Wildlife Photography: Gujarat Model

Re-posting this book review from over a decade ago, which appeared in the Deccan Herald’s Sunday Herald on 4 September 2011.

Gujarat’s Vibrant Wildlife: A Pictorial Journey by Diinesh Kumble, Commissionerate of Information, Gujarat 2011, 192 pages, Rs 1,495.

With its ‘mouth’ opening through the Gulf of Kachchh, a neck set in the hills of the Dangs, and a curved ‘jaw’ housing the most populated districts dangling over the Arabian Sea, the shape of Gujarat looks like the head of an animal, and a smiling one at that. Within the limited geographical scope offered by the administrative boundaries is, however, a surprising diversity of landscapes, ecosystems, and wildlife.

With a rich array of photographs and a notable paucity of text, Kumble’s book aims to take the reader, or rather the gazer, on a journey through this state in this book published with the support of the Government of Gujarat. It has the blessings of no less than its Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, with whose message the book opens on a page opposite a photograph of, of course, a lion.

The book is organised rather loosely as chapters on five major habitats: grassland, wetland, forest, marine, and desert. Within each, there is about a page of text, the rest is all photographs and captions. As an introduction to Gujarat’s wildlife (names of species are also accompanied by Gujarati names, although not in Gujarati script), the book has some limited success, and some extraordinary failures.

The book is redeemed in part by many colour photographs, and the printing quality is excellent. The images, mostly of mammals and birds, are mostly those taken by the author, with some by his wife Chris Romila Kumble, and a sprinkling from other photographers: Devesh Gadhvi, Umeed Mistry, and Sumer Verma.

Most photographs are crisp portraits — close-ups of the sort that one gets with vibration-reduced large lenses with wide-open apertures — with the background and foreground fuzzy. The images captivate, but lack depth, literally and figuratively, on the living landscapes and plants that sustain animal life. The chapter on forests, for instance, lacks photographs of any forest type. Adding a few such images to accompany each chapter would have helped.

Transcending the field-guide type portraits that the book is filled with are a few images that stand out in terms of composition, inspiring a touch of awe, a sense of nature wild and free. Such are Mistry’s underwater shots of turtle and whale shark, Gadhvi’s image of lesser agama, and a few photos by the author and his wife, such as the sepia-toned spread of wild ass, flamingos in flight, and a pan of a jackal running.

Where the book really stoops low in quality is in the text. Almost uniformly poorly written, it includes some blandly-stated incomprehensibles such as “Forests are veritably the laboratories of life where co-operation and zero-sum games are seen in the raw” and “When it finally appeared but for a fraction of a second before disappearing behind the rocks, it was definitely worth a thousand words”.

The captions of the images again read like field-guide material, often repeating the colours of the animal self-evident in the photograph. Captions for a few full-page images appear to have been overlooked. There is little on ecology, and even less on conservation in the book, to provide an interpretive context. The book would have benefited if the photographic skills of the author were combined with the knowledge of a field biologist who could also write well.

Were all the photos taken in Gujarat and of free-ranging animals? The portrait of a lion that the book opens with looks suspiciously like a much-photographed individual from an enclosure in Gir. Seeing images of foxes and hyenas photographed near dens, and of a leopard running in broad daylight, one also hopes that the photographer used due diligence to minimise disturbance to animals.

There is also nothing worthwhile about conservation in this book, although the introduction claims that conservation is a ‘living ideology’ in Gujarat, epitomised by its lions. The sorry state of the Asiatic lion, reduced to a spectacle for tourists inured to the sight of habituated and hustled lions lying about their vehicles in a small area of Gujarat, a fraction of its original range, is not discussed.

Still, the book, published by the State Government, can hardly mention the blinkered intransigence of Gujarat to allow the establishment of another population in an identified reintroduction site in Madhya Pradesh, can it? In today’s context, lions are no more the pride, they are the shame of Gujarat.

Similarly, there is nothing about the Dangs and forest loss and fragmentation, nothing about pollution and bleaching threatening the coral reefs, and certainly nothing about Gujarat’s race to urbanise and industrialise and its consequences on the environment within which its people live.

To be fair, conservation is not the main theme of the book, but by ignoring conservation, peoples, and land uses in Gujarat, the book is one among many that succeeds in conveying an impression of wildlife and nature as objects, as colourful curiosities that one goes out to see, and constrained to remain within protected areas ordained for them (the maps in the book only show Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks).

Metaphorically speaking, the book succeeds in capturing this feeling and message through its images. Stilt and stork, gharial and hedgehog, nightjars and sandgrouse, they are all clipped, snout or beak to tail-tip, as tight portraits. There is little space, no vista. The images suggest a circumscribed view of wildlife in Gujarat, like closeted jewels in a locked jewel box.


[Article for download]

A rough draft of conservation history

Newspapers, as someone famously said, publish the first rough draft of history. If this is right, then the book under review can be said to provide a first rough draft of the conservation history of India from the mid 1990s to the present. Conservation Kaleidoscope: People, Protected Areas and Wildlife in Contemporary India by Pankaj Sekhsaria contains a selection of news items from mainstream media and accompanying editorials that first appeared in the bimonthly newsletter Protected Area Update (or PA Update) edited by the author and published by the environmental organisation Kalpavriksh. PA Update, still in publication, typically focuses on news and issues concerning India’s wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, tiger reserves, conservation and community reserves, and surrounding landscapes. The newsletter began publication as the PAM UPDATE News on Action Towards Joint Protected Area Management in September 1994 and matured over the years into its present 24-page bulletin form. The book covers the period from around 1996 to the present day, bringing out conservation news, issues, and opinions, kaleidoscopic in their diversity.

Distilled yet diverse themes

The period covered by the book was marked by a huge churn in India, as conservation moved from its protectionist origins to grappling with diverse challenges and threats, some old — such as dams and human-wildlife conflicts — and many new — such as linear infrastructure intrusions and mining. The foremost among these trends is the rise of the neoliberal state and the trampling of environmental and livelihood concerns under the iron wheels of untrammelled economic and industrial growth. This juggernaut rolls on, watering down or whittling away environmental laws and regulations, and obliterating sections of protected areas (PAs) or entire PAs denotified, to make way for destructive development.

