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Call of the wild September 05, 2005 11:24 PM

Call of the wild
An excellent collection of striking visuals and text, Treasures of Indian Wildlife, brought out by the Bombay Natural History Society, is a reminder of the fast-diminishing wealth of birds and animals. It can serve as a wake-up call to preserve the diverse flora and fauna in our country before the balance of nature gets distorted, writes Lieut-Gen Baljit Singh

Front cover: Black-capped Kingfisher Halcyon piletta (Boddart). Painted by John Gould & Henry C. Richter

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), founded in 1883, is the oldest and the most reputed organisation in Asia devoted to the conservation of India's rich faunal and floral diversity through field investigation, research, education and spread of awareness. In the span of over 100 years, the Society has amassed a vast collection of natural history objects, some very rare. A rarity is one of the eight skins in the world of the now extinct pink-headed duck.

Treasures of Indian Wildlife is the pick of colour paintings of our birds and animals by the world's foremost artists. The chosen narrative-texts are from the society's journal (now in its 100th vol), gazateers and books in its collection, many of which are now classics in this discipline. The result is a compelling anthology which has two distinct elements-an engrossing text and distinctive illustrations-and can be enjoyed independent of each other. The two "treasures" are not inter-related, for all illustrations have their own descriptive text.

The 122 pages of narrative chronicles not just the spectrum of India's fauna and flora but also provides fascinating glimpses into the early times of our rural settlements. We get acquainted with their problems, prospects, social customs, superstitions, legends and folklore. To a perceptive reader, many articles and excerpted passages would be a poignant requiem to our wildlife.

Imagine hunting lions in Punjab in 1833 after a leisurely breakfast and mounted over the well-padded hunting elephants of the Marquis of Hasting, in an area which is now in Haryana. In a subsequent article, we learn heart-broken that the lion was fully exterminated from NW India and Punjab by 1842.

Emperor Akbar hunting with the Cheetahs.
From the Akbar Nama
An illustrated copy of the Akbar Nama is in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Akbar had a large number of hunting leopards in his Cheetah-Khana. This painting by Sarwan shows Akbar hunting spotted deer and blackbuck with the help of cheetahs (c.1590). All the details, including the armour, tent walls, and animals, are rendered with painstaking care.
Another article's title sums up both the abundance and the steady persecution of the tiger and much of other wildlife beginning 1837; "Goruckpore Terrai, where Tigers were 'Plentiful as Blackberries': Before the march of civilisation."

An account, written in 1891, of "The Sagacity of Langoors" makes the reader wonder why a similar symbiotic-gene was not gifted to mankind? A village woman leaves a three-month-old child asleep under a huge tamarind tree. When she returns after performing her chores, the child is nowhere to be seen. Villagers start searching for the child and one of them looks up on a tree and notices a female langoor holding the child tenderly to her bossom. There was something in the eye-contact between the langoor and the child's mother which made the latter pull back the other searchers. Promptly, the langoor alighted gingerly to the ground and replaced the child (still asleep) on the very spot, where the mother had left it! The female langoor had probably sensed some lurking danger and wanted to protect the hapless infant as she would her own baby! Would homo sapiens display such concern for the beleagured wildlife today?

Man wants to simply vanquish all other life forms. There is the story from The Times, London dated July 4, 1874. A merchant sail-ship somewhere between Car Nicobar and Madras spotted the hump of a huge marine animal basking in the sun, harmlessly. As the ship drew closer, the Captain mindlessly shot at it. The infuriated giant squid in an instant knocked the ship on to its side, clambered on to it and sank it. A ship passing by saw the entire sequence and rescued five survivors from its crew of eight.

The writer had checked with the National Maritime Museum, Llyods, Shipping, the General Register of Shipping and Seamen and other likely sources at London but found no such previous record. However, there were stories from Newfoundland of similar ferocity by large squids, if attacked. The agent provocateur is almost always man.

When John Gould died on February 3, 1881, he was the undisputed illustrator and publisher of the most magnificent and extant work on birds ever to have been created. The BNHS has in its collection six of the 15 volumes of Gould's Birds of Asia. There are just no other art forms or artists who can capture the essence of the 'complete' bird as Gould did in his paintings. Little wonder that of the 76 full page colour illustrations in the book, 62 are from John Gould's creations. But the two-page spread of the tiger with his prey (a male blue bull) painted by William Kuhnert is mesmerising. You can't have enough of it just as you cannot turn away from Gould's pair of Monal pheasants on the title page in double-spread, or his Black-capped kingfishers on the book cover. Marg publishers have perhaps created an unassailable bench-mark in production.

"Cheetah." Drawing by H. Weir. Routledge's Picture Natural History by the Rev. J.G. Wood, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers, 1885. To the memory of the now extinct Indian Cheetah and with concern for the many species of Indian wildlife under threat of extinction.
The average reader may well wonder at the absence of wo  [ send green star]
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