[Book review] At The Feet of Living Things is a remarkable journey in forest and wildlife conservation

Image shows a pugmark of a tiger on a dusty ground

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  • Edited by Aparajita Datta, Rohan Arthur, and T.R. Shankar Raman, the book features essays from the scientists of the Nature Conservation Foundation.
  • The essays feature many of India’s most iconic species and other lesser-known ones and include details of conservation projects.
  • Rife with information for wildlife lovers, the book also explores the tenuous bonds between scientists and the natural world.

Based on 25 years of wildlife research and conservation in India, At the Feet of Living Things, a book put together by a team of researchers at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) is, to put it mildly, one of the most fascinating books I have read. It brought tears to my eyes as well as kindled hope. Hope… that as long as we have a band of dedicated young scientists, who are not just armed with knowledge and special skills but truly care for people as well as the smallest living creature that inhabits our natural world, India is blessed and hopefully safe.

Brought out by HarperCollins, this 378-page book is beautifully illustrated with black and white drawings. As the editors, Aparajita Datta, Rohan Arthur and T. R. Shankar Raman have pointed out, the book lists “the challenges, the ups and downs, the pain and heartbreak, the momentary joy and elation” of conservation work. As academics and conservation practitioners, they felt the need to write about the process, the undocumented daily challenges of conservation, the ways in which how they work with people, how they resolve differences, or sometimes don’t, and the problems that crop up frequently.

Their kaleidoscopic journey tells the stories of defusing conflicts between elephants and people in Valparai, Tamil Nadu; building community trust to secure the nesting sites of hornbills in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam and helping protect livestock from wolves and snow leopards in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. Climate change, global warming and heavy fishing are bleaching the coral reefs of the Lakshadweep and the dugong fight for food, space and security in the not-so-peaceful waters of the Andamans, as nature’s process of regeneration is threatened.

Image shows a book cover and a herd of goats atop a mountain
(From left) The book is an insight into the conservation work of NCF scientists, on a variety of species and landscapes like the Himalayas. Book cover image courtesy HarperCollins India. Photo by T. R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons.

For researchers and budding scientists, the storytelling capacity of the authors is amazing and that is what makes the book eminently readable. The chapter, A snow leopard dies again by Charudutt Mishra begins with the pounding to death of a beautiful, trapped snow leopard in the higher Himalayas by benign Buddhist communities. This happens despite the setting up of the International Snow Leopard Trust to protect and preserve this ecologically important, endangered species in the twelve Asian countries where snow leopards can be found. In 1997, Charudutt ponders how could people be so cruel.

As he prepares for his journey of exploration through chilly streams and the glaciers of Ladakh, two donkeys, Poon and Poontu, are purchased to carry the camping equipment and other necessities. There is a bonding between man and animal and at one stage when the author falls sick on the journey, it is the donkeys with their warm licks that revive him. Having finished his fieldwork, he returns to his university. Two years later when he returns to Spiti, the Sherpa and others who were part of his earlier expedition welcome him, but Poon and Poontu have been killed within weeks of each other by wolves and a snow leopard. The man who could neither accept not nor stomach the killing of the snow leopard is devastated by the death of the two lives that he considered precious. It is only now that Charudutt fathoms the anger and frustration of the people of Ladakh who keep losing their livestock and livelihood to snow leopards.

The book clearly records that wildlife conservation is a challenging and continuous process.  In 2018, two decades after Charudutt’s Himalayan escapade, Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi and Ajay Bijoor recount their efforts to bring harmony between marauding snow leopards and herders who were losing their livestock at an alarming rate. The incident that triggered the reconciliatory effort was the killing of 30 sheep and goats by a single snow leopard that got into a corral in Himachal’s Kinnaur district. Raju, who was hired to look after the flock, saw the leopard entering the corral or dogri and decided to bolt the door from outside as he ran for help.  As proof of the attack, a film of the leopard running out when released was made. The decimation of the cattle was the end of the world for the owner, Thukten. To get compensation, which was grossly inadequate, many trips had to be made to the government office.

