Sunday, July 26, 2015

Tiger Tales from Ranthambore || Ustad (T-24) - The Tragic Hero

We visited Ranthambore in May 2014. Back then T-24, or Ustad, still roamed the jungle. Forest authorities were fiercely protective of the tiger even though he had already been blamed for the death of three people by then. "He is NOT a man-eater!" countered Mr. Yogendra Kumar Sahu (the Conservator of Forest & Field Director), when one of our fellow bloggers referred to T-24 as one. And from what we had heard from the people who work in the jungle, the safari guides and forest officers, everyone was in awe of this magnificent beast. "I saw T-24 today," someone who had chanced upon the tiger would proudly proclaim. The tone was that of pride and respect. There was no sign of any hatred or indifference anywhere. We felt reassured that tigers, including the ones that are more tigerly than the others, were safe in Ranthambore. During our entire trip, though we weren't fortunate enough to sight T-24, its presence loomed large on our breakfast discussions, our safaris, and our dreams.

And then in May 2015 came the news that Ustad had attacked and killed yet another forest guard barely 100 metres from the park entrance. After some initial reluctance, the magnificent tiger was moved to Sajjangarh Biological Park. Social media erupted in outrage. T-24 was being persecuted for its natural instincts, some cried, while others claimed that there was no solid proof to tie T-24 to the crime. It was easy to get swayed by all the sentimental rooting for the tiger. Fingers were pointed in all directions - towards the hotelier lobby for being the reason why the tiger was shifted out of the forest and at the forest authorities for carrying out the operation covertly. Some felt that the tiger was being victimised, while others felt that the decision to shift out the tiger was a prudent one and was carried out for the greater good of conservation.

I have so far found it difficult to take sides in this debate. While I would love to live my life knowing that T-24 is free in its natural habitat and its ferocious roars still echo through the jungles of Ranthambore, I cannot bring myself to doubt the intentions of the forest authorities, people I had the good fortune of meeting and talking to, people who so passionately defended T-24 against the stamp of a "man-eater", people who carried on with their duties fearlessly for years in full knowledge that a tiger who has been known to kill people might be lurking behind the bushes. I refuse to doubt compassionate people who seal routes in the jungle to shield a tigress with newborn cubs from prying tourist vehicles, a decision that some conservationists do not agree with. I cannot bring myself to question their dedication to the cause of Tiger Conservation.

I have, however, often wondered what caused the forest authorities to lose their faith in T-24, what shattered their confidence, what caused the forest guards to threaten to stop patrolling the sanctuary unless T-24 was removed. Before we start judging these people, we need to remember that this is the sanctuary where tigers have wonderfully bounced back, that now houses more than 60 tigers. But at the same time, we need to be informed that this sanctuary is perhaps the most lacking in discipline as far as tourist behaviour is concerned. Anyone who has been to Ranthambore would probably have witnessed how uncomfortably close tourist vehicles are allowed to get to the tigers. So while I do not doubt that the forest authorities only relocated T-24 to Sajjangarh Biological Park to protect it and rest of the tigers in the wildlife sanctuary, I do hope steps will be taken to rein in the uncontrolled tourist activities as well.     

The question of Tiger Conservation has to be larger than merely the number of tigers in the wild. It has to encompass the health of a tiger's habitat and the safety of wildlife and human population in zones where there are high chances of human-wildlife conflict. Tiger conservation has been brought into the mainstream thanks to the conscious, consistent efforts of organizations such as Sanctuary Asia and Aircel. However, the cause of conservation, though rooted in emotions, needs to be pursued with practicality, and if in the larger interest of tiger conservation, one tiger needs to be relocated to an enclosure, then we may just need to control the urge to unleash our injudicious outrage upon the forest officers who have dedicated their lives to the cause. It may be time to look at the larger picture for once. It may be time to trust the decision of those who have worked so hard to help revive the dwindling tiger populations. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Step back and make way. They are equal citizens of Earth.

"These creatures require our absence to survive, not our help. And if we could only step aside and trust in nature, life will find a way," says John Hammond, in The Lost World

He was talking about the dinosaurs, but this is sane advice for almost all conservation efforts today.

Last week, I had my friend Kathi over for lunch and we ended up talking about her house in Colorado. On her last visit, she was sitting by the window, writing. She looks up and sees a black bear looking at her through the window. Perhaps the bear was hungry or just curious. Kathi didn't have the opportunity to find out. She stood very still and the bear eventually just strolled away. None of them bothered the other. There was mutual respect, or so I would like to believe.

It was a thrilling episode, scary but one that she will remember for the rest of her life. I want to have such encounters too (but only the ones that do not end in me being eaten), while staying in the city. And considering that Mumbai boasts of the highest density of leopard population close to a city anywhere in the world, it doesn't seem like an impossible wish. A few years ago, human-animal conflict led to several people being attacked by the big cat near Mumbai, but for the past 3-4 years things have been peaceful. Do we dare hope that humans have learned to co-exist peacefully with the leopards? I do hope so. And we really do need to learn sooner than later.

