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PRERNA SINGH BINDRA
WILDLIFE

Childhood books inspired my love for Indian flora and fauna

question that people often ask me is what inspired me to take up wildlife journalism and work in conservation. There are a plethora of reasons, the least not being the fact that I was lucky to live in bungalows with rambling yards that harboured a variety of creatures, from peafowl to the occasional cobra. But my love for the wild also has literal roots. Post the Brer Rabbit (Enid Blyton) era in my early childhood, the first 'animal' book I read was a volume by James Herriot - a delightful account of a vet's life in the English countryside. Though it wasn't exactly nature writing, Herriot knew the art of bringing the animals in his book to life. His intricate portrayals of patients and their idiosyncrasies were touching and entertaining at the same time. My next discovery was Gerald Durrell and his accounts of animal-collecting expeditions in exotic destinations. My favourite, however, is the classic - and absolutely hilarious - My Family and Other Animals. There was no looking back after that as I devoured book after book, haunting libraries, pavement book vendors and book stalls hoping for a prize find. While I find writing on Africa and other foreign lands intriguing (Joy Adamson's Born Free, Jane Goodall's In The Shadow of Man, Peter Mathieson's Snow Leopard and, of course, titles by George Schaller), what really interests me are the writings on Indian flora and fauna.

Writing on nature goes back to the Vedic age. The Vedas mention about 250 species of birds, and a mahout I met recently said that he refers to the Gajashashtra, a 2000 year old treatise on the veterinary science and maintenance of the elephant, for occasional advice when his pachyderm is under the weather!

India's legendary 'birdman' Dr Salim Ali (also an erudite, gifted writer ), in his piece, The Moghul Emperors of India as Naturalists and Sportsmen, chronicles the contribution of the Mughal empire, notably the founder of the dynasty, Emperor Babar, and Akbar's successor, Jehangir, in documenting India's faunal wealth. Jehangir was a passionate naturalist, and his Tuzk-e-Jehangiri gave the first pictorial description of the extinct Dodo as painted by Ustad Mansoor.

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A mahout I met recently said that he refers to the Gajashashtra, a 2000 year old treatise on the veterinary science and maintenance of the elephant, for occasional advice when his pachyderm is under the weather!

Serious study on India's natural history began with the British (though before that we had the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus - a 12 volume treatise on the medicinal flora of the Malabar Coast that took 30 years and 100 editors to be compiled), and most of early natural history literature is dominated by game hunters. Hunting, of course, played a major role in the decline of wildlife, yet there was no naturalist as ardent as the hunter in pursuit of his quarry. Hunting stories seem out of context today, but nonetheless, in the annals of natural history, they occupy an important and place.

growing interest in sharing field observations by hunter-naturalists led to the formation of the Bombay Natural History Society (1883). 'EHA' or E.H. Aitkin was one of the eight founding members of the society, and easily the wittiest naturalist-author of his time. He was unusual — deviating from big game mania, focusing instead on the occupations of the crab and other such smaller creatures. His observations were astute, and his affinity with his subjects, remarkable. "Cherish the tender place in your nature, which feels a pang when you pick up the little corpse, so happy two minutes ago," he entreats the hunter. EHA was one of a kind.

Shikar lore is almost synonymous with the legendary hunter-conservationist Jim Corbett, an exceptionally fine writer. But few know that it was another writer-conservationist, F.W. Champion, who inspired Corbett to give up his gun, and pick up the camera. Interestingly, Champion was the pioneer of camera trapping, a modernised version of what was used in the recent tiger enumeration.

The wordage is too short to enumerate the works of legendary author conservationists like E.P. Gee, Dr Salim Ali and Billy Arjan Singh, but a word must be put in about the late M. Krishan, described thus by his biographer Ramchandra Guha, "He was exceptional in his generation for being a conservationist qua conservationist, not part of the repentant butchers club." To me, Krishnan is simply a religion. Words cannot do justice to his phenomenal contribution to nature writing.

My last word, on the power of words; it was Rachel Carson's seminal - and courageous - work Silent Spring (on the impact of pesticides on the birds, soil, water and human beings) that made the environment movement what it is today.

 
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