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.
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.
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.
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 essay owes inspiration to Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), a powerful commentary set in Antigua, on tourism and colonialism and the lived contradictions of travelers and citizens.
February 26, 2020. If you go to Corbett as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you arrive by airplane at New Delhi, the glossy artificiality of the Indira Gandhi International airport will assail you. (Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, four times, and you may wonder whether she would have wanted an airport named after her, rather than a National Park, say, like the one named after a white man, Jim Corbett—your destination.) If you come by train, it is the grime and the smells and the city’s exhaled air that will accost you. You will step out of airport or station into the great old city snug in its world-famous smog, made infamous now by the smoke pluming into the skies, swirling black from homes and mosques, from fires lit and riots raged in the city’s northeast.
And you will want to leave it behind, soon, taking your bus or taxi on the roads and highways leading east out of the city. Your vehicle’s tyres churn the miles and the Lutyens bungalows and gardens, the old fort and India Gate, the tree-lined avenues, the markets and condos, and the broad highways looped with flyovers fall behind, and the throng of suburbs and the sprawl of conurbations pass, with fewer trees now and more buildings and more people and vehicles and you pass them without looking back, with only a sideways glance, for you are looking ahead all the time—to the promise of Corbett, to forests and grasslands and elephants and tigers—always tigers—to places not like this city where the houses and the mosques burn not too far to the north, where the cops may beat you and force you to sing the national anthem, where a politician of the party supposed to govern the nation can incite men to mobs to violence and the honorable courts can find it in their wisdom to look away… There is no looking back at a place that is only looking back to a time and a world and a blinkered idea of that world that should have been left all the way back there in the first place.
There is only one place, just one, where your glance is directed upward—above a hill, a seething tenebrous hill over which a great swirling mass of five thousand black kites mills and turns under a dour, smoke-stained sky devoid of blue. A hill of garbage, a great mound of filth rotting, rising daily with the offal of Delhi, a hill taller than the buildings, the roads, the overhead metro lines, and the thought strikes you that the Parliament in Delhi, the President’s home in Delhi, are on hills, too.
You are glad to pass, now, through the countryside, seeing the farms and dhabas, the winter-stricken trees, the sin-burdened Ganges, the low mist forming over the fields of mustard and wheat in the distance, even the fire burning in the sugarcane fields. This fire is just a fire, the smoke just smoke, the match that lit it just the match of a solitary farmer tending his field along a road that leads away from the city you, the tourist, can afford to leave behind.
Hours pass. It is evening. The sky darkens with cloud. Your vehicle leaves the open plains and the town of Ramnagar behind and climbs into the foothills. The vehicle swerves and slews up the curves, the headlights swinging a misty beam speckled with gold glints of falling rain. The forest is dark, rendered under purpled skies in sudden chiaroscuro by a great unseen flash. You feel the crash, when it comes, in the pit of your stomach, in the percussion in your chest, in the shudder of the vehicle. The vehicle does not stop, it hardly even slows, the frantic wipers clearing just enough of a view to keep going.
You keep going, past the roadside sign that warns Elephants Crossing Zone Go Slow but the driver does not slow, past the long string of resorts and hotels in the middle of the forest, each signboard flashing past advertising luxury with adventure in Corbett—in the dark forest split by them on either side of the road.
The rain abates. A chill descends. The driver says he will not return to Delhi tonight. The mussalman log have created a mess, he says. You do not want to confront him with the news you were just reading on your phone that it is the mosques that are burning—you are here as a tourist after all, and this man will go and you will never see him again and how can you be sure and who knows what news is true and what fake and what is the point of arguing anyway. The driver will stay tonight at Ramnagar, where a man with a name like his can be safe.
