The advent of fast digital cameras with long zoom lenses, coupled with increased mobility and road access, have spurred photographers to go out into wilderness and capture stunning pictures of wildlife. This is amply reflected in the revised edition of Vivek Menon’s 2003 book, Indian Mammals—A Field Guide.
This enlarged version of Menon’s book covers 400 species of land and aquatic mammals. One of course doesn’t even have to break sweat to know about large, glamorous species such as tigers or elephants, but Menon’s book identifies some of the lesser-known, similar looking species such as martens, weasels and stoats. Photographs supported by good sketches make the task easier. Similarly, the other smaller animals such as hares, pikas, giant squirrels, flying squirrels, lesser cats, bats etc have been meticulously dealt with by the author and his large team of experts.
The book does well in giving full coverage supported by excellent illustrations to the group of marine and fresh water mammals comprising whales and dolphins (cetaceans).
The reader may find it surprising that as many as eight sub-species of Hanuman langur are found in India, equally divided between the north and south. Curiously, the northern sub-species carry their tail in a circular loop falling inwards, with the tail pointing towards the head, whereas in the southern species it is the opposite—the tail loop falling backwards away from the body. The book depicts the interesting variation with good photographs and sketches.
Taxonomists love to argue that a species should be split up into sub-species and further upgraded into full-fledged species based on variations in physical appearances. But most modern taxonomists express doubts and find the concept ‘slippery’. And justifiably so, if one considers that the big silver white hairy langur, found in the high Himalayas, is expected to differ in appearance because of geographical and climatic factors from the small darker cousin found in peninsular India. If the argument of the ‘splitters’ is accepted, then we Homo sapiens will have to be spilt into multiple sub-species because of huge diversity in our appearances. It doesn’t make sense. Personally, as a layman, this reviewer is not in favour of unnecessarily splitting a species into sub-species or upgrading sub-species to a separate species.
As far as reader-friendliness is concerned, the book is well organised, with colour tabs for different sections. The green tab covers all the carnivores like tiger, lion and leopards. Under pink tabs, the reader can pick out odd-toed ungulates or hoofed mammals (Perissodactyla), such as the Rhino and the Wild Ass, whereas the purple tabs club all even-toed hoofed mammals (Artiodactyla) such as the deer, antelopes, wild sheep and goats, pig, gaur and the buffalo.
Readers, particularly beginners, will have to motivate themselves to understand how the various mammals are classified and further divided into order, family, genus and species, since the book has done this only briefly.
The page focusing on a mammal gives both the common and the scientific name, the best place to see it, the status of the animal, whether it is common or endangered, the size of the animal, etc. This is accompanied by sketches which show their niche occupancy and description. The distribution in the map and habitat is also given. Unfortunately, the tiny fonts mean this useful information can only be read with the aid of a magnifying glass. The instructional page, titled ‘Using this Book: Understanding the page layout’, lacks clarity. The reviewer did not find the introductory sections dealing with sub-heads, such as ‘social organisation’, ‘field conditions’, ‘diets’, ‘where to look for animals’, ‘watching animals’ of any significant value.
There are a few howlers which the reader should ignore. For instance, “The Himalayan Brown Bear is the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore”. This is immediately contradicted in the very next sentence: “It is considerably smaller than its more famed relatives—the Grizzly and the Kodiak Bears!”
Although most of the 1,000-odd pictures are good, some are outstanding, a few like the one of the jungle cat in Kaziranga at page 252 is of poor quality and superfluous, as the page already has several excellent pictures of the animal. Its flaws notwithstanding, Menon’s Indian Mammals—A Field Guide stands out as a lavishly illustrated book which deserves a place on the shelves of both the enthusiast as well the expert.
(Mahendra Vyas is a Supreme Court lawyer, birder and animal lover)