Book review — A View from the Machan

A view from the machan

According to Ullas Karanth, wild animals have dominated his consciousness ever since he can remember. His father, a well-known Kannada writer, was not only deeply interested in the natural world himself, but also lacked faith in formal education of any kind. So, until he joined high school directly at the age of 11, Karanth was free to wander the woods around their home in rural Karnataka to his heart’s content, picking up natural history skills that would prove vital years later.

Today, Karanth is a renowned wildlife scientist who has spent virtually his entire adult life actively involved in conservation. His training and single-minded dedication, combined with a gift for clear thinking, makes him a formidable voice of reason, and this collection of 13 essays an invaluable contribution to the growing body of literature on India’s wildlife and its conservation.

Karanth’s metamorphosis from amateur naturalist to wildlife scientist is both unusual and fascinating and is well documented in the first few essays of the book.  After graduating from college he tried his hand at being an Engineer and, later, toiled for several years as a farmer on the outskirts of the Nagarahole forest. Wildlife was a hobby, albeit a serious one.  Then, well into his thirties, he took a radical decision to abandon both vocations and train himself as a wildlife biologist.  This decision was spurred by the conviction that for conservation to succeed it had to be “based on a solid foundation of modern wildlife biology”.  A meeting with a delegation from the Smithsonian at the Bombay Natural History Society’s international wildlife conference in 1983 paved the way for his journey to the United States to pursue a degree in Wildlife Biology.

Since then, it is the study of the tiger that has dominated his life, and he has come to be recognized around the world for his exemplary work on the severely endangered big cat. This fascination with the ultimate predator was probably fuelled in no small measure by the shikar tales that he read as a school student, in particular, the “feverishly gripping” accounts of Kenneth Anderson.  Anderson’s books of high adventure in the south Indian jungles have inspired many an Indian naturalist and Karanth too came under their spell.  He got to know Anderson quite well later, and writes with admiration, affection and humour about the irascible Scot, whose enthralling stories have lost none of their shine to this day.

The first six essays in the book are in the nature of personal reminisces, written in an easy conversational style.  These cover the period up to the beginning of Karanth’s study of predator-prey relationships in Nagarahole, Karnataka, in the mid-80s, and include a chapter on his close friend of nearly four decades, the courageous and steadfast Forest Range Officer, K.M.Chinnappa.  The two first met in Nagarahole in the late 60s and found common ground in their passion for watching animals rather than hunting them.

Under Chinnappa’s diligent and tough stewardship, the Nagarahole that Karanth had come to know, with it’s large-scale logging and rampant poaching, gradually underwent a miraculous transformation, turning into one of Asia’s finest wildlife reserves.  It was undoubtedly this transformation that made Karanth’s pioneering research here so productive for over two decades.

While the book’s first five chapters are engaging and informative, its true worth lies in its latter eight. Karanth’s incisive intellect is at work here, and he provides us with rare insights into the world of tigers, helping to dispel the fog of confusion that seems to enshroud their conservation.  These essays do demand more from the reader, but they are, in my opinion, essential reading for every serious naturalist and conservationist.

Almost throughout the book Karanth highlights the need for science in conservation and decries the ‘science deficiency’ that extends to almost every aspect of wildlife management in India including, importantly, the monitoring of tigers.  In the chapter ‘The many ways to count a cat’ he demolishes fundamentally faulty “home-grown” methods of monitoring wildlife populations, such as ‘waterhole census’, ‘block census’ and ‘pugmark census’, which have gained widespread acceptance because they have gone unchallenged for too long. This “pseudo-data”, according to him, then enters the public domain without going through the scientific process of peer review and publication.  The result of this, he says, is that reliable, scientifically proven methods are ignored.

Wildlife conservation, he asserts, is no different in many ways to running a large and complex business enterprise. In this enterprise it is imperative that wildlife scientists be the accountants and auditors.  While recognizing that “old-style natural history and field craft – the domain of traditional hunters, collectors and naturalists – still forms the backbone of modern wildlife biology” he points out that this is only valuable when brought under the framework of science.  He warns that without scientifically accurate methods to measure the effectiveness of our actions, our efforts are “ bound to flounder, much like a business enterprise that carries on without ever drawing up a balance sheet”.

The last two chapters of the book are devoted to a discussion of the larger questions confronting conservation in India today.  How do we define wildlife conservation? Why should we try to conserve wildlife?  In these chapters Karanth argues against the “newly fashioned paradigm of ‘sustainable use’” whose proponents advocate “wise use’ of nature reserves by ‘local people”.  He cites a world-wide study of wildlife hunting that concluded that most local hunting in tropical forest areas, either for the pot or for markets, is unsustainable because it is occurring at intensities way above the productivity of the targeted animal populations.

Karanth is one of the most lucid and pragmatic voices in wildlife conservation today and, in this deceptively small book, he articulates a strong case for more science in conservation. The book’s discrete chapters are extremely useful because I can see readers wanting to delve into some of the essays again and again. This is an important book that has come at a time when the tiger’s domain is besieged by numerous problems, and needs to be read by everyone who is concerned about the conservation of this “fragile predator”.

About the author

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Shekar Dattatri is a Chennai-based wildlife and conservation filmmaker.


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