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Conservation and Society
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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2006  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 350-353

Of Personality, Ideology and Science in Tiger Conservation

Nature Conservation Foundation, 3076/5, IV Cross, Gokulam Park, Mysore 570 002, Karnataka, India

Correspondence Address:
M D Madhusudan
Nature Conservation Foundation, 3076/5, IV Cross, Gokulam Park, Mysore 570 002, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Madhusudan M D, Sankaran P. Of Personality, Ideology and Science in Tiger Conservation. Conservat Soc 2006;4:350-3

How to cite this URL:
Madhusudan M D, Sankaran P. Of Personality, Ideology and Science in Tiger Conservation. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2006 [cited 2020 Mar 29];4:350-3. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2006/4/2/350/55801

K. Ullas Karanth, A View from the Machan: How Science can Save the Fragile Predator, Illustrated by Maya Ramaswamy, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2006, 152 pages,. Rs. 350. ISBN: 81-7824-137-4.

Popular nature writing in India has always held out a mirror to the changing natural world. Much of this writing began with the gripping shikar tales from the 19th and early 20th centuries, recording human dominion over nature. The decades following Indian independence saw the growth of the keenly observed essay, celebrating nature from the majestic to the miniscule, crafted so wonderfully by the likes of M. Krishnan. Both these genres belonged to an unhurried era not yet seized by the urgency of chronicling nature in recession. Today, it is becoming impossible for nature writing to remain untouched by the massive declines in wild species or unconcerned about the disappearance of wild nature, thereby blurring lines between naturalist and conservationist writing.

Ullas Karanth's book, A View from the Machan, starts off in the tone of quiet recollection, but soon, the troubles beleaguering wildlife begin to press ahead and take over. Writing in its preface, the legendary George Schaller is indignant that the survival of so magnificent an animal as the tiger 'is so wholly dependent on human whim'. Given this reality, it would seem that the way to secure the predator's future is to harness this whim in a way that supports conservation-by inspiring, informing and involving-which is precisely what Karanth's book attempts to do.

The early part of the book is particularly enjoyable and inspiring to any youngster with the 'spark of natural history'. Sprinkled with humour and interesting anecdotes, it takes the reader through Karanth's early childhood, spent roaming the foothill forests of the Western Ghats, watching birds, rather than caged in a classroom. Happy to have escaped early schooling, he is nevertheless annoyed with a system that 'values the microscope more than the binocular' and 'makes us illiterates incapable of browsing through the magnificent library of nature'. The early chapters also introduce people who were his most abiding influences as a young naturalist. There are delightful biographical sketches of Kenneth Anderson, the shikar raconteur, and of K.M. Chinnappa, the peerless ranger from Nagarahole, with whom Karanth shares a deep fascination for wildlife.

Coming from the desk of a pioneering scientist, the book has information in plenty-serving perhaps the book's most important purpose of demystifying the study of wildlife. It captures the tedium of wildlife research as faithfully as the excitement, dispelling any notion of biologists as 'croco Descriptions of everyday tools of wildlife biology, such as line transects, could easily have descended to dry text. But the easy, conversational style peppered with insights and episodes from the long experience of someone who has actually legged it, make potentially dreary parts unexpectedly interesting. Yet, some facts, particularly about tiger ecology, repeat themselves across essays, putting a drag on the otherwise lively mix and pace of the telling.

Injecting science into the management of our natural areas has been something of a crusade for Karanth. The essay, The Many Ways to Count a Cat, is an engaging account of the auditing role that science plays in wildlife conservation and a damning critique of its absence in India's efforts to save the tiger. He mostly targets the deficiency of science in the governmental systems, but barely mentions the appalling lack of science in the well-intentioned interventions of many conservation groups. Nevertheless, his strong plea for science should find resonance with readers, especially after the latest debacle in tiger conservation where India's park managers were parading healthy counts even as they were losing cats.

Although Karanth paints a grim picture of the threats tigers face in the wild (Predators and Humans), he clearly does not see himself as a brooding chronicler of its tragic decline. In the midst of today's disaster mongering, this book is a refreshing source of hope. In all the pages critiquing the state's efforts and ruing public apathy, not once is there despair. Despite his serious concerns about the way conservation is unfolding in the country, he is extremely optimistic, and returns, time and again, to the tale of Nagaraholae's recovery from near-destruction.

Indeed, Karanth's focus and prescription for conservation across the country draws heavily on the ingredients of that resurrection-first, a vision and commitment at the highest political levels to strengthen policy and law for wildlife conservation, and second, determination among frontline forest staff to effectively implement them on the ground. But one must remember that these strides were made at a time when our democracy was closest to being totalitarian. Mrs. Indira Gandhi certainly had the concern for conservation that is so conspicuously absent today, but more importantly, she could act on her concern, commanding political power that was nearly absolute. In these times of minority governments and fragile coalitions, the conservation movement lacks a rudiment of popular political base even in its strongest bastions. Where, one wonders then, will the strong political commitment for conservation- that vital ingredient of Karanth's prescription spring from? The book offers no clue.

On the one hand, as economic boundaries dissolve and business competition hots up, it is becoming hard at every level of government to resist the lucrative enticements on offer for opening up remaining parcels of biological and mineral wealth. On the other, there are the large multilateral donors with their alluring siren songs promising that every competing interest-of governments, businesses, tribals, and wildlife-can be reconciled without a murmur of discontent. What, one wonders then, will motivate ground staff to enforce the law effectively? Again, the book offers no answers.

It is disconcerting that Karanth is unwilling to enter the debates that he stirs. For instance, he says, 'saving tigers will require human society to sacrifice some of its immediate interests', without pausing to reflect on what section of society will make these sacrifices and at what price these sacrifices will be secured. Karanth repeatedly illustrates how people and their resource uses have undermined our inviolate areas and calls for better protective capabilities to deal with this threat. Nowhere, for instance, does he consider if and how we can make more people respect and support the sanctity of these inviolate spaces. For many conservationists today, enlightenment about ecological complexities ironically goes hand-in-hand with a profound ignorance about the social and political complexities of conserving wildlife. Karanth, clearly, is not one among them, yet in the book's final direction, this understanding remains unarticulated.

Blending wildlife history, personal reminiscence, conservation anecdotes and scientific instruction, A View from the Machan fills a large gap on the Indian bookshelf. While controversies involving conservation appear often enough in the media, there is not much attempt to enlighten the public on the issues in these debates. Although Karanth's book is written from an 'unapologetically biocentric' position that has repeatedly attracted criticism and even condemnation, it is one of the regrettably few works that have attempted to fill the gap in public understanding of conservation questions.

Few people have rallied for the cause of the tiger from such strong ecological grounds. Few prescriptions for what ails tiger conservation have been backed by such overwhelming scientific evidence. Yet, Karanth does not reduce the need for protecting the tiger to the aridity of rational, scientific explanations. He speaks for the big cat with a passion that is fast becoming rare; he constantly evokes the power and grace of his chosen flagship, and is not afraid to leave his science behind and appeal to the heart.

This is a book one should unhesitatingly recommend to any interested reader. But few people may pick it up without that recommendation. Living as we do in an age of excess visual stimulation, a book's cover is its first advertisement. And this one completely fails to catch the eye. Moreover, the title is ambiguous, long and says little about the book's contents or its subject, the tiger! Even the picture of the tiger on the cover is unimpressive. Another failing of the book is its illustrations. The need for poorly-executed full-page linedrawings in a book of this genre is rather baffling. The book would gain a lot from some attention to these details.


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