A wildlife tome focuses on the variety of mammals found across South Asia, their distribution, behavioural aspects and issues affecting their survival

Mammals on our planet make up one of the smallest groups, with just 5,490 members and South Asia is privileged to have about 600 wild mammals and probably a few of them are still hidden in jungles that are waiting to be discovered and documented. To compile many of these creatures in nearly 766 pages, over 75 authors in about 15 years have amassed diligent details of 574 mammals in a bulky publication. The two-volume book is titled A Complete Guide to the Mammals of South Asia.

This wildlife tome is a colossal occupation indeed for the 70-year-old AJT Johnsingh, a qualified naturalist from Bangalore. He still trudges and tramples the green pathways deep in the jungles looking for elusive wildlife. He says, “The absence of a book giving comprehensive material on most of the mammals of the South Asian region prompted Dr. Nima Manjrekar and me to take up this tough task of ‘stitching together’ many of the missing research on mammals during the last two to three decades and there was a need to put it all in the form of a ready reference book.” The book is a graphic depiction of the biological and evolutionary aspect of the small and big mammals and also comments on their conservation status.

The book cover has a very poignant photograph of a langur with a contemplating gaze that is almost human with emotion and seems to say “You Homo sapiens are eroding our homes and building your own”. This is perhaps the only publication in India that condenses all aspects of field identification, in-depth sections on distribution, behavioural aspects, present and past status and even precarious population postulations of mammals in the wilds of India. While the Volume 1 covers bats, primates (monkeys), canids (foxes, wolves, jackals) and felids (cat family); the Volume 2 focuses on marine mammals, elephants, rhinoceros, bovids (wild cattle), cervids (deer family) and rodents.

Despite the abundant advancements in science and research, of the 600 mammals’ species, some are extinct today and few are highly endangered, precariously hanging by a thread. The dead list includes the cheetah and the miniature Javan rhinoceros. The Sumatran rhino is extinct in India and Bangladesh where it was found earlier and its existence in Myanmar is precarious. The Great Indian Rhino, which was once found in the Indus Valley in Pakistan, is extinct and now found only in certain pockets of India and Nepal. This meticulous listing is prepared by P.O. Nameer, head of Centre for Wildlife Studies, Kerala Agricultural University, Trichur, and is regarded as an authority on mammalian taxonomy.

Though the text is almost flawless and amply juxtaposed with research indications, the string of words seem to be too lengthy at times which would make a reader get lost in their labyrinth. The choice of photographs is very effective and some are indeed rare but the publisher seems to have given less importance to the pictorial aspect. The photographs are not large enough to clearly exhibit the identifying mammal.

These volumes would benefit zoologists, students of wildlife, forest officials, even teachers and professors pursuing Indian natural history.

Speaking about the recent natural calamity that wrecked havoc in Uttarakhand, Mr. Johnsingh said that such incidents affect not only human beings but also wild plants and animal species in the mountainous highland habitats.

“Wildlife populations across the country are suffering largely due to the deficiency and also excess rains. We are seeing this happening in the Mudumalai-Bandipur-Nagarahole landscape in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu where the rains have failed and elephants are dying. Swollen rivers in and around Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary have inundated the rhino country and many deaths of smaller animals would go unrecorded. Like flash floods and desertification, forest fires are also becoming a more severe problem.”