This book introduces us to the long history of India's wildlife, culminating in the present crisis. Drawing on memoirs, archives, mythology, and official records, Mahesh Rangarajan tells the story of the encounter between people and animals in India. The book is remarkable for it brevity, range, and insight.
Mahesh Rangarajan is an eminent historian and renowned political commentator. His books include Fencing the Forest, The Oxford Anthology of Indian Wildlife and the co-edited Battles over Nature.
The great paradox of ecological India is how a country so densely populated with humans continues to support such a plethora of large wildlife. But it does, with Indian populations o tigers, elephants. Asian lions, and other large wildlife being some of the best in all of Asia. This book does a good job in exploring this paradox with a fine balanced hand. Kent H. Redford, Environmental History
'Mahesh Rangarajan has the tenacity to ferret out detail, the analytical ability to string together different strands, and the easy writing style to tell a story.'Dunu Roy. Economic and Political Weekly
History and wildlife do not at first sight have much to do with each other. The first is often associated with long names and dates, the bane of every Indian schoolchild' the other with news of rare species or conflicts over threatened habitats. But the connections, though not apparent, are inescapable for anyone concerned with our ecological future. Many of the issues of conservation are as much about people as about plants, landscapes or animals.
One person's dream for the land can be another's nightmare. The divisions over who should manage and control the and for what purpose are central to the future of India's wildlife. If a sense of crisis pervades the ranks of those engaged with wildlife conservation, the reasons lie partly in the post. Even a simple question like 'Who can protect nature and what are the destructive factors at work?' Can elicit very different answers depending on whom you ask. Fissures among those concerned with ecology are sometimes as deep as those between votaries of the present model of development and its critics.
It is equally necessary fro those concerned with the human predicament to begin to acquaint us with the record of how different groups of humans have interacted with the natural world. The past may not provide lessons in a crude sense, but it is rich in insights. By focusing on certain milestones, it is also possible to be more conscious of the long-term implications of specific choices we are making in relation to our environment. It is only by probing the past that we can learn how we came to this turn in the road, and what options lie ahead.
Ecological India presents a series of paradoxes. Over a billion people-four times as many as existed 150 years ago-live in a country that is also home for almost a thousand bird species and 45,000 varieties of plants. Much of the peninsula is forest, scrub and grassland, many containing the large mammals with which India has long been associated, such as the tiger and the elephant. Despite the enormous pressures of an expanding economy, both species find their last lions now live in a refuge in Gujarat. The North East, with three of every five mammals found in the country, includes species found nowhere else on earth like the sangai deer of Manipur and the lovely golden langur.
The denudation of natural vegetal cover over the last two centuries has been on an unprecedented scale, but even if much has vanished, much remains. A generation ago, princes, and even middle-class Indians, vied with the British to hunt down enough head of big game to get their names in the record books. Today, they are more likely to reach for a pair of binoculars. Yet, their very lifestyles, and patterns of growing consumerism may exert new pressures on the forests that support the animals they watch. The country with one of the largest middle classes in the world also has more poor people than any other on the planet. Many share living spaces with rare life forms, even as they grapple with the prosaic is-sues of earning a living. If conservation means keeping resources, including land, aside for the future, who will pay the price? And who will reap the gains?.
In any broad survey of the past, there are clear trends that stand out. Images of nature and human relations with it are as complex as our ties with each other. Across the centuries, the forest has been seen by rulers in various, sometimes mutually conflicting ways: it could be a place of scenic beauty; it could also be the site of great hunts, with their close similarities to warfare. But for many more people, the scrub jungle, savannah and forest were also a home and a resources catchment. Two clear watersheds mark the past: one was the impact of the British, whose intrusions into the world of the wild were far more extensive than those of their predecessors. The other was the unleashing of widespread destructive forces, including the state-sponsored slaughter of certain wild animals and the harnessing of the forest for forest for industrial raw material and military supplies. Some o this was not new, but the scale and intensity of the impact was without parallel. As a consequence, about a hundred years ago, even species that were a familiar part of the landscape in large areas of India began to recede into mere memory. The second watershed was the creation of legal and governmental apparatus to administer large stretches of forest, eventually totaling a fifth of India's land area. Struggles for its control and rival visions for its future were as critical a part of the imperial era as they are of the times Kinder, gentler approach to nature than trophy hunters and timber merchants. But the legacy of the control system did not vanish, and despite major changes in attitudes, it remains with us, often in glaring contrast with the values of democracy. Much of the future relies on working out how to reform or restructure the system, protecting nature's heritage but doing so in ways that break with a past of denying basic rights to those who depend on the forest for a livelihood. Dong this while retaining tracts of representative ecosystems is a major challenge. Even more pressing is the onrush of economic growth that places the control mechanism under enormous strain.
This brief history of India's wildlife is only an introduction. Often, it skips over whole periods or centuries, sharply focusing on those spans of time about which we know the most or those that seemed to me the most relevant. Anyone who wants to follow up arguments is invited to pursue the references in the bibliography at the end. This is only a step in the direction o a history, being one possible interpretation of our past. Others will also walk down this path, questioning my interpretation. This work aims to help to bridge the gap between two great currents of our time, history, the study of the past with an eye to the present, and ecological concerns, which often centre on the present with an eye to the future. Each needs the other.
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