The period also stands witness to the tension of shifting from exclusivist ideas of pristine and inviolate protected areas to more inclusive views of people as partners in conservation. Another landmark in this period was the Forest Rights Act of 2006 that created new opportunities to redress historical injustice, park-people conflicts, and empower forest dwellers to challenge destructive development in their lands. The increase in protected area coverage in some parts of India and the establishment and growth of vibrant civil society organisations focused on research, on-ground efforts, and community-based conservation, must be counted on the positive side.

The cover of the book Conservation Kaleidoscope. The book is organised in 14 chapters that distill the news and what sets the tone of the book are the accompanying editorials that present these in the immediate context, while linking them to wider currents and cross-cutting issues in conservation.
The cover of the book Conservation Kaleidoscope. The book is organised in 14 chapters that distill the news and what sets the tone of the book are the accompanying editorials that present these in the immediate context, while linking them to wider currents and cross-cutting issues in conservation.

None of these larger issues are dealt with in great depth in this book, yet all find some place in it among a tapestry of landscapes, waterscapes, and lifescapes. The book is organised in 14 chapters that distil the news and editorials into thematic (Law, Policy, and Governance; The Developmental Threat; Tourism), species-oriented (Fate of the Elephant; Tigers and Tiger Reserves), and ensemble chapters (A Colourful Mosaic; Specific Geographies). The coverage is inevitably selective. What sets the tone of the book are the accompanying editorials that present these in the immediate context, while linking them to wider currents and cross-cutting issues in conservation.

Protected areas and beyond

In these editorials, Sekhsaria speaks up for wildlife not just inside PAs, but for the wildlife outside PAs. He talks about involving people living inside PAs in their management, and on sensitising people outside PAs, including city dwellers and urban conservationists, into the realities and needs of conservation. He decries the focus on a few charismatic species or reserves, and champions the cause of diversity in species, landscapes, and conservation strategies. Often, the editorials accompanying each chapter devolve into a series of probing questions triggered by the news: questions that must be asked by and of policymakers, conservationists, and other citizens.

Wild elephants crossover at Kaziranga National Park. Photo by Mashanka/ Wikimedia Commons.
Wild elephants crossover at Kaziranga National Park. Photo by Mashanka/Wikimedia Commons.

Case studies in a staccato rhythm

Built as it is largely on news on conservation that manage to appear in mainstream media, the picture that emerges from the book of India’s conservation history is more like a series of rapidly-projected slide photographs rather than a moving film with a clear beginning, a narrative flow, climax, and denouement. This staccato presentation of news and opinion can be unsettling and difficult to read or grasp as a coherent narrative. And yet, while it presents no grand panorama, the book is nevertheless revealing in its particulars, in the details that emerge from a focus on myriad individual cases: a reserve forest denotified in Andhra for industrial use; a road cleared through a PA in Uttarakhand; mass bird deaths in a Rajasthan lake; police firing in Wayanad, Kerala; a conference on bees in Tamil Nadu; human-elephant conflict in Jharkhand; and so on.

A reference for wildlife history in India

Where the book inevitably falters is in providing depth and completeness. A news event on a threat in a new area is flagged, but the reader is often left with little idea of what came later. The section on the Forest Rights Act is insubstantial: with little news or analysis of cases where the FRA has been implemented or deliberately disregarded. Another major gap in the book is the paucity of reports or editorials about wildlife research in and around PAs. In India, there has been a remarkable growth of institutions and scholars engaged in wildlife research since the 1990s, with better understanding on wildlife conservation issues, numerous new discoveries and findings coming to light, and increasingly brought to the public by excellent science communicators and journalists. Recent issues of PA Update do carry a section about research, but this very significant aspect remains a dark patch in the otherwise colourful conservation kaleidoscope. Despite these limitations, this book is a worthwhile read and reference for a wide spectrum of people concerned with politics, development, wildlife and environment in India.


Banner image: Jim Corbett National Park. The author Sekhsaria speaks up for wildlife not just inside PAs, but for the wildlife outside PAs in his book. Photo by Shashwat Jha/Wikimedia Commons.

This book review was first published on Mongabay India on 19 April 2022 under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

After a hiatus

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here and this is just a little note presaging stuff that’s coming. I’ve a couple of new posts in store, which I hope to publish in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the last few weeks have not been word-less, so to speak. There’s been articles and book reviews I’ll post here as well, with links and pics, some bells and whistles. Meanwhile, since you’re reading, here’s a photo of mine, a tropical rainforest at dawn: from Hala Bala, Thailand. Dawn sounds, too, for you to listen along.

On the Green Lit Fest Longlist

My book The Wild Heart of India is on the Green Lit Fest longlist of general fiction and nonfiction. It’s in some really good company as you can see below (cover images courtesy Green Lit Fest via Twitter).

The Green Lit Fest is a relatively new lit fest and the 3-day event planned from 8-10 December 2021 appears to be their first major event, although they have had some online events earlier. They have picked the longlist from from books published in 2019 and 2020. It has a bunch of interesting speakers and writers in conversation with other people. The full schedule is here. Check it out. Registration is free, but you are welcome to donate as well.

Speaking Up Against Commercial Scientific Journals

My interview with Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (SBMT) on scientific publishing:

Commercial Science Journals: A Luxury Market?

Publicação: 10 de September de 2021

Most of the research produced in the world is still accessible to a few, while rivers of money drain from public safes to large publishing corporations

An article published in the science section in the blog The Wire, entitled “Why I Won’t Review or Write for Elsevier and Other Commercial Scientific Journals”  exposed the issues related to conflicts in the scientific articles market, which creates a [prestige] economy, allowing major journals to charge what they want, in addition to getting free labor from scientists eager to associate themselves with their brands as reviewers or editors. It is a market in which the taxpayer pays to have science produced, pays to have it published, and pays to subscribe to the journals that publish it. The system could easily be reformed if it weren’t for those scientists who insist on laying down rules so attached to the high-impact publications that have led them to the elite, and the new ones so obsessed with following the same path.

