Book Review | Bouquet of surprises bound to change your outlook on conservation

The Asian Age.  | Ranjona Banerji

Review of 'At the Feet of Living Things: Twenty-Five Years of Wildlife Research and Conservation in India'

Cover photo of 'At the Feet of Living Things: Twenty-Five Years of Wildlife Research and Conservation in India' edited by Aparajita Datta, Rohan Arthur and T.R. Shankar Raman. (Photo by arrangement)

How well named is this book? I started thinking that I would learn all about the marvellous creatures shown on the beautiful cover. The hornbills, elephants, turtles, owls… I missed the fisherman in the corner.

And from the first page, this book is a reminder that we — humans — are part of this incredible planet. And while we repair the damage we have done, we still have to make the planet work for all of us living things.

Clever. Very clever.

The first essay itself takes you to the core of the problem: how wildlife research cannot be independent of conservation and how conservation cannot be limited to one species. It must take the whole ecosystem into consideration.

This may seem an obvious conclusion when I have put it as baldly as that. But as you read through, ‘Drawing lines in the water’ by Rucha Karkarey and Mayuresh Gangal, as they track the beautiful squaretail grouper in the waters of Lakshwadweep. The fisherman comes immediately into play. Fisherfolk know the waters, they can be requested to help, and so a story heartening and then sad plays out.

The elusive dugong, rarer varieties of hornbills, snow leopards, green turtles — they all face the same scenario. The human-animal conflict can get severe and violent. The first few essays fill the reader with immense sadness. These creatures have been deprived, bullied and constricted because of human activity. And yet, how does one now deprive humans of their lives and livelihood to protect just one species?

Although the story of the hungry hordes of green sea turtles chomping destructively through the seagrass meadows of five atolls in the Indian Ocean brings up serious questions for our researchers. Exactly who is the victim and who the marauder is complicated. So also with the groups of Rhesus macaques in Karnakata’s forests. How their internal dynamics and their behaviour has changed with proximity to humans brings up more questions than it provides answers.

A more heartening story involves elephant herds in the tea gardens of the Nilgiris and their effects on local communities. Careful negotiation as well as skilful involvement of tea pickers, farmers and garden staff and management has led to a reduction in human-animal deaths and destruction. Progress was not easy, but at least one felt that there is hope in what sometimes seems like an impossible situation.

Fleetingly mentioned through the book is the impact of India’s policymakers and our massive officialdom on wildlife research and conservation. Nothing can happen in isolation. The local population and the millions of government departments and petty bureaucracies also have to be involved. India is big on talk when it comes to the environment and wildlife conservation but we all too often fall short at the ground level. Conflict of intent and interest tops all else. And we’re not even discussing the various land and poaching mafias. Or politics.

What At the Feet of Living Things does is lay bare the beauty, the confusion and the possibility of solutions to a difficult problem. Scientists at the Nature Conservation Foundation found in their fieldwork that it was not enough to care about the animal or species they were interested in. They had to take into consideration the entire ecosystem.

It forced them to re-examine their own priorities and their own set notions.

Each of these essays is different, in style, scale and scope. You do not always get what you had assumed you would. But at each point, there is a new learning and a new question. For those of us who are unaware of how research and conservation work, there is much to be learnt. For those of us who see things from the dominant perspective, the learning curve is even steeper.

If there is any criticism, it is that sometimes you wish for more about the rare or exotic or curious animal or bird that the researcher is involved in and less of the bigger picture. Or to be fair, along with the bigger picture.

Or with any luck, that might be another effort from the NCF.

At the Feet of Living Things: Twenty-Five Years of Wildlife Research and Conservation in India

Edited by Aparajita Datta, Rohan Arthur and T.R. Shankar Raman

HarperCollins India

pp. 378, Rs.599