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On The Forest's Edge

Sights and sounds of the Nilgiris come alive in a crusader's tale

On The Forest's Edge
Cheetal Walk: Living In The Wilderness
By E.R.C. Davidar
Oxford University Press Rs 395; Pages: 208
AT a time when the wilderness is vanishing and wildlife is in peril, E.R.C. Davidar is both a crusader for conservation and an explorer of the worlds of natural India. His home for decades, picturesquely and appropriately named Cheetal Walk for the spotted deer, brought him in close contact with a range of large and small denizens of the forests of southern India. As a shikari, he was already familiar with how to trail a tiger or shoot at a bison. But it is as a keen observer of wild animals in general and of the little known Nilgiri tahr (ibex) that he is known in conservation circles. Here, for the first time, the general reader has a glimpse into the sights and sounds of the forest and of his fascinating experience across the decades.

Much of his tale has an all-too-familiar ring about it. When he first made his home in Cheetal Walk, tigers were common. Elephants moved on their age-old treks from one range of forested hills to another. It was possible to see hyenas easily and the incursions on the forests, though not absent, were still relatively light. Davidar was witness to the unmaking of much of the wilderness he loved. In his account, the coming of Folidol and other pesticides that enabled cattle owners to poison tigers emerges as a major turning point. The other is the arrival of motorised transport. Once roads and automobiles reached out into the far hills, nature was in retreat.

It is often supposed, and not entirely unfairly, that the decline of wildlife had much to do with gentlemen hunters. Rajas and officers vied with one another to pile up huge bags of game. But the author belonged to another genre of hunter, one whose record deserves some appreciation for his role in protecting and not just decimating game animals. As secretary of the Nilgiri Game Association, he inherited a long tradition of controlling the number of animals shot and of protecting their habitat. As long ago as the 1870s, the planters and officials of the area had banded together to ensure that trigger-happy hunters would not wipe out the Nilgiri tahr. The transition survived the end of the Raj and into independent India.

It is here that Davidar played his little heroic part. The tahr, as he reminds the reader, is known as an inhabitant of inaccessible cliffs and crags. It is not an easy animal to study and an even more difficult one to census. But he set about the task, earning encomiums for the thoroughness of the job. The tahr still live in the hills of the Nilgiris, and the old Game Association has now turned to full-time conservation. Much of this account, of course, is about the lowland forest, a place with all the animals that peninsular India was once famous for. The prose while simple is often compelling. "Tigers may have majesty and power, leopards grace and cunning but the most efficient and dreaded predator in the Sigur wilderness are wild dogs or doles," he writes. Until just a couple of decades ago, the wild dogs were shot on sight and rewards paid out to encourage hunters to shoot them.

But a new and more sympathetic view began to emerge, as the role of the packs of wild dogs in controlling the deer became clearer. This in itself is a transition towards a kinder, gentler view of nature that has replaced the older, more conquistador attitude towards it. Prey and predators both have a role to play and Davidar himself played a small role in this transition. Only the ignorant see the wild dogs "as drones living off the fat of the land".

Even more amazing, at least to a city-dweller, is the way in which even individual wild animals are known to those who live at the forest edge. Sigur itself was often known as the valley of tuskers. But each of these forest giants had a distinct personality, some being nibblers who were fussy about what clump of leaves they would eat; others were wasteful and trampled down a lot of plants. It is this incredible familiarity with wild elephants with nicknames like Bumpty and Lone Tusker that makes this a heart-warming account. These are not species to be marked off in a catalogue, but individual inhabitants of a corner of the forest that still survives largely intact.

The anecdotes also serve another purpose: this is a world to be viewed and enjoyed. There are denfuls of hyenas and encounters with the rather scruffy wild boar. There are moments of change as when the bamboo is in flower, only to die soon after. Nature emerges as a place with its own rhythms of change and renewal.

There are deeply discordant notes, and these form the backdrop to the whole account: of the threats to the fauna and flora, the new pressures that they face in a struggle for survival. The new India has less place not only for the tuskers and the spotter deer but also for the tribal peoples who have used the land and are a part of it. The challenge in the years ahead will be to imbibe a new respect for the land. But this book will serve as more than an epitaph for the wilderness. It will remain a compelling account of the wilderness. This is a must for the wildlife buff and general reader alike.

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