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.
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!
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.
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.
1. Wake up and smell the coffee. No, not the coffee brewing in your percolator or stove-top at home, this coffee has not been a bean yet. Far sweeter, heady, finer than jasmine, it suffuses the air all around, seeps into your lungs inside, bathes you in fragrance outside. It emerges, imperceptibly, from millions of soft, white-petaled flowers packed along the branches of waist-high bushes ranging all around you under the shade of rainforest trees. A week earlier and you would have barely seen the waiting green buds clustered at leaf axils, a week later and the spent blooms would have wilted away. You arrive on exactly the right morning, a week after the first rains of summer, at the tropical coffee plantation in glorious, copious, synchronous bloom.
2. Listen to the morning buzz. No, this is not the artificial twitter of virtual voices flickering out of your phone or computer screens. This is the real thing: the morning chorus of birds carrying the sibilant twitter of sunbirds and white-eyes, alongside the clarion clang of racket-tailed drongos, the rhythmic metronome of barbets, and the raucous cries of great hornbills. All around sounds the delicate, pervasive hum of pollinating bees—small stingless bees, striped honey bees, giant rock bees—all living up to their clade name, anthophila, the flower lovers. Dip into the flower, sip the nectar, shrink and become the bee.
3. Share and savour a bole of fruit. The jackfruit, like disfigured, spiky footballs, hang heavy from the knobbly bole of the shade tree. A macaque has eaten a monkey’s mouthful out of one, revealing oozy white latex and pulpy yellow innards. Now, the leaves shiver behind a leaping red-black blur. Cream-faced, tuft-eared, bushy-tailed, the giant squirrel soft-lands on branch, scurries to bole. Hanging by his hind feet, he pulls a marble-sized seed wrapped in pulpy flesh to his mouth. Later the fruit could fall or be yanked down by a hungry elephant. Take a bite yourself. Savour the fruit of giants.
4. Eyeball the headlines. Look up the news: for instance, about yesterday’s gathering of eminent area residents at the annual jack feast. Parallel furrows on tree bark show Sambar had stripped off a snack, just before Elephant came by after her mud bath and rubbed herself on the trunk. By night, Civet came for the rainforest fruit platter, placed a seed-studded scat on a rock as his mark of approval. Porcupine left a quill behind, unexplained. You can only surmise what the writers on this landscape are up to, or mean, by the marks they leave behind.
5. Clean up after. A tiny bird, small enough to hold in your fist, shows you how. The flowerpecker flits above among the mistletoes adorning tree branches like Christmas decorations. With his beak, the bird pinches the mistletoe fruit, sticky to touch, to pop the seed and wipe it off on a twig. Or he swallows it and will later have to wipe the goopy seed off his butt on a twig where the seed will grow into a future mistletoe. Biologists call this directed dispersal, but there’s something even more admirable in what the little fella does that you could emulate: don’t just wipe stuff off, regenerate what you consume.
6. Read the coffee grounds. Open all your senses, sip your brew now: imbibe a little of the land of elephant and hornbill and civet in India, or the land of tamandua and toucan and coati in Costa Rica, or whichever tropical place made your coffee. (You didn’t think you made it yourself, did you?) Look in the cup, imagine a future where you will cherish and feel connected to lives and lands so impossibly wonderful wherever they are.
From a boat on Assam’s Deepor Beel—the freshwater lake lying south-west of Guwahati, the largest city in India’s northeast—you can look east past thousands of waterbirds and a carpet of floating leaves to see the city’s seething, smoking garbage dump. Under spotless blue skies, a thin brown haze blankets the lake from fringing forest to quarried hillock, from skirting township to the Boragaon dumpyard. As another dump truck lurches to a halt and tips its load of filth over, an unruly mob of Black Kites and a cloud of dark mynas explode from the murky earth flapping like pieces of tattered cloth caught in a gust. The truck deposits another mound of unsegregated waste—a fraction of the more than 600 tons generated daily from the city of nearly a million people—all plastic and putrefaction, chicken heads and pigs entrails, street dirt and kitchen waste, broken glass and soiled cloth, bulbs and batteries and wires and electronics and metal and paper and more. Beside the truck waits a line of people: women, adolescents, and children. And behind them, a phalanx of Greater Adjutant storks—tall, ungainly birds with dagger-like beaks and naked yellow and pink necks—awaits its turn.
…Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have Before he can hear people cry? Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows That too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Two essays of mine based on field experiences in the island of Madagascar appeared recently. In these, I write about lemurs, tourism, conservation, and restoration of rainforests in the island. Here are a couple of teaser extracts and links to the essays.
From ‘Madagascar, Through the Looking Glass’ that appeared in EarthLines in March:
Where are the other trees in the countryside, he wonders? They see only a single palm tree during the drive and stop to photograph it. A few mango trees, Chinese guava, and that is all. Everything else is eucalyptus or wattle or pine. He feels something deep and significant is missing but cannot put his finger on it. Is it the absence of the great forests and other trees that were here once? The missing lemurs, even the giants, and the birds, like the elephant bird Aepyornis maximus – the mythical roc? Is it them? Were they even here, a millenium, two millenia ago? What was here then? He does not know. Does anybody know, he wonders. There appears no trace, no trace at all that he can see or sense, no memory of the past, of life before loss. He has never before seen an entire landscape that has lost its memory.
From ‘The Call of the Indri’ appearing in this month’s issue of Fountain Ink:
The smallest primate in the world is a lemur. At 30 grams, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur is just a tad heavier than a sparrow. Imagine a miniature tennis ball, covered in a soft pelt of brown and cinnamon and creamy white, which has sprouted delicate limbs and clasping hands, a long furry tail, and a little head that turns to look at you through large, lustrous eyes. Like all other lemurs—including the iconic ring-tailed lemur, the aye-aye and sifakas, dwarf lemurs and sportive lemurs—this lemur’s natural range is confined within the island of Madagascar. The largest living lemur in Madagascar is the indri. At seven kilograms, the indri weighs as much as a healthy, six-month-old human infant. But instead of a crawling or bawling child, imagine a wild primate, dressed in striking black-and-white, capable of prodigious leaps from tree to tree and endowed with an incredibly loud and mesmerising singing voice.
In October 2012, one month before our visit to Madagascar, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur and the indri, along with four other lemur species, were listed among the world’s 25 most endangered primate species. … All lemurs larger than the indri are already extinct.
“One of the hardest things in politics,” US President Barack Obama said in a recent interview, “is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away.” Obama’s words are pertinent not only to the rules proposed on June 2 by his administration to cut future carbon emissions by US fossil-fuel power plants as a step to address climate change. They are also relevant to the other great democracy and its spanking new government on the other side of the planet: India.
It is tough for a single publication or its author to have an impact across nations, cultures, genres, and disciplines. It is tougher still for their appearance on the world stage to spark a social movement, rekindle human values and awareness, and create new mandates for action. And toughest of all is when the author is a woman, a scientist, who must overcome the prejudices of her time−of gender, of notions of progress, of the omnipotence of untrammelled industry−to articulate a clear-eyed, renewed vision of a better world, a cleaner environment, where people do not merely live, but flourish.
If I had to pick one exemplary work from the environmental canon that does this and does it well, it would be the one that burst on the scene on this day, 16 June, all of 52 years ago, in the United States of America and then swiftly encompassed, in its scope and sweep, the rest of the world. The book, SilentSpring, and its author, marine biologist Rachel Carson, are widely credited to be the sparks that lit the fire of the global environmental movement.
Two of my essays appear in print this month in two relatively new magazines that have been around for a couple of years.
One essay titled ‘Madagascar, Through the Looking Glass’, appears in the March 2014 issue of EarthLines, a magazine of nature and place-based writing published thrice a year from the UK. EarthLines is an artfully produced magazine and I was glad my piece finds place in the March 2014 issue.
The EarthLines essay is part of a longer work by the same name, which I am working on, themed on life and loss, rapture and revival in the island. It is based on a trip that Divya and I made to Madagascar in November 2012. A few of our images of lemurs and reptiles from Ranomafana accompany the EarthLines piece.
The other essay appearing this month is on wildlife in the heart of India, the land of deer and tiger in the forests of Central India. This appears in the March 2014 issue of Fountain Ink, a monthly carrying long-form writing, narrative journalism, and photo essays, published from Chennai, India. Fountain Ink is an attractive small-format magazine that fits like a delectable little book in your hand. The article carries some of our photos and those of Kalyan Varma from Kanha and Bandhavgarh and you can read the full text here.