As for you—you will not stay at a lodge or hotel. They are too tasteless for you, perhaps, or you want to be the conscientious traveler, you who like to think you tread light. You stay at a home-stay-like place run by a couple, friends of friends. The proprietors love wildlife, believe in a different form of tourism. Beside the glitzy lights and walled-off, power-fenced compound of a nearby resort, their place is quiet, dark, full of trees, with paths that even a wild elephant may walk on. The modest, tasteful surrounds, named for a bird of the mountain rivers, becalms you. Tucked under thick blankets, you fall asleep to the soft hoots of owls. Tomorrow you will enter Corbett.
If you go to Corbett as a tourist—and now you are actually there—you will enter the National Park through one of the gates, say the Dhangarhi Gate, which looks like the entrance to a fortress. You will submit the permit and the reservations you had already obtained to the forest guards and show your ID cards and those of your partner and your friend and you will wait at the gate to enter at the designated time in the morning (10 a.m.) in your designated vehicle, for you understand that the park cannot remain open to just anyone, to curious wayfarers, itinerant traders, anonymous riffraff, the Gujjar herders who used to graze their buffaloes here not too long ago, the people who used to live in one of the four villages located here not too long ago, the random photographers, the foreigners or citizens—the nation’s capital you left behind is still confused about who is who in those latter categories anyway—no, you convince yourself that it can’t be just anybody who enters this National Park that belongs to everyone and yet no one. So you wait.
Finally, the gate opens and the two waiting vehicles in front of you—one a small bus full of excited, uniformed schoolchildren in coats and ties, the other a jeep with tourists like you—rev their engines and zoom ahead. Then the guard at the fortress-gate waves you through and you are overjoyed. Your real journey begins now. Or seems to. You are so happy that the guard waved you in, you want to go beaming into his little room behind the small window by the gate and pump his hand in gratitude.
You are happy to be on your way—you are happy that you are cruising in an open-top, 4-wheel-drive Gypsy with modified seats on which the three of you can sit facing forward, you are happy to see the sal trees with corrugated bark and bright, rain-washed leaves, you are happy at the pleasant morning, cloudy with a hint of sun, you are happy to listen to the conversation in Hindi between JP, your soft-spoken naturalist guide from Ramnagar, and the driver Harinder, you are happy that the latter has been thoughtful to fill just a tad less air in the rear tyres to make a more comfortable ride in the Gypsy, you are happy at the narrow unpaved, unsealed forest road where you have to drive so slowly that the basking snakes and lizards can escape the tyres, you are happy to glimpse the sparkling river and the rounded boulders in white, grey, and pastel colours jumbled along the raus feeding into it—you are happy happy happy.
The road swings along a rau and you see a flicker of birds in the trees and stop. Half a dozen large woodshrikes—plumaged in greys and browns, a streak as of thick mascara through their eyes—chatter and flit from branch to leaf expertly harvesting caterpillars that you didn’t even know were there. They keep company with a dark-winged and dark-hooded maroon oriole whose eyes gleam bright, whose voice screeches out to his mate across the forest. A small flock of Indian white-eyes, cheeping softly and probing the flowers, rides the bird wave as it sweeps tree to tree. And you can watch them and wonder how here in Corbett like elsewhere in India—save yesterday’s rioting city—birds of many-a-feather can flock together, too.
You can take your time, now that you are past the gate, watch the eagle quartering over the canopy, the woodpeckers hammering on tree trunks, the blackbird perched in the shrubs, the mugger crocodile placid by the river viewed from High Bank—one of the few spots where you can get off your vehicle, stretch your legs, put your feet on the earth, take in a view of the mountains, the forests, the unsullied river below. Take a few selfies, too, if you must.
Onward again and you near your destination and the road takes an older, grander feel with sal trees rising, curving, vaulting the road, and you feel like you are entering a cathedral, a grand hall of pillars in a place of worship, sensing perhaps if you pause a bit that it is this ambience, this kinship with and among the trees in a forest that those places of worship are trying to evoke. By the side of that vaulted, famous road, a nonchalant muntjac, impervious to fame, indifferent to worship, grazes and fades into the forest as your vehicle clatters past. You click and click trying to capture the deer, the trees, the grand avenue of this grand National Park, but you’ve captured nothing. The deer and the trees are still there. They are still there as you pass, eyes on the road to Dhikala.
