February 07, 2020
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Pug Marks In Time

A superb book documents the history and demise of the cheetah

Pug Marks In Time
The End Of A Trail
By Divyabhanusingh
Banyan Books,New Delhi,1995 Rs:700;Pages:248
CHEETAH, the fastest four-footed animal on earth, and one with a long history in the subcontinent, has the dubious distinction of being the only large predator to have been exterminated in India. Till now, anyone wanting to know about it had to leaf through specialist journals or to turn to accounts of coursing antelopes with tame cheetahs from the Mughal and British times. No longer. Divyabhanusinh has produced an elegant and well-illustrated book that will be of enduring interest to anyone interested in ecology. In fact, The End of a Trail goes even further. It is an example of the kind of popular writing that is so rare. The research is meticulous, the prose lucid. Excellent reproductions of paintings and photographs make it a pleasure to read. Culture, ecology, history, art—the seams are woven together with seemingly effortless ease. The cheetah's existence in India is proven beyond doubt. In addition to Sanskrit sources like the Amarakosa, fossil remains and cave paintings point to its presence. Alone among the large carnivores, it has been trapped and used to hunt down antelopes and gazelles. Eight centuries of live-trapping left a strong tradition of cheetah capture and training that has never been recorded by researchers before. The practice reached its apogee under the Mughals, especially under Akbar and his son Jehangir, both of whom had a special interest in the animal. While the lion and tiger have long been more prominent as heraldic symbols and emblems of martial prowess, the cheetah occupied a different place in the perceptions of rulers.

The British period saw its gradual but steady decline, aided no doubt by the preference of cheetahs for open country where they prey on the blackbuck. More than direct hunting, and trapping of cheetahs for use in hunts, changes in the habitat and reduction of the prey base led to their extinction. Divyabhanusinh shows that 127 cheetahs were killed or caught in the150-year-period ending 1960. Even this proved to be too great a drain, given the parallel pressures on prey and the habitat.

He suggests the possibility of reintroducing a few from either Iran or Africa before even remnant areas of habitat disappear. Unfortunately, the wildlife conservation programme itself faces a crisis, unable to curb poaching and the more serious threat of industrial encroachment. Whether it can take up such an ambitious proposal remains to be seen.

There is a whiff of both romance and tragedy about the cheetah's trail . The pug marks are often indistinct making the discovery all the more interesting. Also, the sheer speed with which this prominent creature dissappeared in India indicates the extent to which modern society can wreak havoc on the ecology.

The author's concern with conservation arose from a variety of impulses. A member of one of the erstwhile ruling families of Saurashtra, Divyabhanusinh is a senior office-holder in a leading hotel chain. His interest in history was sparked off by an encounter in his student days with the pioneering historian D.D. Kosambi. When it was proposed to Indira Gandhi in 1984 that India reintroduce the cheetah, Divyabhanusinh was asked to help prepare a background note. This led to the monograph. Interviews with descendants of some of the last cheetah trainers who worked for the royalty, Persian texts and miniature paintings as well as obscure shikar journals have all helped produce what will perhaps be remembered as a classic. This is all the more remarkable as it has been compiled with no direct support from any research institution and put together in the writer's spare time.

The cheetah is, of course, a symbol of a wider set of issues. The question is whether India, where ecological questions take the backseat to the more pressing demands of growth, will heed the message of this book. After all, the loss of the cheetah is about more than just the extinction of a species. It symbolises a new era of outright domination of the natural world. This work will help engender a deeper awareness not only about the follies of the past but about our responsibility to the future. The cheetah is the only large mammal to have become extinct in independent India. Perhaps this book will help create an opinion that enables its return. The end of one trail may make for the beginning of another.

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