Book Review: The King and I, Travels in Tigerland

Book review: The King and I – Travels in Tigerland, by Prerna Singh Bindra

Rupa & Co, 2006

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For some strange reason, half a dozen chapters into the book, I was distinctly unimpressed. Maybe I was coming at it from the perspective of A.J.T. Johnsingh’s masterpieces (Field Days and Walking the Western Ghats) – books that drip heavy with information and insights from a naturalist’s perspective. That was probably unwarranted. Prerna Singh Bindra is no naturalist. But she is a conservation journalist and a skillful wordsmith. She therefore approaches her topic from the perspective of the conservation journalist – with a fine blend of impassioned eco-zeal, and sensitivity to the beauty around her. And she certainly writes well. I warmed to the book eventually, and had concluded by the end of it that it was indeed a very good read.

The King and I profiles some twenty prominent PAs – mostly tiger reserves with a couple of exceptions in Hemis and Gir. Bindra’s personal impressions of each wildscape provide some very readable context to the larger discussion around conservation and anthropological issues specific to the PA. And she blends a fine mix of the two, which is a good thing – tales of her personal experiences and her evocative sense of wonder enliven what would otherwise be a starkly depressing account of almost-lost causes.

Notwithstanding the title, the book does not confine itself to the tiger alone. There is a chapter on Gir, a discussion on conservation issues specific to the leopard, a lament on what we did to the cheetah in India, an essay centered around Billy Arjan Singh and Tiger Haven, and another around Tusker Trails in Bandipur.

Five of the chapters are especially outstanding. Bindra’s account of hunting for the snow leopard amidst the barren slopes of Hemis makes for a fine read. The chapter on Bandavgarh paints a very effective picture of the ugly commercialization of tiger tourism. Her account of visiting locations immortalized in Corbett’s books makes for some engaging reading – interestingly, Johnsingh has authored a book on this very topic, not that this detracts in any way from the effectiveness of Bindra’s story. The book closes with a powerful and wide-ranging discussion of conservation issues specific to the tiger – one of the hardest-hitting pieces I’ve read on the topic.

My personal favorite by far however, is the little account of Bindra’s brief visit to Cheetal Walk/Jungle Trails. Like many admirers of the eponymous book by E.R.C. Davidar, I have itched to visit this now-inaccessible house. Bindra was fortunate enough to sit on the verandah we have all read about, and to watch an assortment of hyenas, sloth bears and other creatures, all door-delivered. I read the chapter with a mixture of envy and fascination in equal measure.

The book is peppered with multiple photographs in every page. The credits for these are atypically not footnoted with the photographs themselves, but massed at the end of the book. Which is not a bad thing from the reader’s perspective, considering the reduced clutter. I should also mention that there is a fantastic bibliography at the end of the book. If Ms. Bindra has all the 120-odd books listed here on her shelf, she’s one very lucky person.

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Book Review: The Secret Life of Tigers, by Valmik Thapar

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Book review: The Secret Life of Tigers, by Valmik Thapar

Second edition

Oxford University Press, published 2008

This slim volume was first published in 1989, by Elm Tree Books in Great Britain, and by OUP in India in 1999. It is tiny as books go, but was a seminal work in terms of the insights it revealed.

Valmik Thapar is probably the most well-known tiger conservationist there is. He is not a trained scientist or field biologist, but in this book Thapar traced the development of the litters of three tigresses in Ranthambore – Laxmi, Noon and Nalghati – along with his mentor, the legendary Fateh Singh Rathore.

In the March of ’86, the tigress Laxmi was sighted with a pair of month-old cubs, fathered by a tiger called the Bakaula male. Shortly after, Rathore observed the Nalghati tigress with a pair of cubs a month older than Laxmi’s, these fathered by a male called Kublai. A month or so later in May, another tigress Noon was seen with a newly born litter, this too fathered by Kublai. Sensing the unique opportunity offered by having on hand three tigresses with cubs, Thapar and Rathore closely followed the triumphs and travails of the three litters over the next couple of years, until the cubs reached adulthood. This book is the fruit of those efforts.

A good part of the book deals with the question of the tiger’s family ties. It was traditionally believed that male tigers indulge in routine infanticide, killing off any cubs they encountered. In the April of ‘86, Thapar was stunned to find Kublai with the Nalghati tigress’ cubs, together soaking the summer heat away in a pool. This behavior was presently confirmed with the other litters. Thapar then postulated that the resident male interacts and develops bonds with the litters of the tigresses in his range. He also speculated that infanticide may occur when a male takes over the territory of another and proceeds to eliminate any litters sired by his predecessor to bring the tigress into oestrus. This is behavior observed in monkeys and lions, and Thapar surmised that it was probably applicable to tigers too.

