[Book Review] An ecologist’s ode to his field assistant, elephants and Buxa

A baby elephant in Lataguri Forest, West Bengal
  • The recent book, What’s Left of The Jungle: A Conservation Story, is an illuminating glimpse into one of the most complex landscapes in India, making one think about deep environmental questions relating to ecological history, rights of people in conflict zones, rights of biodiversity and more.
  • Conservation biologist Nitin Sekar effectively captures the complexities arising due to the coexistence of humans and wildlife in Buxa.
  • By weaving his experiences with those who live in proximity to one of India’s most conflict-stricken protected areas, the author throws light on how stories can differ based on who is the storyteller.

A thrilling and evocative read, ecologist Nitin Sekar’s book What’s Left of the Jungle? A Conservation Story might feel deeply familiar to the readers of Jim Corbett’s adventures. A fish-out-of-water wildlife enthusiast (in this case, a doctoral student from Princeton University) comes to an Indian jungle and falls in love with it. He navigates language barriers, leeches, the most basic of living standards, and a routine far removed from the cities he has grown up in.

Sekar takes us to Madhubangaon, a village on the fringes of Buxa Tiger Reserve in northwest Bengal, where he attempts to find out what elephants eat, and what hinders their role as seed-dispersers and gardeners of these moist tropical forests.

However, this landscape is no idyllic Eden. In a succinct few lines, Sekar sets the tone early. Narrating an incident about an enraged villager setting out to seek revenge against a tiger for killing his cow, which ended in the deaths of both man and cat, Sekar follows with this haunting sentence:

Just as the jungle took from Buxa’s villagers, the villagers took from the jungle. Fruits, mushrooms, wild vegetables, climbers, firewood – when the season was right, the jungle provided a bounty.

The message becomes clear: this is not a story of peaceful co-existence between humans and the wild. The coexistence swings between tolerance and violence, but not without a few rare moments of tenderness and wonder.

Sekar, who currently works as the national lead for the Elephant Conservation Programme at WWF India, writes his adventures well. The book flows, effortlessly switching between two stories of two protagonists: Sekar himself and his field assistant, Akshu Atri. Although you can predict the end, halfway through, both the stories are engaging, honest and simple, sheltering the reader from the sting of some of their heart-breaking events.

Image shows cover of the book and a man walking a forest path
The book contains a shifting narrative of two men’s stories: Sekar, an Indian American doctoral student doing his fieldwork in Buxa, and Akshu Atri, his field assistant, who’s grown up in Madhubangaon, located at the periphery of the protected areas of Buxa. Photos by Nitin Sekar.

Akshu Atri is easily the beating heart of the book, with his simple, engaging, and heartfelt manners and stories. It is natural, of course, to like a protagonist who remains empathetic, optimistic, and kind despite the crushing losses he goes through, especially because of the elephants. At some points, I found myself wondering what would happen if this kind and generous soul became ambivalent, or even bitterly angry, about the constant tussle to survive and feed his family. What would happen if his resignation became anger, his belief in karma gave way to a desire for retribution?

Sekar drives the point home: most people living in human-wildlife conflict areas are resilient by force, not by choice. They must go on, despite the losses, despite the apathy, despite the all-too-common accusation of being the reason our forests and wildlife are dwindling. So is the case with Atri.

The read leaves one thinking about difficult environmental questions. Is there someone to blame in such scenarios? But then again, why does there have to be someone to blame? Is it just to make the problem seem solvable? Forests in India have a long and complex history: how do we balance past imperialism, a legacy of economics over ecology, conflict and lack of clarity in bureaucratic management, material aspirations, forest loss and the need to stave off climate change?

There are a few instances in the book where it seems that things might just work out if there is a good number of right people at the right time at the right place, to enforce harmony by decent and dubious ways. The brief stint of one diligent forest guard named Oraon, who cracks down on the smuggling of timber, temporarily lifts Atri’s despair, but Oraon’s issues with alcohol and eventual transfer brings the smugglers back.

Complex landscape, conflict, and coexistence

Another story runs in parallel to Atri’s: the heartache of what it means to be a conservation biologist. Even as Sekar, an Indian American, comes from a background that is worlds apart from Atri’s, the obstacles he faces are the stuff of nightmares for a smaller section of humanity: its scientists. He narrates the challenges in the profession: Data collected over months of tracking can be compromised and be ultimately useless, morals and ethics will need to be questioned constantly in view of ‘picking your battles’, the constant threat of losing a research career because you crossed the wrong people and the danger of being barred from the landscapes and natural beauty that makes you feel whole and at home are some beautiful examples of what ecologists face time and time again.

Yet, Sekar acknowledges that they can also be (and often are) guilty of insensitivity, corruption, inefficiency, and ignorant of what power they hold, just because of various social privileges available to them.

Read more: When tigers, elephants, rhinos visit an expanding Indian town

Elephants, as is to be expected, are a central figure in both the protagonists’ lives. While the book is replete with anecdotes about why both Atri and Sekar have come to love elephants, it also incorporates insights about the animals themselves. Their changing behaviour in response to what crop is being grown; the differences between the ways of a matriarch-led herd and solitary bull elephants; their intelligence in figuring out the best way to eat a pineapple, (a fruit they won’t have encountered in the wild); the violence they are capable of, and the violence they are subjected to; the myths and deification that often protect them, and ultimately, just how much we still don’t know about them.

This review has not followed the journalistic dictum of ‘show, don’t tell’, but it’s for a purpose. Sekar’s writing makes it difficult to choose which excerpts to ‘show’, not the least because his story, interwoven with his field assistant’s, is a beautiful balance of two contrasting lives.

Interestingly, the timing of the book is propitious: tigers have returned to Buxa, after nearly 20 years. Sekar includes that in his epilogue, and I can only imagine how he, after a once-heated ‘this-is-a-tigerless-tiger-reserve’ stand-off with a senior colleague, must have felt on hearing the news. Tigers have returned, yes, but many other species have vanished. A second book perhaps, might be able to delve into the future of this conservation story.


Banner image: A baby elephant sprays itself with soil to keep away fleas and mites in the Lataguri forests, situated close to Buxa tiger reserve. Elephants have vast ranges in which they roam in search of food resources, and the knowledge of these locations is often unique to individuals in a particular herd, which is key to their survival. Photo by M.Swarnali/Wikimedia Commons.

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