Image shows a snow leopard resting near a rocky cave
A wild female snow leopard resting in Ladakh, India. Photo by T. R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons.

The NCF mandate was to reduce livestock predation by snow leopards and wolves by working directly with the affected people. Earlier research work had shown that the blue sheep and ibex, the principal prey of the snow leopard, were losing out due to intense livestock grazing. So certain community pastures were freed from grazing, with the NCF compensating the herders with a fixed amount. Simultaneously a community-run livestock insurance programme was initiated.

Fifteen years after setting up grazing-free reserves, the blue sheep population around village Kibber increased six-fold but livestock loss to the predators continued. Further research, across Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh and the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, showed an increase in snow leopard population and hence increased livestock predation.  The rise in the leopard population was music to the ears of the conservationists but not to the herders!

Read more: Peace parks as a transboundary approach to conservation

Yet another research on people’s attitude to the snow leopard showed that even when compensated for livestock loss, the dislike of the carnivores continued. The women in particular were more affected because with the loss of livestock they had to go out to collect cattle dung for use as manure. The loss of a cow also meant less milk for children and more stress for mothers. So, a conservation-based handicraft enterprise, called Shen which means snow leopard in the local dialect, was started for the women. Simultaneously the compensation for a cattle loss was made more realistic and corrals were further strengthened and secured.

Community support from an adjoining village was extended to the family which lost its cattle, by each family of the village providing a goat or sheep to the herder who suffered the loss. The battle is not over but there have been some wonderful interventions that should help both wild species as well as local communities.

Image shows a hornbill flying to a tree
Once a hornbill pair is mated, the female lays eggs in a nesting tree and seals the entrance, leaving only a small gap for the male to bring food for her. Photo by Nandha/Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike most books on wildlife, this book focuses on conservation efforts of lesser-known species that are struggling for survival like the hornbills, the dugong and the coral of Lakshadweep. Aparajita Datta’s chapter on trying to save the four species of hornbills — the great hornbill, the wreathed hornbill, the oriental and the rufous-necked hornbills, found near the Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve, is riveting. Research showed that the bhelu and borpat trees were the favourite nesting trees of the hornbill but the large-scale felling of forests had affected their nesting. The females of the great and wreathed hornbills seal themselves in the hollow of trees, using their own droppings, till the chicks emerge. The hornbills were also hunted for their beaks, used in the headgear of the local community. Datta also found that hornbills ate and dispersed seeds of 90 tree species which could be used in resurrecting denuded forests.

Between 1995 and 2005 there was large-scale forest clearance across the Arunachal border with Assam. Many hornbill nests were either lost to felling or abandoned. Data showed that nests deeper inside forests and protected areas were safer. In 2011 a nest adoption technique took root with citizens acting as guardians to ensure that the nesting hornbills are not disturbed. The ban on hunting the hornbills too was enforced by the Nyishi community of the region. An adoption fee of Rs. 5000, later raised to Rs. 6000 was given to the local population. Even zoos in Europe and America began supporting the nest adoption programme. The money was used to buy field equipment, and cameras and to do development work in the villages like providing blackboards and toilets for schools. The NCF also provided funds to doctors at Primary Health Centres and purchased masks and sanitisers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the years many of the young nest protectors have become passionate about protecting birds and forests. Initially, their work was intense in the hornbill breeding season, January to August, later it was around the year. Awards were also given to the best nest protectors, best photographs etc. In 2016, the nest protectors received the UNDP’s India Biodiversity Award. Logging around the nest-protected trees, however, continued affecting nesting and finding the fruits and food the young ones required. With the support of the community, the loss of forests and illegal logging was raised at the National Green Tribunal in 2019 and this helped contain illegal logging to some extent.

Ten years of nest adoption work has helped hornbill parents raise 152 chicks. There were other morale boosters too for the field-level workers — a hornbill nest tree that remained inactive since 2012 became active again in 2020 after the planting of native species around the tree.

Read more: Land use changes are driving Himalayan forest bird loss

Elrika D’Souza’s dugong research in and around the Andaman islands has more depressing results than that of other species the book has dealt with.