A male tiger’s beat may encompass the beat of more than one female and being essentially solitary, the male roves over his range ceaselessly. On occasion, this brings him in contact with the resident females and their litters, and he consorts with the family until it is time to move on again. Further, Thapar found that the male partook of kills made by the tigress, along with the cubs, and allowed the latter to partake of kills made by him whilst in contact. This brought up the remarkable sight of familial feeding in tigers, and Thapar observed upto eight tigers feeding off a single kill. Also, he found (as in the case of Kublai) that the male may consort with more than one tigress and associate with their respective litters.

The bonds between the tigress and her litter is strong, and the task of keeping the cubs alive into adulthood while passing on essential life skills was a huge order, as Thapar discovered. He recollected watching the tigress Padmini in ’77, maiming a tethered bait buffalo and leaving the cubs to attempt bringing it down. He also discovered her regulating the feeding to ensure all the cubs got to eat. As the three tigress’ cubs got older, they began to actively help with the hunt, taking up positions to drive prey towards the tigress. And thus you have the phenomenon of co-ordinated group hunting for at least a brief period in the tiger’s life. In Thapar’s words, “if undisturbed and well managed, tigers can, as families, form temporary groupings in order to hunt and share food”.

At about sixteen months of age the process of detachment started, though Thapar surmised that the family retained kinship ties for life, recognizing individuals when one of them occasionally happened to run into another.

Thapar also made observations around the variation of hunting styles across individuals. In the mid-eighties, a tiger named Genghis Khan pioneered and perfected the hitherto untried technique of charging at sambar across open water in the Gilai Sagar lake,adjacent to the Jogi Mahal guest house. The tigress Noon evidently picked this technique up from him, and preferred bursts of speed over open land while in contrast, Laxmi preferred stalking from thick cover and with shorter bursts.

Thapar dramatically describes an incident that occurred in the February of 1987, terming it his “most exciting time ever with tigers”. The narration fills three pages of tiny italicized text. Noon attacked a massive sambar stag that valiantly resisted until the tigress gave up, exhausted. The stag died of its wounds a few weeks later. Thapar describes this and other dramatic first-person encounters in italicized interludes with usage of the present tense. And the ploy works rather well, making taut what might otherwise have been a bland account.

There is quite a bit of discussion around the threats tigers and their habitats face, from poaching or other human incursions, and Thapar outlines some prescriptive points to address the menace.

I should add that twenty colour photographs buttress some of the points made about tiger behavior.

In summation, while this may not be a masterpiece you’ll remember forever, it is certainly a quick, insightful, absorbing (and inexpensive) read for anyone who is a tiger lover. I’ll probably do a review of Karanth’s tiger book next and some comparison will be inevitable.

Book Review: Of Birds and Birdsong, by M. Krishnan

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Book review: Of Birds and Birdsong, by M. Krishnan

Edited by Shanthi and Ashish Chandola

Aleph Book Company, published 2012

I have alluded to this exceptional book in a previous post, and have been wanting to publish this review for many weeks now.

Once in a rare while, we come across a book that has rich topical value, but which can also be read simply for the elegance of its language. Of Birds and Birdsong is one such book (M.R. James’ Ghost Stories is another that readily comes to mind). If you possess a love for the English language, you’ll enjoy this book immensely even if the immediate topic – birds – is not of any great interest.

Madhavaiah Krishnan (1912-1996) was not just an ornithologist. He was a naturalist and photographer par excellence. For a man with so brilliant a mind he was a failure academically, and tried his hand at an astonishing variety of vocations (including implausibly, goat grazing). But he was a prolific writer and wrote a column for The Statesman which ran for an astounding forty six years, the last piece being published on the day of his death. He was also an artful photographer, producing masterful black and white images from the natural world using equipment he had rigged together himself and dubbed the Super Ponderosa. Krishnan served on the advisory committee of the BNHS, on the steering committee for Project Tiger, and on the Indian Board of Wildlife. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1970.

Krishnan

This book brings together various pieces Krishnan wrote about birds, over the years. Some of the pieces are quaint given their vintage, like the ones on partridge and gamecock rearing, and pigeon post. Many others are short, straightforward profiles of certain species – the ones on the sarus crane, painted stork, grey junglefowl and changeable hawk eagle for instance. The more delightful ones are infused with personalized observations and anecdotes. There is an essay on the dangers of putting up nest-side hides, and on the precautions to be taken to prevent nest abandonment. There is another very short piece on the significance of the siesta in the animal and bird world. There are two entire sections devoted to pieces that deal with bird calls, and bird flight respectively.

