Ecology Reviews

‘Rewilding – India’s Experiments in Saving Nature’ review: Why the pygmy hog of Assam wants protection


An environmental journalist breaks down the concept of ‘rewilding’ in the Indian context and explains what is being done to nurture even tiny species

“You cannot begin to preserve any species of animal unless you preserve the habitat in which it dwells. Disturb or destroy that habitat and you will exterminate that species as surely as if you had shot it. So conservation means that we have to preserve forest and grassland, river and lake, even the sea itself. This is vital not only for the preservation of animal life generally, but for the future existence of man himself — a point that seems to escape many people.” This passage in Gerald Durrell’s Two in the Bush sums up the essence of Bahar Dutt’s Rewilding: India’s Experiments in Saving Nature.

A well-known environmental journalist, Dutt has written extensively on conservation issues for over a decade and recalls in the Preface a moment of epiphany while watching birds and insects in her garden: “Nature was constantly attempting to push its shoots out to renew itself wherever it could. And in that instant I realised that it was time to renew my interpretation of nature as well.”

In the Introduction, Dutt breaks down the concept of rewilding for the reader: she explains its development; how it differs from traditional conservation methods; and how, in India, it may not mean what it does in the West. She also explains why just releasing animals into an ecosystem cannot be considered rewilding. And then having set the stage, she plunges right in.

Saving turtles

Her choice of rewilding projects are not just high-profile species like the tiger and rhinoceros but also the pygmy hog in Assam, turtles and gharials in the Chambal Valley, the mahseer that was once endemic in India’s rivers, vultures across the country with specific focus on the work being done at a breeding and conservation centre in Haryana and urban projects such as the establishment of the Aravali Biodiversity Park in Gurugram and the restoration of the Kaikondrahalli Lake in Bengaluru. There is also a chapter on rewilding in the depths of the ocean.

In each chapter, the reader gets an overview of the troubles faced by that particular species and how these specific projects have helped them literally claw their way back.

Vivid descriptions of the animals and the scenery, conversations with scientists, forest officials, forest guards, local people and others and scientific information on the different species — all mesh together to form as intricate a web as the natural world. But almost every chapter ends with a caveat: the question of what we are doing to our forests, mountains, rivers, grasslands looms large.

The pygmy hog, for instance, “has a much lower tolerance to human-induced changes to its habitats and other disturbances.” The decline of the vulture due to the indiscriminate use of the drug diclofenac in the veterinary world has been well-documented. Dutt also explains how the introduction of a non-native species of the mahseer in the Cauvery in Karnataka led to the decline of an indigenous species.

The art of conservation

In her conclusion, Dutt highlights a few problems with these projects: lack of engagement with local communities, the building of roads and highways through reserve forests leading not just to road kill but also limiting animal dispersal and the lack of attention to smaller and lesser-known species.

Finally, she also discusses whether the idea of rewilding is a Western import but concludes that it has been adapted and modified to suit Indian conditions. Dutt ends on a personal note; that “rewilding helped me put the soul back in conservation.”

After having closed the covers, I couldn’t help but think of another Durrell quote: “Until we consider animal life to be worthy of the consideration and reverence we bestow on old books, pictures and historic monuments, there will always be the animal refugee living a precarious life on the edge of extermination, dependent for existence on the charity of a few human beings.” (Encounters with Animals).

Will we ever be able to stop this army of refugees — animal and human — from increasing the way it has been over the past decade or so?

Rewilding: India’s Experiments in Saving Nature; Bahar Dutt, Oxford University Press, ₹750.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 3:00:21 PM |

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