17th-century French aristocracy meets new era music
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There are elephants and Rauf Ali does run away from them along with various other naturalists—including one who took two days to find his way back—but the book is mainly about running away from the system and the glitches it throws up. Ali chose not to do a Gerald Durrell with his memoirs—he thought Durrell was too entertaining and covered up problems—instead he delved into why being an Indian conservationist is such a problem. This book illustrates this through his growth as a conservationist, starting with his boyhood days when his uncle Salim Ali would take him to Bharatpur, from watching bird shoots to trapping animals, he evolved into observing wildlife, starting with monkeys in the Mundanthurai region in Tamil Nadu where he was asked to take over by the American observer who had fallen out with the tea garden owners. He had just completed his PhD in wildlife biology when he embarked on the task of mapping the movements of bonnet macaques.
Side by side with his observations went observations of human interactions—at that point in time anyone with American connections was suspected of CIA involvement by the CID. He also discovered that at one level people might prove to be hostile but at another, they could share a cheerful whisky together. More than the behaviour of animals, it is the behaviour of those who control the wild that makes more of an impact. Ali calls himself a maverick and that comes through in his refusal to give in to the system.
He reports the exploitation of the tribals in the Andamans who are treated as entertainment by social officers or, when they are kinder, civilised by being introduced to rice and other sources of food that go against their natural way of life. The so called ‘kindness’ is as detrimental to the environment as carelessness, since most people are ignorant of what it means to introduce rival species into a habitat not naturally theirs—as in the chital explosion in the islands which resulted in a shortage of plants for the local wildlife population. Most of conservation is governed in India by ignorance, Ali feels, and a lack of patience.
For Ali, conservation is a kind of meditation to which many are called but few reach the ultimate nirvana.
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