As I have mentioned before, one cannot but help feel that Krishnan’s keen sense of observation was in a word, staggering. Wondering about the allusion to the sweet voice of the parakeet in Indian poetry while the call itself is a harsh screech in reality, Krishnan observed that the rose ringed parakeet has a “low, long, tremulous, ineffably sweet call” when summoning its young to the mouth of the nest-hole. Elsewhere, he painstakingly counted the number of times a hoopoe folded and unfolded its crest in the duration of a minute, and observed how the flicking of the crest expressed “the entire emotional range of the bird”. On yet another occasion he writes about trying to time the rapping beat of a woodpecker with a stopwatch.

The writing is often laced with a subtly wicked sense of humour.  In the chapter on birds that can be seen on the “interminable perches” of telegraph wires by the railway tracks, he says what can be principally seen are birds that like to perch high and pounce. “However, it is wiser not to be to exact on such matters. I once saw an undoubted quail planted squarely on a passing telegraph wire. What business can any quail possibly have atop this unnatural perch? I do not know, but I am almost sure the quail did not either.

In surmising why the white-browed wagtail is not as accomplished a singer as the magpie robin, Krishnan has a clever explanation. “It is all a matter of tails. If it could jerk its tail right over its head, and fan it out as the Magpie Robin does, no doubt it would sing as wildly and wonderfully, but being only a wagtail, it is content with its modest, sweet little song.

I cannot look at white headed babblers now without this scintillating description coming to mind. “They go hopping along to some corner, and one bird turns a dead leaf over while its fellows look on with a critical slant of their white heads – then, suddenly, the party dissolves in hysterical squeaks, and whirrs across on weak wings to another corner of the compound, where they proceed at once to turn over dead leaves again. Clearly, the birds are daft, but they are a feature of Madras gardens (however nominal the garden) and will always be. By sheer esprit de corps and an inability to take life too seriously, they have prevailed where their betters have given up.

Once every few pages, you are guaranteed to come across a word you’ve never heard of. Krishnan’s vocabulary was immense, and his love for finding the right word was deep. Whoever thought the grey wagtail’s belly was gamboge in colour? I was piqued by use of the word volplaning on multiple occasions and looked it up. Perhaps I’ve seen it used before, but I cannot recollect it.

Like any exceptionally good writer, Krishnan could be brilliantly evocative when he needed to. Sample this. “I remember spending a delightful hour beside the lake at Siruvani. The great, verdant trees and feathery clumps of bamboos on the shores mirrored in the still water to endow it with a dark, viridian calm. It was almost a scene of idyllic quiet, except that it was all too wildly beautiful to be idyllic, too like something out of a barbarian dream of paradise, and a barbarian that I am, it held me fascinated. Then an egret came flying round the corner, flying low over the water, dazzlingly white and clear against the profound umbers and greens of the reflected forest, each slow, rhythmic stroke of the wings duplicated in the mirror below. Halfway across, the bird stalled and hung in the air, the pinions of the forwardly directed wings splayed out with the braking action, the horn-black, yellow-footed legs dangling and almost touching their twin image on the lake’s surface, the head and neck stretched sinuously forward as it scrutinized something in the water below. For a moment then the stillness was perfect, and for that moment it was no dream but paradise in fact.

Krishnan was a voracious reader and there are umpteen literary references and allusions scattered all through the book – Lockwood Kipling, William Blake, Richard Lovelace, et al. Moreover there are plenty of references from nature writers of his and earlier generations – men like Konrad Lorenz, Douglas Dewar, ‘Eha’, G.M. Henry, G.P. Sanderson and David Cunningham.

Literary aesthete aside, the book has a wealth of information on over a hundred species of birds from the subcontinent. Much of this is derived from painstaking personal observation over the years. And the anecdotal narrative makes it good fun to read, for most part.

In summation, I found this book breathtaking. If you are reading this blog, you probably have some sort of interest in the natural world and if you do, this book definitely belongs on your bookshelf.

There is a useful ‘notes’ section at the back of the book which among other things, gives the current names of many of the birds. I however felt that these alone could have been footnoted along with the text, for more convenient referencing rather than being placed separately and at the end. But this is admittedly a minor inconvenience.

Book Review: Field Days, by A.J.T. Johnsingh

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Field Days – A Naturalist’s Journey through South and Southeast Asia

by A.J.T. Johnsingh

Universities Press, 2006

I had spotted this little book in the library of the JLR K. Gudi camp a few months back, and dipped into it for a bit over the next couple of days. I liked it well enough to order my copy as soon as I got back.