She encountered just three six-feet-long male dugongs. They were the gentle giants of the Andaman waters as they chomped their way through the seagrass meadows in the ocean bed. Normally these meadows grow back within eight to 10 days. A decade of work since 2010 by D’Souza and her team revealed several seagrass meadows, some in the intertidal zone, some in shallow, murky water inhabited by saltwater crocodiles and some at a depth of 20 metres. The number of dugongs, based on sightings by various people was less than 50 in small pockets and low densities, clinging to the few meadows where they could feed undisturbed.

Studies showed that the dugongs ate just four of the 12 seagrass species of the Andaman. Preference was for small, tender varieties low in fibre and high in nutrients. Since a dugong needs 30 kgs of seagrass daily they move from meadow to meadow within a small radius.

Image shows a dugong in the sea
Dugong in Ritchie’s archipelago, Neil Island, Andaman. Photo by Vardhanjp/Wikimedia Commons.

Government support through welcome for conservation work is cumbersome. It is bureaucratic and money sanctioned is never given on time. So often it is a lonely battle to save a species with some support from local communities. Unregulated fishing threatens the existence of the handful of dugongs of the Andaman. My heart wept for the dugong that was harpooned and pulled up by fishermen. Emanual, who had once worked with D’Souza and her team was about to spear it to death when he saw tears rolling down its gentle face. He stopped the kill but the dugong succumbed to its injury and Emanual swore never to harm a dugong. Thanks to the NCF’s advocacy work, villagers of Shahdeep Dweep now take pride in having three resident dugongs and are conscious of their precarious status.

Quite clearly as the team points out “if dugong populations in these waters have to survive, what is needed is a shift in attitude, more than active protection”. More tourists to these enchanting islands mean more plastic and garbage. To save dugongs the focus has to be on protecting their habitat, the seagrass meadows.

Read more: Environmental path cleared for Great Nicobar mega project

This book is also a minefield of information for birders and those entering the sanctified world of forests and the natural world through the bird lens. I also loved Anindya Sinha’s chapter on the macaques. As their food disappears from the forests, they are shifting closer to tourist resorts near protected areas and finding ways to make friends with tourists who are happy to feed them. The females and the young ones are more adept at enchanting tourists than the dominant males.

Now, there is evidence that a rainforest can be restored. The chapter by T. R. Shankar and Divya Mudappa made fascinating reading. Young scientists and several others who came to work with the NCF for two decades from 1999, restored 100 hectares of the most degraded rainforests in the fragmented forests of the Agasthyamalai range and the Anamali Hills of the Western Ghats. When the country is losing tens of thousands of hectares of forests due to destructive development projects, this may seem “woefully small” but as the authors point out “they had demonstrated an approach to restoration that worked better than the prevailing methods used by the government and private agencies”. What is more, they had managed to rope in the support of many of the tea, coffee and other plantation companies of the region to assist them, and in the process instilled the seeds of forest conservation and love for wildlife.

Image shows a monkey leaping across a forest canopy
Niligiri langurs in the tropical wet evergreen forests in the Anamalai hills. Photo by T. R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons

The key to their restoration work was the discovery that the best seeds of these rainforests could be found in the scats and droppings of civet cats, hornbills and other birds and mammals found in protected old-growth rainforests. They collected these scats and planted the seeds in nurseries till the saplings were tall enough to be planted in the fragmented forests.  The nurseries could hold some 40,000 seedlings of about 170 native and liana species. Slowly but surely as these forests were restored, owls, frogmouths, flying squirrels and nearly 20 species of bats took to the night sky.

It was an uphill battle for the forest restorers but it was heart-warming to see the Nilgiri langur leaping and the great hornbills shushing overhead to nest in forests that they had revived.

Read more: Longwood Shola forest is a water source for villages in the Nilgiris, maintains biodiversity


Editor’s note: This story was updated on December 2, 2022 to correct a factual error.

Banner image: A pugmark of a tiger in Kanha National Park. Photo by Harshalbisare njr/Wikimedia Commons.

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