It is just bad behaviour on my part, I must admit, when I, as a wildlife scientist, point fingers at other people’s ignorance about wildlife, issue unsolicited comments and corrections at errors they make, poke fun even. Still, it is hard to resist at times, especially when it concerns animals as wonderful and legendary, and, yes, as large as elephants. It is particularly hard to stay quiet when someone is talking or writing about Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, but uses a painting or photograph or example of the African species, Loxodonta africana. How can one mistake the Asian elephants, with their arching convex backs and smaller ears, their two-humped foreheads and trunk tips ending in a single finger-like lobe, a grand animal that looks like this,
for African elephants, with their saddle-like concave backs and much larger ears, their females carrying tusks like males, their sloping foreheads and corrugated skin, trunk tips ending in a pair of pincer-like lobes?
Still, it happens all the time. A website or newspaper reports on a serious issue involving elephants and people in the fragmented landscape of forests and fields and cities in southern India, but uses a photograph of a large herd of African elephants marching through open savanna. A tea producer in Assam brands its tea packet with an image, not of Asian elephants walking old migratory routes where huge tea plantations now exist, but that of a herd of African elephants, adding gratuitous insult: these are ‘raging elephants’. A reputed Indian scientist suggests making fences with disused railway tracks to separate people from elephants here in India because it has worked in Addo National Park in Africa, and the authorities take the suggestion and run to install another barrier in an already sundered landscape. To sell news or products or opinions, the African is pulled in place of the Asian, again and again and again. One baulks at the indifference, at the injustice and ignorance on display.
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head Pretending he just doesn’t see?
One good thing about ignorance, however, which no one understands, or so wrote José Saramago in his novel The Elephant’s Journey, is that “it protects us from false knowledge.” The Elephant’s Journey is Saramago’s fictional retelling of the historical journey made by an Asian elephant, Solomon, gifted in 1551 by King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Saramago writes of Solomon’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna, through the Iberian peninsula and northern Italy and across the alps, with a “masterfully light hand” and tender humour. His words in this delightful novel came to my mind in the last few days, oddly enough, after reading about the results of a recent scientific study on elephants. A study probing more than three centuries into the past, pulling specimens out of museums, flipping open the pages of an historic book of the eighteenth century, in which Carl von Linné or Linnaeus, the father of modern biological taxonomy, formally classified the elephant, bestowing the scientific name Elephas maximus, for the very first time. In Saramago’s strangely appropriate words:
The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it’s not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear…
And when the elephant does appear before you for the first time, after the initial wonderment and fascination fades away, you might be tempted to conclude, like the European peasants do when the elephant appears in their village, that:
There’s not much to an elephant, really, when you’ve walked round him once, you’ve seen all there is to see.
Sure, until someone looks even closer, like the scientists did in the recent study. The study in question, by Enrico Capellini of the University of Copenhagen and an international team of scientists, found that something long believed to be true about Asian elephants, their very identity as Elephas maximus established by Linnaeus in his historic work Systema Naturae, was the result of an error. Linnaeus described the Asian elephant from a ‘type’ specimen, an elephant foetus preserved in an alcohol-filled jar (a somewhat large jar, one presumes). The specimen—long considered as the first taxonomic specimen and permanent benchmark for Asian elephant—turns out to be (you guessed it!) that of an African elephant. Published in November 2013, the study weaves brilliant scientific and archival detective work, delving into ancient DNA and protein molecules, into museum records, artwork, and archives, to conclude that Linnaeus had it wrong. And Saramago says:
as elephant philosophy would have it, what cannot be cannot be,
Which means that Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758, as the species is named, fully and formally, refers at the first instance to the African elephant. Which means that I might now have to suppress my smug, superior erudition on telling Asian from African elephants and instead eat my own words. Which goes to show that you never know where you will be led when you dig into the past. Into history.
It is the idea of history itself, that Saramago examines from his fictional vantage point, using the lens of literature.
…but that is how it’s set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.