The book took me longer than expected to get through. At a little over three hundred pages, I would have expected to speed-read my way through it in less than a week’s time. It has taken me more like three. And that is not because the book is not readable. On the contrary, it is superbly readable. It is just that it is too rich in terms of the information it is loaded with and that makes it hard to binge-read. Smaller doses are the order of the day.

A.J.T.  Johnsingh needs no introduction, but a book review of this sort probably deserves a brief profile of the author. So here goes. A chance discovery of a Tamil translation of Corbett in his boyhood days set Dr. Johnsingh on a path that eventually made him one of India’s best known field biologists. Inspired further by a chance meeting with JC Daniel of the BNHS, Johnsingh undertook a study of dholes in Bandipur in 1976-78. This was the first study ever by an Indian scientist of a free-ranging large mammal in the wild. It also earned Dr. Johnsingh his Ph.D. This was followed by a post-doctoral research stint in the United States. Johnsingh then joined the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun in 1985 and rose to retire as the dean of the faculty of wildlife sciences in 2005. He is now a member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority and continues to be actively involved with various initiatives.

The book is a collection of pieces published by Dr. Johnsingh for lay audiences in various publications over three decades, between 1972 and 2005. Almost half of these were published in the WII Newsletter over the years. The book is organized by region, into five sections. These deal with the south, central/west, north and the north-east of India, with an additional section covering countries further east. While well known PAs like Kanha, Kaziranga and Bandipur are profiled, a host of lesser-known places are also dealt with masterfully – PAs like the Pakhui WS (Arunachal Pradesh), Dampa Tiger Reserve (Mizoram), Bhagmara Pitcher Plant Sanctuary (Meghalaya), Srivilliputhur Grizzled Giant Squirrel Sanctuary (TN) and Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary (TN). In all, over thirty PAs are covered.

The narration is a delightful mix of personal experiences, detailed floral and faunal descriptions and prescriptive observations. For many of the pieces which were written decades back, there are thoughtful post-scripts provided which outline the current situation. Dr. Johnsingh’s extraordinary knowledge of his stuff is obvious, the book is fairly well-written and the anecdotes it is peppered with are fascinating.  Plenty of chilling encounters are recalled – crouching in lantana to hide from an enraged cow elephant in Bandipur, running into a pair of gamboling leopards in KMTR, his first and terrifying sighting of a tiger in the wild – he was blowing into a medium-bore rifle cartridge to mimic the whistling call of a dhole, and instead brought an indignant tiger charging out of the undergrowth. There are plenty more like these. You’ll enjoy them.

A quick mention of the pieces I especially liked. The narrations of walking through the Periyar TR and Neyyar WS make for fine reading. Two chapters deal in some detail with the years Dr. Johnsingh spent in Bandipur and are engrossing. When I reached this topic, I was especially interested in reading Dr. Johnsingh’s version of a gruesome incident I had read about in another book (Wildlife Memoirs by R.C. Sharma). In ’77 Johnsingh had accompanied Rajasekaran Nair, who was guiding a bunch of trainees from an institution which was the precursor to the WII, into the forest on foot. Dr. Johnsingh’s mortal fear of elephants has been mentioned in more than once place, including by him. As luck would have it, a tusker they ran into charged and killed Nair, leaving Johnsingh unscathed but traumatized. This tragic incident was recounted in Sharma’s book as he was one of Nair’s trainees on that trip. And now I read Johnsingh’s own version of what transpired.

The chapter on Gir is fascinating, as is the fairly detailed piece that talks about how Kuno-Palpur was identified as a viable alternative habitat for the Asiatic lion. Corbett aficionados will like the narrative on trekking through the Ladhya and Sharda valleys. The chapters on Rajaji NP, Pin Valley NP and one on trekking in the Lushai and Garo hills are spectacular as well.

Dr. Johnsingh is quite evidently besotted with angling, and an entire chapter is devoted to the fate of the blue-finned mahseer in Parambikulam. Johnsingh also speaks wistfully of fishing for carnatic carp with spoons in the Tambiraparani (in KMTR), and of landing a 5-6 kg mahseer on his first cast in Parambikulam – an incident that he says, made him an admirer of the species forever.

In conclusion, if you have an interest in wildlife or conservation, this is a book to possess. Apart from the pleasure of reading it cover to cover like I did, the book is probably invaluable to check through specific chapters when you plan to travel to any of these PAs. There are personal insights and a level of detail that is hard to match elsewhere.