachment and the clearing of forests for industries and mining have caused extensive damage to nature and wildlife in India.
Hardened poachers have over the years decimated wildlife. The tiger has virtually disappeared from many areas. The bird count in many wetlands is showing a decline. It is high time all Indians paused and thought about whether they were being fair to Mother Nature and Planet Earth. Forests are very important from an ecological point of view. Forests and their denizens must be cared for.
When one attempts to write such a varied account, there are likely to be errors, and this book is no exception. Sahay misses out the occurrence of the grizzled giant squirrel in the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka and does not mention the interbreeding between wild and domestic buffaloes at Kaziranga. This is a grave threat to the Kaziranga buffaloes, which form the largest population of wild buffaloes in the world. It appears that he is not aware of the new classification of the gray langur.
He mentions several institutions involved in conservation work but, surprisingly, misses out the Wildlife Institute of India, the premier institution established by the Government of India to promote and strengthen conservation in the country. Nevertheless, every aspiring conservationist should have a copy of this useful book.
Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India.