To learn more about the subject, the Communication Office of the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (SBMT) interviewed Dr. TR Shankar Raman (also known as Sridhar), a writer that became a wildlife scientist. As a writer, he writes creative nonfiction and reflective essays on nature and conservation for newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as occasional book reviews and opinion or featured articles.

Scientific journals on a university library shelf (Courtesy Vmenkov, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Full interview:

SBMT: In your article, you mention racism, sexism and patronizing. What is your opinion about the ethics of peer review?

TRSR: Peer review is considered an essential part of science. It serves a gate-keeping function in scientific publication. Yet, principles, good practices, and ethics of peer reviewing are not often taught to researchers as an essential part of their academic training. Many of us first get to see peer reviews as comments on our first manuscripts and do our first peer reviews when invited by a journal or editor. Partly because of this and partly because scientists are humans who can be subject to the same biases and prejudices as other people, peer review often falls short of being the totally objective appraisal it is touted to be. Journals do provide generic guidelines to reviewers, but nevertheless, racist, sexist, or patronising reviews do get past editors. I have linked to articles about this on my blog post. Researchers and scientists, especially non English-speaking, from less developed countries and less well known institutions are often at the receiving end of such peer reviews. For examples, I know cases where reviewers have asked the author to include as co-author an experienced scientist from a western institution for their paper to be competitive or good enough; told authors from India who are native English speakers to get their paper read and vetted by a native English speaker (without pointing out any problems with English in their manuscript); and so on. Double-blind peer review tries to address some of those issues, but has its own problems. I personally think that transparent, signed peer reviews are the way forward as a norm.

SBMT: Are there ethical principles in peer reviewing scientific articles?

TRSR: Certainly. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines could be taken as a benchmark of the kind of professionalism, integrity, honesty, and courtesy expected in peer reviews. Also, declaring competing interests and conflicts of interest is vital. Confidentiality during the review process is another important principle—no one wants their ideas stolen or plagiarised from an unpublished manuscript by an unscrupulous and anonymous reviewer.

SBMT: Do you believe there is corruption in the peer review process? If so, would this process be corrupting the scientific ethics of neutrality?

TRSR: As far as I know, fortunately, I myself have not suffered so far from corruption in the peer review process. From my limited experience, I would not be able to state how widespread it is and whether reviews and publication are used either as a form of patronage or to discriminate against rivals. To some extent, both probably occurs. But you mention neutrality. I feel that neutrality can be an aspiration for each of us when we do reviews, but it is probably more realistic to accept that none of us are truly neutral or unbiased. It is equally vital that as a reviewer, we reflect on and understand what our own biases or prejudices could be and how they may have affected our impressions of a paper and our reviews. Journals rarely ask reviewers to consider this or to provide an explicit statement based on reflection on their neutrality or prejudices—the focus is on the reviewed, rarely on the reviewer, although the latter is important, too.

SBMT: In your opinion, why are the most reputable journals all too expensive to publish or to access?

TRSR: First off, I want to contest the notion of what is a reputed journal. Too often it is based on Journal Impact Factor (JIF). There is now sufficient evidence to show that JIF is a very poor metric of quality in science. JIF is not some magic number: it’s just an index negotiated between journals and the company that provides the analytics calculated as a mean rather than a median and subject to all sorts of problems and biases. Besides its the quality of a paper that we are interested in and not some artificial metric of the journal itself. The JIF of a journal tells you nothing about the quality of any particular paper in that journal. In fact, there are more retractions, falsified data, and errors in these so-called high impact journals (for studies on this, see this recent post). Unfortunately, a false connection is drawn between quality and successful publication in such journals, and that is then used to decide on jobs and promotions in academia. As a result, a rush to publish in these journals has been induced, which is exploited by commercial scientific publishing companies like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature and a few others who have cornered the market, so to speak, and charge exorbitant article processing charges. Based on the estimates from one recent study, it appears that these publishers are charging anywhere from 5 to more than 10 times the actual cost of publication of a typical scientific article. It is the prime irony of our times: scientists who pride themselves on their objectivity have been hoodwinked by a very subjective and flawed system into publishing in so-called reputed journals, while the commercial publishers laugh their way to the bank with their huge profits.

SBMT: Why are the “diamond/platinum” journals the least valued by editorial metrics and funding agencies?

TRSR: I have no idea why this should be so. It feels like the academic community has just painted itself into a corner. There are lots of excellent diamond open access journals. The journals published by Indian Academy of Sciences  are a good example (although they have a weird co-publishing arrangement with Springer Nature, the journals and papers can be freely accessed via the Academy website and there are no charges for authors to publish either). Of course, the number of papers that a diamond open access journal may be able to publish may be lower and many are in niche areas of science rather than multi-disciplinary in scope and hence their reach may be lower than what big-budget commercial journals can achieve with their resources. But this only means that diamond open access journals should be supported more to achieve better reach, not shift to commercial publishers. All public and philanthropic funding for science has everything to gain by supporting and mandating publication in diamond open access journals.

SBMT: How to design a policy in defense of Southern science through the promotion of “diamond/platinum” journals?

TRSR: As individuals, we can each take a stand, as I have tried to in my post—that I will not review for or publish in commercial journals, but will especially do so for diamond open access journals. Particularly, senior scientists and leaders in their fields must set an example by publishing, reviewing for, or accepting to be on the boards of diamond open access journals. But this will not go far unless we also collectively work to change overall policy. As a community, we must petition our academies, funders, and science administrators to change policies to give greater recognition to papers published in diamond open access journals. This can trigger a big change: especially if it begins to count towards jobs and promotions in academia. Impact factor should be trashed as outdated, harmful, and retrogressive. Recipients of public funds should be mandated to publish in diamond open access journals published by nonprofit scientific societies as this is the most cost-effective way to spend the available (limited) funds to achieve publication that is freely, openly, and widely accessible, while supporting and advancing science. Other initiatives such as Gold Open Access, self-archiving of submitted final versions, or pay-to-publish APC models are all half measures or discriminate and exclude large numbers of scientists around the world, who cannot pay the large fees involved. Policies should support membership fee support for scholars and new and tenured faculty to join learned academic societies that publish diamond open access journals so that the funds are kept within the community and to advance science rather than feed the profits of commercial companies.