Perhaps Linnaeus, in his enthusiasm to describe the elephant, paid insufficient attention to history. The elephant foetus that Linnaeus labelled was obtained at his behest by the Swedish royalty from the collection of Albertus Seba, a Dutch pharmacist interested in natural history and trader in animals collected from various parts of the world. Seba obtained the elephant foetus from the Dutch West India Company, which traded in Africa and regions west across the Atlantic. Linnaeus, however, believed and declared the locality of origin of the elephant as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which may have been the case if the source had been the Dutch East India Company. If Linnaeus had paid more attention to history, as to biology, one would perhaps have not had to wait 250 years for an analysis of ancient mitochondrial DNA to establish that the elephant originated in a part of Africa where Dutch traders were active in the 17th century. Linnaeus had, unwittingly, been looking Lanka instead of talking Togo.
As I said to you once before, the elephant is a different matter altogether, every elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he’s taught and another who insists on ignoring it all, … I realised that I’m just like the elephant, that a part of me learns and the other part ignores everything I’ve learned, and the longer I live, the more I ignore,
Fortunately for us ignorant retrospective liars about elephants, Asian and African, the taxonomists are still on our side. Waving their bewildering box of rules about names and naming of animals, called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, they have provided a face-saving way out. Out of the other specimens (‘syntypes’) of elephants that Linnaeus had seen, known, or used while describing the elephant, one can designate another specimen (a ‘lectotype’) to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the species’s name. To find and pin down the new name-torch carrier, the scientists have pulled out, not a rabbit from a hat, for that is not hip in science, but what is perfectly de rigueur: a skeleton out of a closet. A genuine Asian elephant skeleton, confirmed by anatomical and DNA analysis, which Linnaeus himself had referred to, will now be the specimen-designate for Asian elephants. The Asian elephant, thanks be to The Code, will remain Elephas maximus. It is as Saramago ordained,
because life laughs at predictions and introduces words where we imagined silences, and sudden returns when we thought we would never see each other again.
Where that skeleton came from is another remarkable story. One that takes the tale another hundred years into the past, into the mid 17th century. In 1664, John Ray, an English academic who quit Cambridge to pursue natural history and travel through Europe, saw and wrote about “…the skin and skeleton of an elephant which was shown in Florence some 8 or 10 years ago and died there”, a specimen that Linnaeus, too, was aware of. The skeleton remains today, much as Ray described it, in the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence. The scientists have verified from anatomical and molecular analysis that the skeleton is that of an Asian elephant. I applaud their patience, their achievement, but it is Saramago’s subtle humour that rings in my ear.
If your highness knew elephants as I believe I do, you would know that india exists wherever an indian elephant happens to be, and I am not speaking here of african elephants, of whom I have no experience, and that same india will, whatever happens, always remain intact inside him,
The skeleton was that of an elephant named Hansken. Hansken was a female Asian elephant, brought to Europe courtesy the right company this time, the Dutch East India Company, from Sri Lanka, with the fortuitous result that the type locality mentioned by Linnaeus for Elephas maximus can now remain the same. Arriving in Europe in the 1630s, she was taken as a travelling curiosity through varies cities, including Amsterdam, where in 1637, she was sketched by a person no less than Rembrandt!
Now, I cannot help wondering if Rembrandt and Linnaeus were aware of the other elephant that had journeyed from Sri Lanka through Europe, a century earlier in the 1550s: the Suleiman of history, the Solomon of Saramago’s story. (Is history and his story really all that different, for an animal with culture and memory like the elephant, for people like us? In Saramago’s part of the world, in Portuguese and Spanish and Catalan, is not the word for story and history the same? Historia! So it is.).
Still, after the conundrum posed by Linnaeus’s error, what a distinguished and artful conclusion to arrive at, for Asian elephants! A newly-designated specimen, the skeleton of Hansken, whose fleshed-and-blooded portrait was made by Rembrandt himself! Destiny, Saramago writes,
when it chooses, is as good or even better than god at writing straight on crooked lines.