A very long time ago, human beings were like other animals that have a mutualistic relationship with nature. We undertook risky hunts for food and other requirements, ate when hungry, helped maintain food chain, and when we died, we gave back to the environment. Our corpses were consumed by predators, scavengers, and a variety of other organisms as we decomposed. And whatever was left was gradually absorbed back into the earth. As far as fighting other animals were concerned, it was never a one-sided fight, unlike today. Each party stood to lose as much as the other and there was a natural justice in it all. In short, we were like other animals, and had to play by the rules of the game called Survival of the Fittest. We instinctively understood our place in the scheme of things and never challenged the supremacy of nature.

But as we evolved, our egos grew bigger and we started treating nature as our plaything. Our relationship with nature is easily parasitic now. First, by going on an obscene hunting spree and then by plundering resources like wood, fossil fuels, and minerals, we have selfishly taken much more than we could ever give back. We have pushed both flora and fauna, and nature itself up against the wall. And now when we have done an irreparable damage, we are finally developing a conscience. But hundreds of species have already been lost and many more are on their way. In fact as per a popular discussion now a days, Earth is at the brink of Sixth Mass Extinction and guess who is to blame for it - it is us humans, the species that claims to have the most highly evolved brains of all. Who needs a comet to come strike the Earth when we are busy doing this to ourselves:

Disclaimer: This is a public domain picture, and has been used as per the license.
But whether we are the biggest brains or the biggest morons is a topic of another long discussion, probably to be undertaken in another long blog post. The current concern is to identify some animals that absolutely need to be saved. While species like tigers, lions, and elephants have enough people rooting for them, there are some other species native to Indian subcontinent for whom we need to make more efforts. Some of them are:

Gharial: This quirky crocodilian is easy to identify because of its long, narrow snout. The adult male Gharial's have a Ghara (matka) shaped protrusion on the tip of their snouts. Fish and small crustaceans form the bulk of an adult Gharial's diet. And as a result, overfishing has negatively impacted Gharial population. At the last count, about 1200 gharials were found to be surviving in the wild in India and a very small percentage of these are adults. The populations are limited to three tributaries of Ganga: the Chambal and the Girva Rivers. (source: WWF Indian Gharials) Conservation efforts such as breeding of gharials in captivity and then releasing them into the wild haven't yielded encouraging results because of other factors that impact the population, such as inadequate food supply and low water levels. (source: The Gharial Recovery Program). So a more holistic program that also requires a gharial's preferred habitat to be maintained should be beneficial and efforts are currently on in this direction (refer: The Gharial Recovery Program). And this one of the main reasons why I would love to see more efforts being put into Gharial conservation - it would also result in conservation of rivers, local fish populations, and also lead to conservation of other endangered animals such as Ganges river dolphins and mahseer.
One-horned rhino: Found only in India and Nepal, the one-horned rhino was once almost pushed to extinction because of extensive hunting and poaching. Rhinos are killed for their horns, which are considered to be aphrodisiacs in some cultures, even though there is no such proof. Depletion of alluvial grasslands has also resulted in their population shrinking. By 1975, only about 600 were found surviving in wild. But since then, tireless conservation efforts have brought the numbers back to over 3,000, with about 90 per cent of the population restricted to Kaziranga National Park in Assam. (source: WWF Greater One-Horned Rhino) So even though the numbers are encouraging, this puts the population at risk of extensive damage in case of events like a forest fire or an epidemic. Moreover, most rhino sanctuaries have almost reached their capacity. Therefore, new populations need to be established to truly protect the rhinos.

Indian Wild Dog (Dhole): These social, pack hunters have not had it easy. Not only have they suffered because of prey depletion, they have often been accused of livestock hunting and persecuted. Poisoning of dholes is common in some areas where there is are huge instances of human-animal conflict. But these are brave creatures and have been known to kill tigers and leopards too.Today they survive in Central and Southern India and can also be found in Ladakh and North-East India. The species is listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List, but such is the state of awareness that there are no dedicated efforts to save the species. Moreover, there is no reliable data about how many dholes exist in the wild in India, even though sightings aren't that rare. So you can probably see why this species is on my list.

And here is a fourth species. And if we think long-term about the conservation of this species, all other problems will probably get resolved:
By Paul Keller ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By our conservation, I do not mean proliferate at an astonishing rate. In fact that is the last thing we should do. So when people ask the British Prince George and Kate whether they are going to have a third child just weeks after their second child is born, I want to pull my hair out. Royal or otherwise, none of us (irrespective of geography, religion, social stature) need to have three kids. In fact having more than two should be made a criminal offense.