SBMT: Would you like to explore further the concept of predatory science publishing?

TRSR: Predatory science publishing, I feel, is just a perversion of the normalisation of pay-to-publish models that we have allowed to happen and which most so-called reputed journals are using today. If money is taken out of the equation by recognising pay-to-publish models as disreputable for science, and by mandating publication in diamond open access journals, most predatory journals will disappear. I also have a different take on the idea of predation in scientific publishing. As I write in my post:

With exorbitant subscriptions, steep open access publication fees or paywalls for each article, companies such as Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature are profiteering from an enterprise that generates knowledge which really belongs to all and which should be truly open and free for anyone in the world to access. To me, this is also a form of predatory publishing: unbridled corporate predation on captive academic prey.

SBMT: Is it correct to say that today science is better evaluated by the continent (the journal) than by the content (the article itself)?

TRSR: Yes. I often wonder whether scientists sitting in powerful positions, during proposal appraisals and job interviews, read the articles to assess a candidate and the quality of their work or just go by the fame and JIF of the journals their papers were published in. If as scientists we believe that it is the peer review process that is important, why not keep peer review and dispense with journals altogether? Find ways to have papers reviewed and accepted by peers, organise them by subject or theme, published with just a DOI and findable via a global database search? Some interesting new publishing models are already being implemented. The Peer Community In  model—where scientists come together in communities to openly review and recommend preprints that are freely and openly accessible—can be taken as equivalent to diamond open-access journal publication.

SBMT: Do you believe that there is a planned effort by rich countries to keep developing countries scientifically backward?

TRSR: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. But there is certainly a blindness or an obtuseness towards the plight of scientists in developing countries and all lower and middle-income economies. A recent paper highlights the colonial roots of many of our present academic practices and issues a call for decolonising science. Decolonising access to scientific literature is a crucial part of that. Scientists in the west, in richer countries and in elite, well-endowed institutions in all countries, need to decolonise their minds and scientific practices to enable science to flourish globally and equitably.

SBMT: Would you nominate Alexandra Elbakyan, from Sci-Hub for the Nobel Prize. If so, how to start a global movement for this?

TRSR: I am not a fan of the Nobel Prizes, given they have their own biases and have failed to adequately acknowledge scientific contributions of women, for example. But given that its stated purpose is to award those who have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind, Alexandra Elbakyan certainly qualifies. I stand by what I wrote in my post:

Alexandra Elbakyan, a scholar and computer programmer who created and runs Sci-Hub, is probably the one person who has contributed more to global dissemination of science and access to scientific literature than any other person in human history.

Science academies from Brazil, India, and other countries, including western nations, could get together and nominate her, perhaps!

SBMT: Intellectual recognition of authors from tropical/poor countries in collaboration with authors from large institutions in rich countries is a big problem. Who has more value in a North-South collaborative scientific publication: one who conceived it, one who collected the data, one who analyzes it, or one who conducts the sophisticated experiments inaccessible to scientists from the Global South?

TRSR: This is again an issue that the paper I mentioned on decolonising science  goes into in better detail. I would simply urge everyone to read it. It sets out the problem and proposes changes in the way we do science: such as going past ‘parachute’ science to actively involve collaborators from the poorer countries as equal or better knowledge partners (not as tokenism), have reciprocal exchanges rather than one-way travel of students and scholars, and so on. Some journals have adopted policies that publications should include authors from the countries where the work was carried out in and so on, which is welcome, but there is more to do.

SBMT: Are science agencies in the Global South repeating the model of evaluating science based on editorial metrics and harming their own countries’ science and scientists?

TRSR: I don’t know about other countries, but in India, certainly. Journal Impact Factor is routinely used as a metric in assessments of scientists and their work. The Science and Engineering Research Board of India privileges publication in international journals over national journals and asks for journal impact factor to be provided as well. The UGC norms for academic performance of faculty actually scales their index by journal impact factor. This is very retrograde and harmful. Other aspects such as publication in diamond open access journals, making datasets also openly available, other forms of public engagement for science are all ignored in this system of evaluation. Instead of these flawed metrics, we need to move to new systems of evaluation that consider other aspects such as mentorship, diversity and inclusion, quality of work and so on. Alternative ways in which this can be accomplished have been proposed.

SBMT: Do you believe that the Global South remains colonized from a scientific and cultural point of view? Why do you think so?

TRSR: I think I have already answered this above with reference to the decolonising science paper.

SBMT: Aren’t scientists from the South themselves biased?

TRSR: As I mentioned before, all scientists are human and are likely to have their own biases. However, there is a huge asymmetry in power, privilege, and influence when compared to scientists in the Global North. The South is disadvantaged on many counts and that needs to be recognised and offset through thoughtful policies and actions.

SBMT: How can scientific journals from the Global South acquire international respectability?

TRSR: I don’t think I have the experience to offer an answer to that one. Perhaps it is something for all of us to deliberate on as a community. Bring editorial boards of different diamond open access journals published from the Global South together to start off the conversation. Good and practical ideas may emerge.

SBMT: How to increase South-South scientific collaboration? India and Brazil have a significant scientific production. Wouldn’t it be time to start an alliance between southern countries?

TRSR: Yes, certainly. As I mentioned above we have not done this as much as we perhaps can or should. For instance, by conducting joint conferences on tropical ecology, medicine, and conservation, for instance. Those conducted today tend to have few voices of scientists who are actually based in tropical countries. Famous names from institutions in the Global North predominate in the line-up of speakers: that should change, too.

SBMT: Tropical forests are very dangerously threatened. What is the role of scientists from the Global South?

