Book Travel

Soul of the jungle

Reading about experiences in the wild can swing from the depressing to the ecstatic. On one hand we are in the age of the sixth mass extinction, and are looking at a possible future without the elephant, tiger and rhino. On the other hand, consider the dragonfly: beautiful in every language. This tiny insect helicopter with transparent wings makes one of the longest migrations on the planet — taking four generations to cover over 14,000 km from India to Africa and back again.

Swati Thiyagarajan, a conservationist, journalist and television host of the popular show Born Wild, has written a book with the same title, recounting her experiences of almost two decades in the wild. She tells me that veering between joy and gloom is part of her job. “When you focus on just the problems, they become bigger than they actually are,” she says and adds, “From a fungi to the biggest tree in a rainforest, I see how the entire cycle and system works and I think it’s arrogant of me to think that this system is going to give up that easily, no matter what we’re doing to it. So that gives me a lot of hope.” Still, she insists, we should be more alarmed. “The last mass extinction took out the dinosaurs; that’s what a mass extinction does. It smashes through the biodiversity to a point where crazy leaps are taken in evolution and something else takes over. Nature and the planet will go on fine without us. It may not be the planet we recognise. It might be that the only organisms that survive will live in sulphur, but life will go on. The planet will go on,” says Thiyagarajan.

The Indian point of view

I ask her about the inherent dichotomy in India towards Nature and our responses to it. Why, for instance, do we show great reverence for some animals, while displaying such brutality towards others? Just a few days ago, a picture of a dead leopard held aloft by a gloating crowd (mainly school children), was doing the rounds on social media. Is it simply because some animals inspire a greater threat to us? “I call it the bipolar approach to Nature,” Thiyagarajan says. Her belief is that humans are designed to be compassionate, but packing people into smaller and smaller places has unleashed huge stresses and a casual cruelty towards other species. “If you look at human design, it’s only 10,000 years that we’ve been an agricultural society, with 400 years of an industrial revolution. Prior to that, for 90,000 years, we were a hunter-gatherer society, living wild with Nature. We don’t have that today, so we try to fill our lives with so much, and still we have this hole, we are constantly searching for something. You never see that with indigenous people.”

Soul of the jungle

Thiyagarajan grew up in Chennai, where she was taken for weekend walks to the Theosophical Society, where she learned to identify different species of birds. She held her first snake at the Crocodile Bank. And there was a moment of locking eyes with a tiger in Guindy Park that transformed her. Encountering the wild in an urban environment, she says, doesn’t necessarily have to be through large charismatic animals and zoos (which are often of the depressing variety), but can be as simple as getting out in the neighbourhood and observing trees and birds.

Like the dragonfly, Thiyagarajan migrated from India to Africa many years ago, and has been shuttling between the two places since. She tells me that one of her great lessons in interconnectedness has been learnt from the Bushmen in Karoo (South Africa). They say when you notice a small bird in your garden, a thread is formed between you and the bird. The next day you might see that same bird and a spider, and the thread gets stronger. The next day, a lizard and a raptor, and so on. “These threads keep forming and this is what connects us. What science calls the web of connectivity, the Bushmen call the ropes to God. And it’s the fraying of those ropes, and in some places a clean break of those threads, which has caused a bipolar approach to Nature.”

Thiyagarajan’s next challenge is the ocean. Her husband, Craig Foster, is a documentary filmmaker with a keen interest in marine biology, and spends every day in the ocean. “Poor guy has been trying to get me in there for years, so I think that is what I’d like to explore. On land, we’re seeing the devastation and we know what’s going on. The ocean, on the surface, it’s this extraordinary thing that inspires poems, but if you see what’s going on under…” By 2050, Thiyagarajan writes, there will be more plastic in the world’s ocean than fish.

Soul of the jungle

One thing she advocates getting rid of immediately is the plastic straw. “We are the pinnacle of evolution with two opposable thumbs and we need a straw to drink something with? A use-and-throw plastic thing? In the US, it’s 500 million of them that are discarded everyday. I’m sure we’re in some ridiculous number in India. Why? You’re using an ancient resource of the planet which the Earth has taken millions of years to create, and there you are, chucking it like the price doesn’t mean anything to the price the planet is actually paying.” We have to understand that when we drink coffee, eat shrimp, use smartphones, it’s all coming at a cost to the natural habitat, she says. “I’m not advocating that we go back and live in mud huts, but we should know where our food comes from and how to minimise the impact of anything we buy.” There’s no magic bullet solution, she continues, but just know that you can’t continue with this lifestyle and save the planet. You have to stop and think what it is you actually need. “When you’re talking interconnectedness, there needs to be no duality. You need to understand that the living planet is around you. There is no you without it. You’re just one organism.”

Deep Impact

* Wild life tourism has always been popular with travellers. It’s also getting increasingly imaginative. Today you can take a hot air balloon across the Serengeti to watch the migration of the wildebeest. Zip line at the Victoria Falls.

* Or even dive into the daring new wave of Deep Sea tourism, which takes enthusiasts into the depths of the ocean in a submarine. (Companies currently offering these trips, include Atlantis Submarines and Submarine Safaris, in locations such as Waikiki, Curacao, Guam, Barbados, Aruba, Tenerife for between $105 and $3,50,000 depending on location and depth.)

Over the years, responsible tour operators have realised that their livelihood is dependent on Nature and wildlife conservation. They are working to include communities and other stakeholders . Hence, in Africa you now see poachers who have become game keepers. Protecting the deep sea is the next big challenge.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 6:24:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/conservationist-journalist-swati-thiyagarajans-new-book-recounts-her-experiences-of-over-two-decades-in-the-wild/article19408678.ece

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