The forest breaks suddenly into a large expanse of grassland. This is the famous Dhikala chaur you’ve heard so much about, admired so many photos of on Facebook, surely, and seen plastered across the pages of travel magazines and tour pamphlets promising adventures, thrilling experiences, close encounters with wildlife—yes, this is that famous place, that unparalleled Indian wilderness you’ve always wanted to visit and you see the row of buildings ahead hiding in the open behind charged fences and gates and that is where your rooms are in the new Forest Rest House (FRH) not far from the old FRH and you take it all in as your jeep rattles along, the grassland, the buildings, the line of trees along a dip in the land that promises a Himalayan river but is not a river that flows and is actually a reservoir—yet it is the river, the grassland, the forest, the elephants and the tigers—always tigers—that you will choose to identify with this famous place.
You have arrived. There you are deep in the Indian wilds, in the most famous spot in this famous Park named after Jim Corbett, the famous wilderness writer—a long dead white hunter with a rare affinity to the India under the Raj, a writer whose books still fly off the shelves especially the ones he wrote about man-eating leopards and tigers—always tigers—and how he shot them and saved the lives of natives, a writer whose bust, a slightly misshapen bust under a tent-like shelter, faces every single visitor who enters through the Dhangarhi gate, a writer and sahib still remembered by some of the older mountain folk, a shikari who was a white hunter but also wasn’t really one, a man followed later by many who aspired to be white hunters of a sort, but weren’t really.
Check-in. You are happy that in this famous place, this Indian wilderness, you have clean, newly-furbished rooms with electricity and a large clean toilet and piping hot water and a room boy who promises you bed tea the next morning at 6 a.m., a porter who will haul your luggage upstairs from the jeep and not ask you for money because he knows, just looking at you, how you must be a good person, a fortunate, privileged person to have arrived in this famous place and that happy as you are to be here, you will doubtless give him a good tip. You are the guest, after all, you reserved the room with your money, and he is here only to serve. You settle down in the room, pull the curtains aside, take in a view of the trees, maybe even open the glass windows to let in some of the air and the bird calls and peer contentedly at the beautiful welcoming world through the mesh that keeps the not-so-beautiful, not-so-welcome world of flies and mosquitoes and macaques out—out where they belong. This is your room. The view framed by the window is your view. You can take photos to remember it by.
Shoot the tigers—always tigers. There is dawn talk. A tiger, Paro, with her two grown cubs, is about, goes the buzz, spreading from jeep to idling jeep behind the closed gates, the drivers alert, their eyes on the forest officer who has brought a chair out and a mobile phone to check the time and make sure no one leaves for the safari until the exact designated moment. He checks the time. He picks his teeth. He checks again. He raises a hand. The gates swing open. The tyres spin, kicking dust. The convoy of jeeps zooms ahead, carrying their jacketed and blanketed loads of camera-burdened tourists, you among them, and before you know it, you are cruising along the river, heading into sal forests where there is a good chance of catching a glimpse of Paro.
Alarm calls of chital. Harinder kills the engine and you wait. You are glad that there are only six other jeeps waiting here for the tiger who is somewhere in the forest, up the slope, away from the trees whose canopies are festooned with a garland of langurs but you have little time for them because you cannot miss your only glimpse of the striped cat in the bushes. But the cat does not show.
You are now before a grassland. A mesmeric sweep of waist-high and knee-high grass spreading away, away till where, you have no idea, it could spread all the way cleaving past the Himalaya to Tibet and Mongolia and beyond for all that you or the Siberian stonechat sitting on the bent spear of a grass blade know. The grassland is sliced by safari roads and the hunters, you among them now, sit in the jeeps, triggers cocked, to shoot the tiger if she crosses, to collect her head and her beautiful striped skin and pin them up, later, on your digital walls. But the cat does not show.