TRSR: I think not just scientists, but people and communities from the Global South need to step forward to lead conservation efforts. Scientists should also acknowledge the traditional knowledge systems of indigenous people, recognise the roles they have played as stewards of their lands and forests in effecting conservation. The biggest threats are often from large-scale destructive development projects such as mining, roads, powerlines, large-scale green or renewable energy projects, dams and so on. Scientists have a key role not just to study these and document the wide-ranging impacts on ecology and society, indigenous people and their culture, but to share their findings widely with the public in all local languages to foster widespread public awareness and engagement with conservation. This can help combat the loss of tropical forests and also create enough momentum among citizens to push for political changes with the urgency and at the scale at which they are needed.

SBMT: Would you like to add anything?

TRSR: I think I’ve already said too much. There’s a lot to do and we should act as individuals, as part of our local scientific communities or societies, and also as larger collectives that push for changes in policy and practice globally.

Original Blog Post at View from Elephant Hills:

Why I will not review or write for Elsevier, Wiley, and other commercial scientific journals

Republished in The Wire—Science

Why I Won’t Review or Write for Elsevier and Other Commercial Scientific Journals

The Life of a Small Bone Hunter

My brief review of The Night Country (1971) by Loren Eiseley, a writer I greatly enjoy reading.

Loren Eiseley has this to say about nature writers such as Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies, and W. H. Hudson, but the words apply equally to himself:

Even though they were not discoverers in the objective sense, one feels at times that the great nature essayists had more individual perception than their scientific contemporaries. Theirs was a different contribution. They opened the minds of men by the sheer power of their thought. The world of nature, once seen through the eye of genius, is never seen in quite the same manner afterward. A dimension has been added, something that lies beyond the careful analyses of professional biology.”

Loren Eiseley (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Eiseley’s writing is lyrical, deeply reflective, even melancholic. The essays in this book defy a simple description. Are they examples of nature writing? Memoir? Reflections on archaeology and anthropology? Ruminations on the external and internal worlds of the human? Essays on education and what it means to be a teacher? The essays are drawn from all this, gain synergy, become something larger and memorable. It is rare, I feel, to find emerging from the pen of a scientist, educator, and thinker, prose of such grace and humility.

Still, there are those who would complain of such writing, flay his ornamentation of ideas, rubbish his reflection as mysticism. It is difficult to imagine Eiseley himself being able to publish some of these essays in the literary and nature magazines of the present day. Where are the details? the editors may ask. The specifics, the hook, the motif, thread, conflict, and denouement? Or they might return his manuscript, advising him as one of his colleagues did, in all seriousness, to ‘explain himself’, perhaps ‘confess’ the state of his mind and internal world in the pages of a scientific journal. In Eiseley’s words again:

No one need object to the elucidation of scientific principles in clear, unornamental prose. What concerns us is the fact that there exists a new class of highly skilled barbarians—not representing the very great in science—who would confine men entirely to this diet.

Fortunately, Eiseley does not join the ranks of the barbarians, even as he admits in “Obituary of a bone hunter”, with due humility, that his own scientific career is marked by “no great discoveries”, that his is but a life “dedicated to the folly of doubt, the life of a small bone hunter.”

(Review originally written on 3 October 2013. You can read the book here.)

The Passing of the Endlings

Two bullets passed through three brothers and killed them as they sat side by side.

The secretary wrote, “The first bullet killed one and… the second bullet after having gone through one struck the other, which was behind it, and killed it also.”

Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo pulled the trigger in 1947. In Surguja District in central India, he shot them by night from a vehicle. It was his private secretary who later chronicled the passing of the last cheetahs shot in India.

The last cheetahs shot in India (Photograph courtesy: Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, Vol 47, 1948)

§

When the three men arrived by boat at the island of Eldey in Iceland on June 3, 1844, they found the Great Auk pair standing side by side tending to the last egg.

Jón Brandsson “crept up with his arms open” to the female who moved to a corner. Sigurður Ísleifsson followed the other, who walked to the edge of a cliff. He said, “I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.”

Ketill Ketilsson found the egg on a lava slab. He picked up the egg, saw it was broken, and put it back. Some say he crushed the egg under his boot. It would have made a squelching sound.

The sound would have been drowned by the waves battering the cliffs, as the ocean currents passed the desolate cliffs of Eldey.

Great auk from Birds of America by John James Audubon (via Wikimedia Commons).

§

The epitaph for the last male reads: “Male near Baghownie… 21st June 1935”. Charles McFarlane Inglis, the Englishman who had shot the bird in Darbhanga, Bihar, in India, does not say more in his journal article. He does not say whether the last bird was rushing overhead, wings gusting the air, or pedalling glassy waters among reeds and swamp, swimming quietly and alone, when the bullet struck. The article was published five years later. Scientists now know this was the last confirmed record from the wild of the Pink-headed Duck.

The Englishman himself died on February 13, 1954, aged 84. Months later, someone wrote in the pages of another journal, like an epitaph at the end of his obituary: Molliter ossa cubent. May his bones rest softly.

People still look for the duck. Their bones and feathers rest softly in museums around the world.

Pink-headed Duck by Henrik Grönvold (via Wikimedia Commons)

§

The last Carolina parakeet, Incas, died on February 21, 1918, a year after his mate Lady Jane’s passing. They both died in the same cage in Cincinnati Zoo. The writer J Drew Lanham imagined an epitaph for Incas. He thought it would serve as the “final rites for the passage of one of the most unique birds ever to sweep across the skies of the American psyche.”

John James Audubon’s “Carolina Parakeets” (via Wikimedia Commons)

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, too, had died in the same cage on September 1, 1914.

A century had passed since 1810, when Alexander Wilson had observed during his own passage between Frankfort and the Indiana Territory, a single flight of migrating pigeons that he estimated to number two billion two hundred and thirty million two hundred and seventy two thousand birds. In 1947, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology erected a bronze monument to the passenger pigeon in Wyalusing State Park. Aldo Leopold said, “But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts, like the bronze pigeon, will have no wings.”