Because in order to go back to a population that is sustainable, we need to step back a little lot so that nature can take its course and restore the order. And while we do that, we need to conserve everything that forms our habitat - the trees in the cities, the forests, the jungles the hills, the rivers, the waterfalls, the oceans, and of course the flora and fauna. 

Though so far we have hardly put our brains to good use, here's something to take inspiration from - we are the only species so far who have not only thought about the conservation of other species but are actually taking steps to make a difference. Only us human beings. Well with the exception of this dog:

Imagine a world where you wake up to the sound of birds twittering in the trees, where butterflies flutter on flowers of various colours, where you have deer coming up to your house to feed on the grass, where everyone has enough to eat, where no baby elephant loses her mother to poachers, and where leopards, tigers, and lions rule the jungles. All these are interrelated, and we just need a little tweak to make it happen. It may take a long time but still imagine and it can one day be possible.

I am participating in the Save the Species contest for the book “Capturing Wildlife Moments in India” in association with Saevus Wildlife India,  read the reviews for the book ‘Capturing Wildlife Moments in India’ here.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Book Review: Yashodhara Lal's "There's Something About You"

There's Something About You is Yashodhara Lal's third book after Just Married, Please Excuse and Sorting Out Sid, and what we can definitely say about the author is that it is very difficult to typecast her work. In each book she's tried something new. While the first book is inspired by her own experiences of her marriage, the second book sets out on a different tangent altogether - Sorting Out Sid is told from the point of view of a male character and is essentially his coming-of-age story. This third book is again something she has never attempted before - it is a story of a woman in her late twenties with familiar concerns such as career, marriage, a negative body image, and such. Though There's Something About You is positioned as a romance novel, the male lead does not even make an entry for the first 9 chapters. And I find this very interesting because the author is able to draw us in so well that we almost don't miss the hero. 

In the very first chapter Trishna, Trish to everyone but her ailing father, is fired from the job she's lounged in for the past 7 years. She has no savings and her parents, especially her father who has Alzheimer's, are dependent on her. To add to her woes, when the going was easy, she had rented a sea-facing matchbox in Mumbai, and is stuck with it now. By some stroke of luck she chances upon a freelance opportunity to write a daily agony-aunt-like column for the same publication she was fired from and manages to make it an instant hit. And Sahil, a man with an unusual gift, manages to sneak past Trish's many defences and make a place for himself in her life as well as that of her parents.

And just when things have started looking up, they slide downhill. She has an altercation with her mother, and she also has a falling out with the only person she call a friend, Akanksha. And also by now, Trish has also started hating the restrictions that are imposed on the way she addresses queries in her column. Thoroughly disappointed and yet stubborn, Trish continues in her set ways until a horrific incident in their colony causes turmoil in everyone's lives. But as the dust settles, things start falling in place and Trish manages to solve the mystery behind what is bothering Akanksha's seven-year-old daughter and uncovers a painful secret about her own family. With everything out in the open, old wounds start to heal and Trish is now able to look at herself in a different light and she now plans to embark on a new career altogether.

Trish, the self-conscious, overweight, and sharp-tongued central character of the story, prefers to merge in the background with her ill-fitting, dull kurtas, but still has enough spunk to smartly give it back to the conceited editor of the publication she works for. The author has managed to get very close to real life here where our defences often end up making us successful, though not necessarily happy. Trish's parents, Akanksha, and even little Lisa, are well rounded, if you can overlook Zee, the editor, and Akshay, Trish's former boss, who are through and through evil, there are a lot of grey characters here. And this is one of the major strengths of the book. One character that fails to inspire though is unfortunately the male lead, Sahil. Quirky and weird in the beginning Sahil holds great promise, but he quickly settles into domesticity and refuses to develop any further.

Another flaw, in my opinion, is that Sahil's special gift enables some of the key mysteries of the story to surface without much effort on the part of Trish. Sahil hints at the mystery and urges Trish to follow through, which she does without too much of a difficulty. And when it isn't Sahil, divine intervention rescues in the form of a vision that all but reveals the mystery of Lisa's condition. It is all too easy, and as a result less rewarding. 

While the book does touch upon serious issues, such as caring for an Alzheimer's patient, problems that arise because of lack of communication in a family, the question of blatant materialism in professions that demand responsibility, impact of infidelity on a marriage, and, yes, suicide, it does not really dwell upon them. The focus of the story clearly is Trish and her struggles with herself. In the light of this, it does seem that the book tries to do too much in terms of issues it tries to address, but instead ends up doing too little, so as far as these issues are concerned, the book did not move me much.

Do I recommend the book? If you are looking for a book that is a light read, this book is perfect for you and you should go ahead and pick it up. But if you tend to be a more involved reader, this may be too light for you.