You now have a view of the river. A braid of grass and smooth boulders and land, shining and sparkling in evening light, topped by the flame of a tall silk cotton tree abloom on which a Pallas’s fish-eagle sits, his eye absorbing the landscape and the waters and the life beneath the waters with a level of detail and discernment you can only aspire to. The tiger and her cubs had walked across this braid of land and water. Someone had seen them less than an hour ago. And so you scan and scan with your binoculars and telescope, past the eagle and the sambar doe with her fawn grazing by the river, past the turtle and cormorants and gharial basking on the banks, past the black-winged kite and crested kingfishers stalled as if by an invisible hand in mid-air, wings aflutter, one over the grass the other over the water seeking their suppers, past them all to where the river takes a bend and disappears, onto the Ganges, into the ocean and who knows where else. But the tiger does not show.
The tiger does show, to someone else. Someone who is ready with their cameras just at the moment when Paro is licking her paws reclining on the ground as her cubs rise on their hind legs, face each other, and swat playfully at each other in a sparring match in full view and good light, captured in a series of hundreds of photos, one of which has already been uploaded, shared, captioned, liked, commented, praised and plussed, bounced and rebounced, phone to laptop to tablet, until it pings in your own phone, in whatever you feed on, the virus arrived at your door, and you look at it, nonplussed, saying how did I miss that.
It is time to leave. You pack your bags as the world is shutting down because someone far away shot or killed an animal they shouldn’t have, because they had caught more than just the animal, and because now a person’s cough in Wuhan, China, can reverberate around the world.
One virus put out by the man in the next room, a photograph flitting from server to server around the world before arriving in your hand, received eagerly in your phone, and another virus out there that you will have to evade all the way back home and learn to keep avoiding. You are glad to see the porter and room boy when they come to help carry your heavy luggage down the stairs to the waiting jeep. As the jeep departs, they watch you leave and you realise you do not know their names and the thought strikes you that you are leaving while they will stay on, and that all the while they have had the better reason to be there in this famous place, earning a livelihood assisting people unknown to them and it is you, ultimately, who will remain forever anonymous.
Time rolls the forests and grasslands past, under your wheels, and the grim visage of Corbett’s bust watches you exit the gates of his park. You have had your happy moment, but it seems to be already receding there behind the closing gates, and ahead is Delhi, city of strife, city of pollution, city of pain. Corbett, Delhi, home. Yet, there is something you can take with you: something that arrives as a wisp of elation. In a moment of reflection and clarity you see what you came to Corbett to see. And what you remember and what you forget do not just happen to you but are of your choice.
Like a deep gash from shoulder to chest, the Great Rift Valley plunges into the heart of Africa. In the landscape to the west, below a clouded sky, a Marabou soars above everything—vast plateaux with weaving rivers, steep-sided valleys spotted with shimmering soda lakes, and a landscape peppered with cities and settlements, farms and savanna. Standing on a little promontory, we do not feel disadvantaged by the Marabou; from horizon to horizon the sweeping view is nearly as much as the soaring stork may see.
There is the endless tawny gold of dry grass, flecked with emerging green, and studded with Balanites trees like dark poster-pins on a golden velvet. Extending to the grey-blue of distant hills is the grey-brown fuzz of thorny acacia and candelabra trees alternating with stream-side ribbons of deep green forest.
There is the ringed boma, from where clusters of cattle radiate, bells ringing, watched by red-cloaked Masai. By the muddied river is the tinsel tourist town with large-wheeled vehicles and workshops, decrepit streets and shanty houses, signboards of luxurious resorts pointing beguilingly away from the squalor where blank-eyed youth stare impassively at wide-eyed visitors who have traveled far to be here. And there, in the distance, is the long, dark line of several thousand wildebeest.