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon (via Wikimedia Commons).

§

But another stone is inscribed and mounted in the Bronx Zoo, New York, on a memorial wall to many species that have passed for ever. I recall the words carved in stone, which said that the Jerdon’s Courser, a “quiet bird” that “stretched up on tiptoes to look for predators”, went extinct after 1900.

Memorial to the Jerdon’s Courser in the Bronx Zoo (Photo: P Jeganathan, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Nearly a century had passed when the bird was found in Andhra Pradesh in 1986, with the help of bird trappers. The Sri Lankamalleswara Wildlife Sanctuary was established as a refuge and a canal partly rerouted to save their habitat. The biologist, P Jeganathan, saw the bird in 2008 and caught images in a field camera. He once heard three birds calling by night. A two note call, neither cackle nor lament, just one urgent note following another, ringing through the long night.

The Isha Upanishad proclaims,

Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
How can the multiplicity of life
Delude the one who sees its unity?

The Upanishads, by Eknath Easwaran (2nd edition, 2007)

I think of all the species in all their unique perfection and voices irredeemably gone and lost to the screaming bullets and machines and pillage but thrill to know that the night can yet carry the clear, poignant, plaintive, astonishing, exhilarating voice of one quiet bird.

The Jerdon’s Courser (Photo: P Jeganathan, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

§

Now India aims to bring back the cheetah. A rewilding project plans to bring new life to the grasslands and savannas where the cheetah once roamed and coursed behind antelope. And yet, in the grasslands and savannas lives another tall, stately bird, the Great Indian Bustard, in great peril. Down to the last hundred or so, the birds continue to lose their habitat to solar and wind farms, concrete and road, their lives colliding with the power lines humming with the currents now passing through their landscape. One great effort trying to bring back a species driven extinct. And one great power driving another to the edge of extinction.

If we can find it in us to offer remembrance, epitaph, memorial, and long for what we have lost, we can find it in us to cherish what we have and keep it from passing from this earth. And we can stand for it side by side and our thoughts can once again have wings.

Great Indian Bustards against wind turbines in the Desert National Park, Rajasthan (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman).

This essay was inspired by Brian Doyle’s essay “Leap” (2001). It appeared in the Indian Express Sunday Magazine Eye on 22 August 2021.

Freedom in the Time of Covid

Wild and free: in one sense of each word, to be wild is to be free. In nature, each life form is free to grow and flourish, free to confront every peril, with the wisdom of survival encoded in genes, volitions guided by intelligence, thwarting vagaries of contingence. But to an ecologist, such freedom remains axiomatically entangled in a web of relationships. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” wrote John Muir famously.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought this home: humans are a part of nature, even if as people—imbued with culture, cloaked by modernity, amped by technology—we imagine we rise apart from nature. It just took a tiny virion, 100 nanometres in diameter, a hundredth the size of a pollen grain, to shake the planet. No Trump, no Bolsanaro, no Modi, no Putin comes even close—in a tenebrous way that is strangely reassuring, too. Our freedoms remain vulnerable to intersecting crises worldwide: the climate emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic, the sixth extinction, and the assault on democracy. Each breath we take is our own, but the air we breathe is from a shared atmosphere. Individual freedoms depend irrevocably on collective actions.

For me, the forced distancing from parents, relatives, and friends, and inability to travel have been the most unbearable curbs on freedom. It deepened how I valued my relationships and my travel. Being alive, I also realised I am among the fortunate ones.

This short piece appeared in the Economic Times today, 15 August 2021, on the occasion of India’s 75th Independence Day.

India’s Revenant Forests

Leonardo DiCaprio may have a lesson or two for India’s ministry of environment, forest and climate change. The Hollywood actor, as protagonist of a 2015 Oscar-winning blockbuster, plays a character who is ­att­acked, gravely wounded and left for dead, but who nevertheless recovers to live on as The Revenant of the film’s title. Now, ­imagine a Bollywood version: with an actor like Naseeruddin Shah in DiCaprio’s role, acting alongside co-stars like Ratna Pathak, Nandita Das, Rajkummar Rao and other ­talented artistes playing complex ­character roles. And imagine now that Shah plays a character who is beaten, mortally wounded and left for dead, but comes back to life. Except, in this Indian version, it is not the wounded and recovering Shah himself, but someone altogether different: say, a Salman Khan or an Akshay Kumar who ­returns with Kangana Ranaut in tow, both hero and ­heroine predictably hogging almost every scene. Would the latter character, ­co-stars and film still be a revenant representative and worthy of the original? Or would it just be a completely artificial ­replacement, ­bearing no res­emblance to the original in ­appearance, artistry or talent?

India’s environment ministry appears to fav­our the latter form of transformation if we go by recent trends affecting India’s forests and other natural ecosystems. Take, for instance, the plans to bring so-called development to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (A&N), which involve destruction of about 20,000 hectares of forest. The A&N forests are ecologically unique and rich in biodiversity, with a large number of species, many of which are endemic and found now­here else in the world. To offset the kind of damage that will result from such projects, India has a system of compensatory afforestation that involves regrowing an equivalent area of forests in non-forest land or double the area in degraded forest land. The compensatory afforestation planned for A&N inv­olves about Rs 1,480 crore to reg­row forests in…wait for it…Madhya Pradesh!

For the destruction of biologically rich forests such as these in the Andaman Islands, the compensatory afforestation will be carried out in Madhya Pradesh!

Thus, biologically rich forests will be ­des­troyed in a unique island ecosystem and a false replacement—probably using just two or three totally inappropriate species not native to either ecosystem—will be ­created over 2,000 km away in the middle of India in a totally different bio-climatic zone. Instead of the beautiful performances and uplifting music in the original movie, we will be treated to the usual tired masala and inevitable item number in the replacement.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of India’s compensatory afforestation programme, helmed by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority or CAMPA. The CAMPA programme is founded on the belief that natural forests and other ecosystems can be severely damaged or destroyed in one place and then regrown elsewhere using money shelled out by those implementing the destructive projects. In 2018, a fund of Rs 66,000 crore had accrued over the previous decade from payments for forest destruction in the belief that the ­des­troyed forests can be ‘compensated’. In August 2018, the Central Government ­notified rules under the 2016 Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act to unlock these funds ostensibly for this purpose.