Of Solomon, we know that he entered Vienna in early 1552 and died in less than two years. What we know little about is of the people who attended to him, particularly his mahout. Not so, of course, in Saramago’s story, wherein “to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost”, he invents a mahout with a peculiar eastern Indian sounding name, Subhro. As Solomon enters Austria, Subhro, too, is passed on with the elephant to Maximilian, who with a sort of Germanic disdain, renames the elephant Suleiman and rechristens his mahout, Fritz. What do we know of the life of Subhro-Fritz? Or of Hansken’s mahout? There are inscriptions and woodcuts, coins and frescoes, depicting Solomon in Europe, and Hansken is immortalised by Linnaeus and Rembrandt, but clearly the elephant is the centre of attention, not the mahout on its back.
One wonders. What is the fate of the keeper when it is the kept that garners all the attention? As Subhro himself says:
but, one way or another, dear friend, while your future is guaranteed, mine isn’t, I’m a mahout, a parasite, a mere appendage.
And what, one wonders, too, will happen now, to the poor African elephant foetus in the jar? Does it become a footnote to history, a museum relic, an anecdote, an aside? Now, to paraphrase E. E. Cummings, after the doting fingers of prurient philosophers have pinched and poked, and the naughty thumb of science prodded the elephant-that-never-was, now: will it rest encased in its alcoholic tomb? Will it be quietly mourned, yet spurned, like a miscarriage, spawned by Linnaeus, of an anonymous mother? Or will fade to obscurity again, for centuries, forever, like a misbegotten afterbirth? Will we conclude, as Saramago suggests, of this elephant’s journey, as we might of the life of the mahouts:
and that was that, we will not see them in this theatre again, but such is life, the actors appear, then leave the stage, as is only fitting, it’s what usually and always will happen sooner or later, they say their part, then disappear through the door at the back, the one that opens onto the garden.
Still, worse things could happen. The foetus could become a museum celebrity, to be probed and pinched and peered at further. It could become a case study: required reading in taxonomic textbooks.
Or perhaps, it will remain a mute witness, as the elephants do on their own journeys through landscapes of Asia and Africa, when we subject them to our scrutiny, amusement, benevolence, entertainment, affection, harassment, and exploitation. As they will continue to do while we struggle to come to terms with elephants with whom we have lived for thousands of years. Struggling to understand the elephants for who they are, to respect their identities and individuality, and to give them the admiration that they deserve, we continue to seek answers on our own terms. Perhaps we will find those answers yet, from patient science or great literature, or perhaps from wise Solomon himself, in The Elephant’s Journey:
For the first time in the history of humanity, an animal was bidding farewell, in the literal sense, to a few human beings, as if he owed them friendship and respect, an idea unconfirmed by the moral precepts in our codes of conduct, but which can perhaps be found inscribed in letters of gold in the fundamental laws of the elephantine race.
Callaway, E. 2013. Linnaeus's Asian elephant was wrong species.
Cappellini, E., Gentry, A., Palkopoulou, E., Ishida, Y., Cram, D., Roos, A.-M., Watson, M., Johansson, U. S., Fernholm, B., Agnelli, P., Barbagli, F., Littlewood, D. T. J., Kelstrup, C. D., Olsen, J. V., Lister, A. M., Roca, A. L., Dalén, L. and Gilbert, M. T. P. 2013. Resolution of the type material of the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 (Proboscidea, Elephantidae). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.doi: 10.1111/zoj.12084
Medina, R. 2013. Ceci n’est pas un éléphant.http://mappingignorance.org/2013/11/20/ceci-nest-pas-un-elephant/
Saramago, J. 2011. The elephant's journey. (Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.) Mariner Books.
‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,’ Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
“You all know what a river is,” the biologist says, standing on the banks of the Cauvery, as behind him the river mumbles and roils over low rocks and gleams slick silvery flashes in noontime sun. The man, who has spent a good part of his working life studying rivers and the animals like otters who live in them, is talking as a resource person to a group of scientists and conservationists on a field trip after two days of a conference on river otters in Bangalore city. “The river’s upper course begins in the mountains, the water comes down the slopes, becomes perennial in the middle course,”—the speaker gestures to the river behind him—“and then flows through plains in the lower course before finally entering the sea.” Standing in the audience, listening, he thinks the biologist seems self-assured and competent: he must know, he must be right. And yet, it seems too pat, too succinct, too simple, that a great river like the Cauvery weaving its way through southern India is described thus—as neatly organised and fulfilling as a three-course meal. It seems to suggest that a river is but a line—a watery, purposeful line drawn from mountain to sea. A line.