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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 18  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 311-312

The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild

Environment Journalist and Conservation Biologist, New Delhi, India

Correspondence Address:
Bahar Dutt
Environment Journalist and Conservation Biologist, New Delhi
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_20_55

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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2020

How to cite this article:
Dutt B. The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild. Conservat Soc 2020;18:311-2

How to cite this URL:
Dutt B. The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2020 [cited 2020 Dec 2];18:311-2. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2020/18/3/311/288030

The Wild Heart of India, a collection of essays written by conservation biologist T.R. Shankar Raman, chronicles his engagement with nature through different life stages from a student in Chennai in Guindy National Park, his training as a wildlife scientist in Dehradun and Bengaluru and finally his professional life as a scientist working from the Annamalai hills in southern India. On this journey one gets to explore a range of issues from natural history, ecology, to current day threats to the conservation of species.

Into the wild starts with the author taking us back to a slow world where you want to mull on each word languidly, this is a world where M Krishnan (a renowned author naturalist and photographer) meets RK Lakshman's Malgudi Days and the fusion creates a delightful read. You are immediately drawn into his world where individuals like 'Cutlet' or RKG Menon shape young Raman's scientific temper. For a younger generation devoid of any mentors from the world of natural history, Cutlet's story reminds us of how the right teachers can push us to good science. It also helps chronicle the lives of towering personalities who have shaped India's natural history and inspired a generation of young adults to take up conservation science. Into the wild, makes a vivid documentation of such individuals including stalwarts like Ravi Shankaran who went away too soon, yet left an indelible mark on India's conservation science and policy.

Raman's genius is his ability to intersperse the story telling format with bits of hard science without making you feel bored or wanting to skip over the more technical bits. He is a student of nature, there is none of the arrogance of being a 'scientist' who knows it all and it is perhaps that quality that endears you to his story. While the length and breadth of issues and regions covered in the book are impressive, it is this style of writing that will keep drawing the reader.

There are two moments when the writer exposes his own vulnerability in the chapter titled 'Close Encounters of the third kind'- when he finds a snake on his path and out of fear pelts it with stones. He later questions what led him to kick the common krait and concludes it is perhaps his own reaction that needed to be kicked than the snake. In the same chapter is another instance where he grabs a bird in his hand on a chance encounter. Frustrated by the forest department that had denied him research permits to set up mist nets to capture the species, Raman describes how, in that fraction of a second when he reached out to grab the white bellied blue fly catcher (a bird endemic to the Western Ghats), it sheds her feathers, perhaps as a sign of stress. He later dwells on this moment and questions this act- was it arrogance or an act of frustration that led him to grab the bird? By documenting these moments, the author plays a gamble – he could have lost the nature loving reader by confessing to such brief irrational moments of aggression. What it does instead is the opposite- it endears you to the writer as you are struck by his commitment to the truth. He at once admits to being ashamed of this act and then pontificates on the role of us humans in the natural world. In doing so Raman hooks you in, you want to know more about this person his engagement with nature, there is none of that chest thumping of the scientist who has come to save the planet.

The next section- 'Conservation a world of wounds' deals with how growing economy is eating up the natural world. 'The March of the Triffids' is an apt metaphor for the march of palm oil monoculture that has taken over swathes of forest in northeast India. The author draws in on his research in Mizoram covering Dampa –one of the lesser-known tiger reserves in the country. He records only 10 forest bird species due to the proliferation of palm oil that is a seventh of what is normally found in rainforests. This is one chapter where, you want more from the writer. And it brings me to the only ruse I have with this otherwise exhaustive book. Perhaps the author could have used the long format of the book to probe deeper into issues. Some of these landscapes such as Dampa are 'off the beaten track' for even the average nature loving tourist. The author has a front row seats through his travels to explore such areas and share his experiences with the readers, the three- page essays seemed woefully short leaving you with a sense of incompleteness.

It is the chapters on the 'Butchery of the Banyan Tree' and the 'Tolerance of the Tamarinds' that the book reaches a crescendo as you feel the pain of the writer, observing trees that have been virtually murdered by mindless expansion of our national highways. What makes Shankar's writing relevant is this precise engagement with controversial subjects - such as linear infrastructure, fragmentation of forests for palm oil cultivation or species decline due to big development projects. These are issues that in recent times have made scientists shy away from for fear of upsetting the establishment or getting their research permits cancelled. Raman takes these issues head on and coming from a scientist they are more likely to be taken seriously than a tree hugging activist asking for the planet to be saved. While the book maintains its non-academic style, it does debate the hard issues within conservation science- the impact of habitat fragmentation on species, the dichotomy of ecology vs. the economy.

Perhaps the greater strength of this book is it seeks to reclaim nature writing in India and own it. In the past, books on natural history of India have been influenced quite heavily by colonial writers such as Jim Corbett or Kenneth Anderson. The person whose writing comes similar to Raman's is perhaps M. Krishnan or Theodore Bhaskaran considered the doyens of natural history writing in India. M. Krishnan (1913-1996) was a naturalist who wrote for nearly 60 years a number of, essays, sketches and books on the ecology and culture of the subcontinent. Raman's writing takes us back to that world, but with his own unique style.

This is a book for the activists, students and policy makers. You will learn about critical debates within the conservation narrative but you will experience firsthand the writings of a person who has carried on the legacy of Indian natural history writing and infused it with a fresh lease of life. This book will definitely set the tone for a new form natural history writing for India.


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