The compensatory afforestation law is now channeling a huge pot of money for aff­orestation through state bureaucracies and private parties and businesses. But it is a fat­ally flawed programme suffering from at least four major problems: planting trees in the wrong places (including grasslands, wetlands and deserts), planting the wrong tree species in forests, planting just one or a handful of tree species, and planting in lands of local and indigenous people without their consent and involvement. Almost all compensatory afforestation involves one to all of the above damaging practices.

Monoculture tree plantations are not forests: A panorama shot of a teak (Tectona grandis) plantation (Left) and moist-deciduous forest (Right) in a protected area in Karnataka, India. Photo by: Anand Osuri, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Compensatory afforestation in principle and practice is regressive, but it is now a programme with deep pockets and a greatly enlarged potential for wreaking more ­damage to India’s forestlands and non-­forest community lands and commons. It needs to be urgently replaced by an appro­ach that recognises the importance of ­retaining all existing natural and undisturbed forests, protecting non-forest ecosystems such as deserts, grasslands and savannahs from ill-advised tree planting, and reviving the roles and rights of local communities and gram sabhas. Where ­forests have been alr­eady degraded or des­troyed, there is a need to change focus from ‘afforestation’ to ‘ecological restoration’.

Ecological restoration has been defined as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed”. Key to this is the concept of (‘assisting’) natural processes of recovery rather than installing by brute force a replica or replacement ecosystem. It involves working with nature rather than against nature. Restoration involves bringing back the original ecosystem—not just forests, but also sav­annas, grasslands, wetlands or deserts. Restoration requires careful attention to landscape, the right species mix, and appropriate methods that minimise further disturbance, foster natural recovery, and employ ecologically informed interventions.

Ecological restoration fosters recovery of diverse species native to specific ecosystems by working with nature.

Restoration allows the recovery of species native to local ecosystems at a site-specific level, not forcible planting of saplings from some bundled list of species blindly applied to entire states or regions. It would also req­uire stripping away the bureaucratic obsession with infrastructure creation and concretisation (check dams, trenches, waterholes and such), and replace it instead with minimising alterations to landscape and terrain to nurture a greater degree of naturalness. It mandates a close focus on natural vegetation types and how much of each type remains and in what condition, rather than on generic measures of green cover, forest cover, tree cover or density classes that is the present obsession of the forest bureaucracy. Finally, ecological restoration offers an ­opp­ortunity to empower local communities and stakeholders as participants, because local people are far more knowledgeable and intimately connected to nature than the ­forest bureaucracy, external contractors or private sector plantations will ever be.

Still, the larger question remains: can an ecosystem such as a river or a forest—once damaged by destructive development, ­def­orestation or pollution—be helped to ­rec­over to its original state or some reasonable approximation of it? Can the diverse set of native species, the unruly, wild character of the original ‘jungle’ or river or grassland be brought back? Contemporary research ­suggests this can happen only partially, and only when ecological restoration is carried out with a great deal of care and effort. And that is an additional reason to be far more cautious than we are at present with how we treat and manage the little that is left of India’s forests, rivers and other natural ecosystems.

This article first appeared in Outlook Magazine on 14 June 2021.

The Animacy of Language

My book review in Biblio (Apr – Jun 2021) of Wild and Wilful: Tales of 15 Iconic Indian Species by Neha Sinha (Harper Collins Publishers India, 2021, 232 pp., Rs 599, ISBN 978-93-5357-829-9).

Engaged, urgent and political writing rarely achieves the cadence, structure and pace one expects from literary works of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction. The immediate tends to trump the timeless, the critique of outside power overcomes any reflection of inner self, and the plot is forced along by an agenda rather than the wilfulness of its characters. It is a challenge for a writer to resist the opposing pulls and find equipoise apt for the work. Neha Sinha’s Wild and Wilful, a welcome addition to literature on the natural world, walks that tightrope with grace. Her writing balances the urgency of conservation in a battered world against life in the slow lane. It tempers criticism of the powers-that-be and how humans affect nature with reflections on her own vulnerability and how nature affects each one of us. It calls for a renewal of a more humane and sensitive relationship with nature while foregrounding the characters – 15 species from elephants and starlings to butterflies and crocodiles – each portrayed in all their wildness and wilfulness.

The Introductory chapter outlines how the book is organised in four parts – Earth, Sky, Water and Heart – each holding its own cast of characters of “the wild that walks alongside us and through the pages of our neat, daily lives”. As the author explains,

Under Land, we have political capitals, the deserts, woodlands and forest. Under Sky, we have birds and butterflies that spend days migrating between countries or states. Under Water, we have ponds and rivers. Under Heart, we have urban jungles, the places many of us live in, and the places where we lose and find ourselves in repeatedly.

The first two chapters focus on Leopards and Rhesus Macaques, two familiar species found even in urban areas, highlighting the challenges of coexistence with people. From there, the author segues into the Thar desert, the last stronghold of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, threatened now by solar farms and powerlines, and then across the country into Arunachal Pradesh where the White-bellied Heron and Black-necked Crane face equally serious threats from hydroelectric projects. More well known are the species she profiles in the next three chapters: the King Cobra and Cobra, the Asian Elephant, and the Tiger. The ‘Sky’ chapters focus on migratory Tiger Butterflies and Amur Falcons, while the ‘Water’ chapters dive into the lives of the Gangetic Dolphins and Mugger Crocodiles. The final ‘Heart’ chapter, set amidst the gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic, flutters alive with Rosy Starlings on silk cotton trees abloom.