The wildebeest are hunkered down on the long walk. The rough grass is knee-high to the front-runner. As thousands of hoofs pass, press, push apart and down, tear and crush, the grass is flattened, shredded, crushed into the earth or dusted aside, until, at the end of the line, one can see hoof marks on the thin strip of naked earth winding through the grassland. The trail of the wildebeest will stay for a few days or weeks until the grass covers it again—a soft mark on the landscape, unlike the road-scars made for vehicles and the traveling people.
By all accounts, this is an old, old human landscape. Humans evolved, as a species, from other primate forebears, not far from here. In the last two million years, and in the geological blink of the last ten thousand, the species spawned by this land has spread out, transforming themselves and the Earth. Today, the new peoples return to the land where others of their ilk like the Masai still live. They arrive as spectators of the great migration of wildebeest.
Across over 30,000 square kilometres of the Serengeti – Mara ecosystem in Tanzania and Kenya, over a million wildebeest join over half a million zebra, gazelle, and other ungulates on the annual migration. Early in the year, the journey of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest begins, too, with their birth near the ‘cradle of humanity’ in the grasslands near Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti and in Ngorongoro. Then, as the dry season arrives and grasses begin to dry, the herds move, past feeding and mating grounds, to the north and north-east, to arrive, by June and July, in Kenya’s Masai Mara.
And there they find both profusion in the grass and peril at the jaws of lions.
Drama of renewal
At the Mara River in Kenya, the wildebeest throng at the water’s edge, bleating and pulsing with purpose at the perilous crossing, eyes alert for the wraith-like crocodiles in the swift current.
In their great journey, the perils of the crossing appear momentary, but many do not make it across. Those that do, spend the next four months in the Mara landscape, feeding in long grass woodland and savanna.
Still, the real drama is not merely in the pulse and throng of the Mara crossing. The flecks of green in humble grass, energised by sun and rain, are the markers of a greater drama played out across vast space and time.
Low clouds streaking grey shafts of rain are visible from many kilometres away in the open savanna, but the migration is provoked by changes across even longer distances. The wildebeest, incredibly, seem to track that vast sweep of rainfall and grass production. For, as rains bring lush growth to the short grass plains to the south, the ensuing pulse of nutritional profusion propels the wildebeest to loop back to the Serengeti plains.
And so, the wildebeest move. And with their bodies, their feeding, and their dung, they transform the grasslands in their passing. Scripted by evolution and directed by ecology, and spanning hundreds of kilometres every year, the annual migration of these hoofed engineers of a great landscape is one of nature’s most remarkable phenomena.
Spectator or spawn?
And so the people watch, at the Mara River, crowded in four-wheel drive safari vehicles, vans, and trucks. Here, nature is placed on display for the tourist. Vehicles rev and vie for the best spot for their customer to take that perfect photograph.
Later, they will discuss their ‘take’ at the river’s edge, over tables set with white sheets, served French-press coffee and fresh croissants by white-gloved waiters from the resort. The hippos and crocodiles pursue ancient custom in the river, as the riverside tourist, a human whose journey originated in the great landscape of Africa, is back to ogle or ignore at will, and return to the power-fenced resorts beautified with manicured lawns and ornamental plants from faraway lands.
This is the human domain, it all proclaims, and nature is out there.
And when the people depart, taking photographs and memories, nature is left behind, as are the leavings of their visit. As just another species born of this landscape, the human does not seem out of place here, but his new presence and manner betrays a different sensibility.
Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.
The journey of the human, set against the journey of the wildebeest in the land of Marabou and Masai, then evokes another sense. A sense, paraphrasing the poet Gary Snyder, that nature is not a place to visit—it is home. And of this land, we are the spawn not the spectator. That what is needed to replace people within nature is not the bringing of more people and vehicles into trackless wilderness, but a realisation, espoused by thinkers such as Aldo Leopold, that nature is the land and community to which we belong. In the absence of such a sense of place, the great rift then appears not just a gash in the earth in Africa, but a rift that threatens to sunder human from nature in our hearts and minds.
(Photographs by Divya Mudappa and T. R. Shankar Raman)
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Dr. K. Sreelalitha
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Arun Prasad Varma
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