February 19, 2020
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The Gentle Wild Bunch

A passionate guide to wildlife preservation in India, charting its history and historymakers

The Gentle Wild Bunch
The Gentle Wild Bunch
Battling For Survival—India
By Edited By Valmik Thapar
Oxford University Press Rs 675; Pages: 466
At the Zeiss Wildlife Awards in Delhi recently, I had the chance to see the latest film Valmik Thapar has made with the BBC. Called Danger in Tigerland, it’s a stunning tribute to India’s wildlife. Nobody watching the footage of the Ranthambore tigress Macchli battling a would-be mate or suckling her full-grown cubs before she sends them off to fend for themselves could doubt the importance of saving the country’s natural heritage.

Thapar brings the same passion to Battling for Survival, vividly depicting the tragedy of the animal slaughter of the past and the urgent necessity of preserving what remains. His comments, preface and opening chapter link an anthology of what he calls his favourite "bits and pieces" written by the dedicated minority which has struggled to protect India’s wildlife over the last two centuries. Nicknaming them "The Wild Bunch", he has included Jim Corbett, Salim Ali, Billy Arjan Singh and a host of lesser known men and women, many of them members of the Bombay Natural History Society. Sadly, a style which works well in a television script does not always work in a book. If he had limited his exclamations of either appreciation or horror, he’d have had more space to put his "bits and pieces" thoughtfully into context.

In the first chapter, Thapar shows that the shooting sprees of the British and the policy of offering bounties for killing tigers and other large mammals contributed in no small way to their destruction. Even by the 1860s it was clear to early British members of the Wild Bunch that things had gone too far and the first brakes were applied to hunting. Then report by report and recommendation by recommendation, Thapar guides us through the debate on preserving wild India.

During this debate, at least 80,000 tigers, 150,000 leopards and 200,000 wolves were slaughtered between 1875-1925 alone. But these were by no means the only animals threatened. For Indian birds at the turn of the 20th century, the female of the human species was more deadly than the male. Thapar illustrates how crores of kingfishers, egrets, paddy birds, blue jays and Himalayan pheasants were sacrificed so that European women could wear exotic plumes on their hats. As entire districts were wiped clean of birdlife, the government introduced one ban after another, and the poachers then, as poachers today, dedicated themselves to circumventing them.

Thapar also confirms what I’ve always suspected—that the most pernicious invention of the 20th century was the motor car. The "motoring poacher" wrought havoc, shooting anything that moved and travelling in a day the distance of a week’s march with camels and horses. Along with the combustion engine came the ready availability of gun licences, the collapse of wildlife concerns during World War II, and the destruction during the early years of independence which one contributor compares to the massacre of wildlife on the American prairies in the 1880s. As the human and cattle population exploded in independent India, loss of habitat became a major issue. An article by Kailash Sankala, the first director of Project Tiger, gives a chilling account of the flourishing trade in animal skins in the 1960s just before a ban was introduced.

The whole picture would be unbearably depressing were it not for the fortitude and imagination showed by the Wild Bunch in suggesting ways to face each crisis. They perceive problems but are never cowed by them. The villains they fight are what Thapar calls "mafias" of vested interests which exploit India’s forests, coupled with bad governance and lack of political will. The only politician who makes it to the Wild Bunch is Indira Gandhi. Although Nehru wrote to chief ministers complaining that national parks had been reduced to shooting reserves for vips, Thapar finds him well-meaning but ineffectual.

The last chapter is mainly the story of Thapar’s own experiences over the last quarter of a century. Among the Wild Bunch of his time, Thapar gives ngos the least importance. Having worked with one for over 10 years, he has grown sceptical of what they can achieve. For him, the courts have been more effective in saving the forests, but most successes of recent years—and the fact that tigers still exist in the wild is in itself an achievement—he attributes to good forest officers and their teams.

To preserve the tiger and the forest for future generations, Thapar and his ilk need to drum up many more recruits for the Wild Bunch. This has to be part of a wide campaign, one which is already growing in schools throughout India and which books like these can only strengthen.

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