- Wild and Wilful by Neha Sinha is a non-fiction book that celebrates nature, but also highlights the predicaments of our non-human denizens with the right balance.
- The book showcases the bigger picture of wildlife conservation in India, touching upon conflict, habitat loss, gender bias, new-age animal rights activism and more.
- The dichomoty that exists in Indian culture – animals like the tiger that are revered but also hated or feared – is brought out in the book. As with many other aspects in wildlife conservation, there are contradictions, complexities and two sides to a story.
- The views in this book review are that of the author.
These days it is out of fashion to be forthright about wildlife conservation. Many times anyone doing so is trolled, picked on, shamed, and even made a pariah. Even those whose hearts support wildlife, are not upfront, fearing a backlash. In this background, a breath of fresh air comes in the form of the book, Wild and Wilful that stands firmly on behalf of the voiceless. It also comes at a time when there is a dearth of wildlife literature that can lucidly inform on-ground issues. Scientific papers are hardly accessible and arcane. Fiction writings fantasize about wildlife and do little good for their conservation. So a non-fiction book that celebrates nature, but also highlights the predicaments of our non-human denizens with the right balance is certainly a step in the right direction.
Neha Sinha’s book is organised into three habitat realms – Earth, Sky and Water depicting the 15 species that are at the heart of the book. As with wildlife, where attention is often on the terrestrial animals, the Earth section takes the limelight with more pages dedicated to it in the book. The 11 chapters of Wild and Wilful showcase the bigger picture – human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss, issues related to habitat connectivity both on land and water, the distorted relationship between authorities and communities, and other aspects. Other issues in wildlife conservation such as gender bias, societal prejudices, the two-sided opinions towards wildlife, tolerance and intolerance towards species, the differential opinion of different genders towards conservation are the subtle subplots of the book. The new animal rights approach towards protecting wildlife where we feed macaques to tigers, as though they were pets, and take out candlelight marches without understanding the overall issue, brings to the forefront, the changing direction of wildlife conservation in the country.
Stories from the impact of rapid urbanisation on leopards to how butterflies depict the health of an ecosystem, to the bizarre trends of ‘snake kissing’ by some of the modern-day snake ‘rescuers’ who bring in disrepute to snakes due to their insatiable thirst for instant social media fame are all part of the book. The author has provided every species with a degree of depth and inner character. Even the smallest of species, like the red pierrot butterfly, that may have been disregarded by mainstream conservation writers, gets a voice.
In the ravines of the Yamuna, close to the city of Delhi, large predators including lions were encountered by the Mughal rulers. Jahangir, one of the Mughal emperors, hunted lions near the area which is current day Palam airport. But the city lost all its apex predators due to hunting, expansion of agriculture, and urbanisation. Recently, the national capital, New Delhi, had an opportunity to naturally repopulate a large carnivore, the leopard. But it lost the chance due to opposition by the residents highlighting an idyllic example of the lowered tolerance towards the spotted cat in this country. “People have built their houses on leopard land and possess paper declaring it so. The leopard has none of these niceties. So it must go,” poignantly writes the author.
Some sections are quite entertaining and bring a hearty smile – “One sniff later, it hurled the lentils imperiously across the wall, the dal dribbling sadly down the newly whitewashed wall. The food most rejected by my mother’s children was now also being spurned by a monkey,” quips the author to bring attention to the topic of ‘monkey menace’ and urban dwellers. “If I had found the monkey in a monkey cap, that wouldn’t surprise anyone either. So comfortable were the people with the monkey, and vice versa,” the author writes.
“But snakes are not popular, and people want a ‘muscular’ solution to this problem,” quips the author when she pens a chapter on cobras and a lady snake rescuer and educator Manjeet Kaur Bal from Chhattisgarh. This chapter on snakes, Don’t Kiss a Cobra, is also one of my favourites that draws attention to the threats to snakes and also emphasises that “there is no snake that slithers so easily between hatred and devotion like the cobra”.
While we can brag of doing well in helping continue the survival of our national animal and the nation’s heritage animal, both of which can survive in a wide variety of habitats, sadly we cannot boast about wildlife species that are choosy about where they live. “Evolution didn’t account for giant solar panels in the deserts,” writes Sinha about the impacts of the large-scale, ill-sited renewable energy plants in the Thar desert, the last stronghold of the great Indian bustard. The chapter The Phoenix of the Desert illustrates the plight of habitat specialists such as the great Indian bustard and the white-bellied heron both critically endangered. Similarly, the story of the Gangetic dolphin, India’s national aquatic animal, is no different.
No writing on Indian wildlife conservation can be complete without the discussion on the relocation of people from tiger habitats. Sinha’s book brings back the spotlight to the dual existence of stands – some willing to relocate and some vehemently opposing. There is nothing black and white as claimed in the urban conservation world that “communities want to voluntarily relocate” or “each one is opposed to leaving their forest adobe”. This comes to the forefront when the author’s research in Sariska Tiger Reserve provides the nuanced views that exist in the real world. A villager in the Deori village says “a camel’s son is also a camel. He can’t be anything but a camel. But I want my son to be better than me. He must go to school. He can’t be a camel”. The consensus in the village was “we want to leave. There is no future here”. In another village, a 65-year-old man says “shoot me. Go ahead and shoot me. I will not leave. This is my land”. A position that depicts a strong connection to the land and the unwillingness to relocate to the mysterious outside world.
In an opposite tone, the women of Deori wanted to consider braving the outside world for their children – “take us out of here,” or “build a school and hospital here”. Overall the chapter The Mother of Men and Tigers sums up the harsh reality that the national animal is seen as a God, but also as a nuisance beast shining a light on the dichotomy that exists in Indian culture about wildlife – revered but also hated. As with many other aspects in wildlife conservation, there are contradictions, complexities and two sides to the story which needs to be respected by both parties.
Overall the book seems to convey that we need to step back a bit about our infrastructure development pace in wildlife habitats. One of the most important books on nature in the mid-2000s is James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia in which the author argues that “it is too late for sustainable development; what we need is a sustainable retreat”. With the second-most populous country and high consumer demand for natural resources, we need to see beyond the needs of humanity, and infrastructure development that accounts for the Gaia as the essential requisite for the survival of wildlife and humans as a species.
Sinha’s brilliance shines in new and unexpected ways with this noteworthy piece. The lexicon of the book is easy, very enjoyable and carries the reader through. But it needed a bit of editorial care to iron out a few of the lapses. Local floral names such as bistendu, jaal, khadpa sefid should have been given a common English name, or a list of plants that indicate their scientific name. Common names tend to vary geographically and the reader is left guessing about the name of the plant. Likewise, some plants such as the Caloptris procera, are provided only with scientific names.
But for some, possibly unintentional, inaccuracies such as the Todas live in Coorg district (Todas are in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu while Coorg district is in Karnataka) or that wild elephants live inside Bengaluru city, the book seems flawless.
It is obvious that Sinha has poured her heart and soul into writing the Wild and Wilful, and it certainly deserves an eight out of ten. If you are an avid reader of the nature genre it is definitely worth a slot in your library. Pick up this book, read one chapter a day, relish the poetic text, see the butterfly float but also understand the colossal problems our wildlife face every minute.
Banner image: King cobra in a nest. Photo by Jignasu Dolia.