We are often led to believe that, in this era books may actually go extinct; I laughed it away, as I leafed through the pages of this wonderful book, Himalaya: Mountains of Life, by Sandesh Kadur and Kamal Bawa. Eight years ago, when they produced their first masterpiece together, ‘Sahyadris’, an excellent photo-documentation of another bio-diversity hotspot of India, the Western Ghats, they set standards for natural history books written and produced in India.

Now with this new book, I can dare say that the bar has been raised high once again! “Himalaya” is a ‘Tour de force’, showcasing the incredible biodiversity of Eastern Himalayas. Excellent and evocative photographs bring to life the amazing tribes, the unique birds and animals, flowers, and other amazing creatures like frogs, snakes and butterflies. This region has one of the highest endemism in the Indian sub-continent — about 80% and also sustains about 10% of all bio-diversity on Earth!

One of the most respected Naturalists in the world today, George Schaller, who himself undertook a wildlife survey in this very region 20 years ago, writes in one of the forewords, “Mountains of Life reminded me that I should have tramped leisurely through the forests and patiently looked closely at the orchid, lizard, or other small treasure rather than rush along in search of an elusive Tiger track”. Imagine the venerable George Schaller himself writing so modestly about how he felt when he read this book! Such is the power of ‘Himalaya’, specially highlighting the ‘smaller creatures’ like spiders and moths and the beautiful orchids of this region.

Myriad life forms

Page after page, the book took me on an epic journey of this wonderland, ebbing with all the myriad life forms, we share our Planet with. The passion of the authors flows through every page; some of the double spreads depicting tribes, fish , frogs, snakes just to name a few, are such a visual treat! What particularly struck me is a fitting photo-documentation and celebration of the fantastic anthropological diversity of the region. For example, Arunachal Pradesh itself has 120 tribes speaking about 50 different languages and many are fast disappearing. These tribes have been beautifully highlighted in the book. The feature about the Naga tribe is an example of this and also a beautiful portrait of a Lepcha family. Arunachal also offers us a sample of the biodiversity of the region: forests cover about 80% of this State and about 6000 plant species (1/3 of all species in India), 50% of all birds and 20% of our mammals live here!

As a Naturalist who has travelled in this region, I am particularly struck by the stupendous effort put in by the authors to photo-document such rarely seen birds like the White-bellied Heron (one of my favourite pictures in the book), Gould’s Shortwing, mammals like Tibetan Sand Fox, Pallas’s Cat, Marbled Cat, Asian Golden Cat and Binturong.

The primate double spread showing all the rare monkeys of the region is a great ‘at-a-glance’ portrayal. The menu of seeds of Hornbills and the painting of the Fire-tailed Sunbird also are very special. Even in good natural history books photos of subjects like Fungi and Moths are rarely depicted but this book is an exception. Some of the ‘comparative’ photos like the glacial retreat between 1921 and now give an excellent visual perspective. Excellent maps are also extensively used in ‘Himalaya’; the best example being the ‘ecoregions’ and the ‘protected area’ maps.

‘Himalaya’ has achieved something beyond regular coffee table books, which are all mostly about glossy pictures. The threats to this fragile land have been meticulously documented and they present us with a dreary picture. Sample this: eight of the biggest rivers of Asia originate in the Himalayas and if all the hydro-electric dams (planned in the region by four countries) are actually built, there would be 800 of them-the highest concentration in the world; that too in a proven seismically active zone.

One can well imagine the catastrophic environmental damage they would cause. The issue of ‘Glacial lake outburst floods’ (GLOF) has also been highlighted; about 20 such floods have occurred in Nepal alone in the past 25 years and more are likely in the region.

The authors also make an impassioned plea for ‘trans boundary conservation’, which in itself may not be a new idea, but the time is now perhaps ripe for such an approach, if we have to save this rich biodiversity. A famous Chinese proverb talks about, ‘One picture being worth a thousand words’; the 600-odd pictures in this book are so good that I would say each one is worth ten thousand words; that would make the book worth about 60 million words!

The authors should make a big effort to reach their monumental work to everybody who matters; decision makers, legislators, community leaders, schools and colleges, to drive home the point about what we have at stake, if we carry on with our destructive ‘developmental’ strategies; like the 800 dams being planned!

The authors have rightly said that all their efforts have only resulted in offering us a mere glimpse of the bio-diversity of this hotspot and no doubt we need more such efforts.

(Sarath Champati is a naturalist who often travels to the mountains)

Himalaya — Mountains of Life: Sandesh Kadur, Kamal Bawa; ATREE, Bangalore.

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