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Inspiring essays

Print edition : Oct 08, 2010 T+T-

A useful guide in dealing with the challenges of conservation.

THIS book is highly recommended reading for all, as one on nature and conservation, as literature, and as a collection of finely written texts. The articles included in it were published over a quarter century from a corner of the country, Chennai, but they speak to a larger audience not only on conservation of nature and protection of wildlife habitats but also on how to go about it. Readers in any part of India, particularly schoolteachers seeking to instil a sense of curiosity about nature in their wards and develop in them a deep sense of awareness of other species and sentient beings, will find this book a useful companion. The writings have been taken from the quarterly journal Blackbuck brought out by the Madras Naturalist Society (, and put together by Theodore Baskaran, himself a naturalist, bilingual nature writer and polymath.

The book is divided into four useful sections Wildlife, Habitat, Conservation and Documenting Wildlife. The first section opens with a delectable piece by the legendary nature photographer and writer M. Krishnan on the sloth bear, which he had written for the inaugural issue of Blackbuck in 1985. The Wildlife section has a wonderful selection of articles, some of them less than two pages, such as The Ambitious Cobra by Preston Ahimaz, yet brilliant. A longer piece by Ahimaz in the Documenting Wildlife section, on a Report of a Crocodile Monitoring Survey, is written with great economy of words and approximates the form of a good report.

The section on Habitat has only four articles. More articles could have been included in this by trimming the section on Conservation. As a matter of fact, the value of the book could have been enhanced by cutting out the waffle on Conservation by writers such as B. Vijayaraghavan, an ex-bureaucrat who has a piece titled, Not Either-Or but Something of Both. This typical non-stance of bureaucrats has been the bane of this country. The conflict between the environment and development is one manufactured by the bureaucrat-politician nexus. The environment and development can be made to serve each other's interest and promote the well-being of the larger society than that of the well-entrenched elites, a fact that eminent environmentalists such as Anil Agarwal have demonstrated so forcefully. This not either or but something of both stance is just a ruse to defend elitist development and to hide behind the poor to promote iniquitous development in a country constitutionally committed to the uplift of the weak and equal protection of nature. This either or business is what gives rise to mafia-style development causing both the destruction of nature and threats to societies from armed movements claiming to protect the poor.

The book is dedicated to the memory of V.J. Rajan, the first secretary of the Madras Naturalist Society. An excerpt from a condolence letter written by M. Krishnan at the time of Rajan's death sums up the challenges of conservation. He wrote: It is not the highly qualified and experienced specialist in our wildlife that can do anything for our rapidly declining wonderful heritage of nature. It is men like Rajan who have personally experienced the revitalising power of nature that can by communicating this vital force, save our country.

Groups such as the Madras Naturalist Society, the Bombay Natural History Society and the Mysore Amateur Nature Society cannot be strictly compared with the common species called NGOs. They are unique voluntary organisations whose spirit of voluntarism is a major factor in their sustainability and contribution to both knowledge and conservation.

The ornithologist Salim Ali, in his celebrated autobiography The Fall of a Sparrow, expounds his views on nature conservation.

In a tribute to Salim Ali in the magazine, Sanctuary , Bittu Sahgal sums up his views and perspectives thus: Contrary to what most people assume, Salim Ali was not an animal or bird lover. Yes, he was totally fascinated by things natural plants, insects and even the birds he came to be associated with. But in truth, his life was spent exploring the wonder and utter usefulness of nature without once becoming emotionally attached to the 'sanctity of life' concept that so many people still confuse with conservation. He hunted all his life, though he was scathing about some latter-day shikaris who respected neither rules, nor the animals they hunted.

Theodore Baskaran, in his introduction to Sprint of the Blackbuck, similarly makes some pertinent points. There is one passage worth quoting at length.

In the 1980s the conservation scene too began to register a change. Instead of conservation, the idea of animal welfare began to come up. Many individuals from the cities, increasingly disconnected from their natural environment, came into conservation movement with admirable enthusiasm. But they were not adequately aware of which kind of birds and animals belonged to a particular place or which species were considered invasive. So it became increasingly difficult to generate a discussion on conservation. Furthermore, such groups saw every single animal's life as important. Individual animal rights did override all other considerations. Alienated from natural surroundings, things tended to be viewed in isolation. The instance of trying to rescue Japanese quails from a dealer in a market and releasing them is a case in point. Firstly, it was legal to sell those birds that had been bred for table. Secondly, when an alien species is released into a habitat it does not belong, it can spell ruin for the ecosystem. And the birds cannot survive in a different habitat.

Noting this disquieting development, where scientific objectivity does not translate into collective action as easily as emotional rabble-rousing, Theodore Baskaran, quotes from the concluding lines of The Fall of a Sparrow: For me wildlife conservation is for down-to-earth practical purposes. This means as internationally accepted for scientific, cultural, aesthetic, recreational and economic reasons, and sentimentality has little do with it. I consider the current trend of conservation education given to the young on grounds of ahimsa alone something akin to preservation of holy cows unfortunate and totally misplaced.

Elite encirclement

Another daunting challenge facing conservation is the fact that nature and wildlife areas are now part of the commoditised market paradigm, with tourism, adventure sports and corporate getaway-from-it-all- travel competing for the last remaining wildlife areas and natural habitats. Even our wildlife and natural heritage will not be spared by the elite encirclement of all spheres that is going on in the country.

All the contributions in the book are from the South, except for one on the north-eastern region by T.R. Shridar, who is also known as T.R. Shankaraman (not Sankaranarayan as wrongly mentioned in the book) and who has been doing some excellent work in the Annamalais for the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). The piece titled Answering the Call of the Hoolock was written by Sridhar as a student. His deep interest in wildlife and nature conservation has helped him become a conservation scientist of the first order, something that is sure to inspire young people.

In the section on Conservation, Madhav Gadgil's On Setting Priorities for Conservation, which was written in 1988 for Blackbuck, makes some brief but valuable recommendations on conservation. His contribution interestingly addresses the question of scales. Ecology is closely bound to the issue of scale both for its survival and its sustainability as well in its destruction when incompatible scale in terms of economic development is forced on natural and ecological systems.

The articles in Sprint of the Blackbuck tell policymakers, bureaucrats and the Ministry of Environment and Forests what steps need to be taken to produce a genuine conservation movement and achieve effective protection of the environment. One hopes the Ministry draws the right conclusions to promote the cause of the environment and conservation and charts out a new path for supporting and promoting the environment and conservation activity, a path that genuinely reflects the diversity of the country's ecosystems and culture, and the equity in social and cultural terms, instead of funding a couple of upper-caste organisations to promote environment education and such other activities in a patronising manner.

Theodore Baskaran must be commended for including in the book five contributions of M. Krishan and his own article, On the Tamil Writings of M. Krishnan, which was published in 2000. He has thus emphasised the importance of being bilingual at the minimum if not tri-lingual as many writers of earlier generations were. This language perspective of Theodore Baskaran subtly emphasises that nurturing the skills of English language writing does not merely mean familiarity and proficiency in the English language. It is not coincidental that many of the writers included in the book are proficient in at least one language other than English. Non-English speakers will greatly benefit from reading these writings.

The future of the country ultimately rests on our ability to preserve our unique biodiversity. Sprint of Blackbuck will help us contribute our mite and work for answers to the question M. Krishnan has posed in the article Saving India: Will our wildlife and India's identity survive these many hazards?