Ghazala Shahabuddin, a student of eminent tropical ecologist John Terborgh, coauthored with him a classic paper, ‘Ecological Meltdown in predator-free forest fragments’, in the journal Science. The paper demonstrated how natural plant and animal communities isolated on small islands get impoverished when larger predators are eliminated. She now takes on something more complex: erosion of the remnant ‘natural islands’ in India’s sea of humanity.
She tells us why tigers cannot thrive in Sariska despite all the political showmanship. Other case studies in this scholarly but very readable book document how corruption, ignorance, mismanagement, social disparities—and above all, the breakdown of the ecological balance among wild plants, animals and their human consumers—afflict both the ‘top-down’ conservation models favoured by governments and the ‘bottom-up’ models favoured by social activists. There are sound analyses of joint forest management, relocation of people, bureaucratic constraints on ecological research and the legacy of World Bank-sponsored eco-development.
Shahabuddin’s training as an ecologist pulls her back from the brink of romantic story-telling that typifies social science-oriented environmental discourse in India. But I would have liked to hear how conservation efforts could be meshed optimally with economic growth: a path which India’s rulers have been mandated to follow. The same voter who wants electricity, allopathic medicines and aluminium vessels does not want them to be produced in her backyard. Some exploration of how different models of conservation discussed here would fit into this context would have further enriched this excellent book.