Each chapter braids evocative descriptions of species and landscapes with accounts of the many thoughtless or deliberately destructive human actions warping the relationships between humans and wild species. The caged leopard has “a liquid effortlessness that could only come from true strength…poised even in its panic” writes Sinha in an opening passage that appears to take you into the mind of the terrified leopard and the anguish of the author bearing witness. Describing the leopards that appeared in Delhi and the ones that live in Mumbai, those that saunter through the campus of the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, and those roaming across wildlife reserves, farms and towns, Sinha paints a grim portrait. The leopard is beautiful yet inconvenient, a pest “like a cockroach” to be eliminated rather than appreciated and accommodated.

The author’s descriptions of the species she writes about bring them alive as beings with character and agency. The butterfly seems “made of sunrays carrying dust, coming into existence simply because we wished for colour to float around our faces”. The elephant “…is large, it is nearly soundless. Its huge feet are whispers in the wind, like songs people don’t sing as they work hard raising paddy”. The statuesque White-bellied Heron “is the very image of montane wilderness — a secretive bird with all the coiled energy of something that is living but appears like it is made of stone, almost like the mountain itself ”. The eye of the crocodile “is an ancient eye, a jewel eye, a dinosaur eye”. As Sinha informs us, “There is a whole bouquet of characters in the forest; you just have to learn to know them.”

The personhood of animals evident from their intimate portrayals is not difficult to appreciate. In the chapter on elephants, the author notes how people of the Toda community perceive animals “like people…they are a who, not a what”. For the villagers living alongside mugger crocodiles in village ponds of Kotmi Sonar in Chhattisgarh, the reptiles are their crocodiles that they lived alongside with an “easy, deeply felt understanding”. The touching story of the 75-year-old Bababji, who lost his hand to a crocodile, yet treats them as his wards and protects them is testimony to this felt affinity and appreciation for other living beings. Writing of Gond tribals in the central Indian forests and their remarkable knowledge of the native trees, Sinha notes, “Where we see trees, the Gonds see characters and old friends.…trees like people…” Later, in writing about dolphins and the proposal for their capture for use in entertainment in dolphinariums, Sinha notes how even the authorities are beginning to find this morally unacceptable and consider dolphins as sentient, non-human persons. And yet, if there was one thing that was disappointing in getting to know the book’s wild and wilful beings, it was that the author, with few exceptions, uses the impersonal pronoun it to refer to them, in language suggestive of a what, not a who.

This is not a trivial concern in writing about the natural world. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her fine essay “Speaking of Nature” in Orion magazine (March/April 2017)1:

…I think the most profound act of linguistic imperialism was the replacement of a language of animacy with one of objectification of nature, which renders the beloved land as lifeless object, the forest as board feet of timber. Because we speak and live with this language every day, our minds have also been colonized by this notion that the nonhuman living world and the world of inanimate objects have equal status. Bulldozers, buttons, berries, and butterflies are all referred to as it, as things, whether they are inanimate industrial products or living beings.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Orion, “Speaking of Nature”

Kimmerer goes on to call for restoring the grammar of animacy that is often part of indigenous traditions to the English we use in writing and speaking about the natural world, even suggesting inventing new pronouns for the purpose. Wild and Wilful certainly does not render land as lifeless object or forests as purely utilitarian. Yet, if there ever was a book of nature writing in India that could have adopted a grammar of animacy and been even better for it, it is Wild and Wilful.

Besides giving voice to the plight of animals, the book also features other voices. Like the voices of conservationists trying to save the Great Indian Bustard from extinction or opposing the ill-planned removal of leopards and macaques to foster informed coexistence instead. There are voices of tribals and villagers who retain deeper connections with land and other living creatures. And, perhaps uniquely among popular books on Indian wildlife, the voices of women living in forests alongside tigers. Readers of the book are drawn into the world and worldviews encapsulated by these voices. Often, the author also directly addresses the reader, ‘you’, stepping in with an inclusive ‘we’ or ‘us’ as if for a collective arm-around-the-shoulders conversation:

If you encounter a wild animal, you are not in its company. Rather, you survive by the grace of the animal. Most wildlife is swifter, toothier and stronger than us. …We survive because the animal decides to let us be.

The prose is fluid and well-paced, engaging, even revelatory at times, making you want to stay to be part of this conversation. Sinha’s writing is unlike that of the “lone, enraptured male” of the genre2, and is more akin to the thoughtful and evocative work of writers like Terry Tempest Williams or Rebecca Solnit. As a regular columnist and a conservationist herself, Neha Sinha has directly engaged in most of the conservation issues she writes about, making for a more authentic and compelling narrative.

Beautiful profile photographs of the main animal protagonists accompany each chapter, not to mention the wonderful cover photograph of elephants. The book has few errors or typos and only the rare misstep in prose. The host plant of the tiger butterfly is Calotropis not ‘Caloptris’ (p 154, 156); Chhattisgarh hardly connects the Eastern and Western Ghats, or the Chota Nagpur Plateau to the Himalaya (p 149), and the White-bellied Heron does not sit on boulders (p 58) as much as stand on them. These hardly take away from the pleasure of reading: some chapters alone make the book worth buying. This fine book deserves to be read by everyone interested in nature or conservation or good writing on the natural world.

In the end, Wild and Wilful evokes a better understanding of the vulnerability of these animals to the many forces impinging on their lives and survival: trees and tigers and elephants at the mercy of roads and speeding vehicles and railway lines; bustards and flamingos killed by powerlines mushrooming across Western India from so-called green energy projects; attitudes that treat wildlife as the other, the nuisance; the deadening of rivers behind dams and dredged waterways and the deafening of dolphins by underwater noise from boat traffic, and more. But that is not all. Wild and Wilful brings home a more salient message: that the loss of the wild will be a great loss to our own lives and spirits too.

REFERENCES

  1. Robin Wall Kimmerer: “Speaking of Nature: Finding language that affirms our kinship with the natural world”, Orion, March/April 2017, pp 14-27. https://orionmagazine.org/article/speaking-of-nature/.
  2. Kathleen Jamie: “A Lone Enraptured Male”, London Review of Books, Vol. 30, No. 5, 6 March 2008. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v30/n05/kathleen-jamie/a-lone-enraptured-male.