A Life with Wildlife: From Princely India to the Present
Indian readers are very fortunate that, over the last few years, excellent books have been published on Indian mammals, birds, insects and plants, on conservation and on India’s natural history as a whole. Pranay Lal’s pathbreaking Indica and Prerna Bindra’s disturbing The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis are but two of the most recent. Now comes another much awaited and very important book, MK Ranjitsinh’s autobiography, A Life with Wildlife: From Princely India to the Present.
Its title accurately indicates what the book is about, but it does not express the sense of wonder at India’s natural heritage that the author can inspire. Few have travelled as widely as Ranjitsinh has across the heart of India to its furthest frontiers. Even fewer have experience that spans so many decades and can speak so clearly, with authority, on what India once had, what she has lost, and what she may still preserve if urgent action is taken.
MK Ranjitsinh was born into the royal family of Wankaner, a comparatively small princely state in north-central Saurashtra in 1938. What he describes as the most wonderful and thrilling moments of his boyhood were spent watching leopards from a hide in a forest near the palace. The hide had a reinforced glass roof and leopards would feed on their kill, oblivious of those watching in total darkness below. Ranjitsinh’s father would lift him up so that he could put his hands on the glass under the leopard’s belly and feel its warmth, and trace the outline of its rosettes.
The first part of Ranjitsinh’s book is a fascinating overview of how princely states like his own maintained their forests, albeit for purposes of hunting. Rich with anecdote and shikar records, he presents a picture of diversity, and, with some exceptions, of plenty. He argues that the princely states looked after wildlife better than British India did, and states where the rulers were devoted to shikar did so the best. Of 617 parks and sanctuaries notified today, more than half were hunting reserves, 87 of them owned by the British and 277 by the Indian princes.
He draws a number of principles from this, one of the most important being that Indian forests and wildlife are resilient, provided that they are protected from mass human impact. He believes that at Independence, India had the advantages of strict control over woodcutting and hunting, local communities which zealously protected the wildlife in their areas, and the “passive conservation” of many sections of the population who were vegetarian. However, this advantage remained unrecognised and was squandered during what he calls the “deadly decade” of the 1950s when the “wildlife of India was almost annihilated and the forests hugely damaged.”
Determined to work with wildlife when he joined the IAS in 1961, Ranjitsinh opted for the Madhya Pradesh cadre, the state with the largest expanse of surviving forest. Unlike IAS officers today, he was expected to shoot a man-eating leopard, and, in his time in rural areas, he learned a great deal about the relationship of the local population with the forest, a knowledge base which continued to expand over time. He later also expanded his formal education by completing a PhD on the black buck of Gujarat. But not all his career was concerned with wildlife. He was, for example, Commissioner of Bhopal at the time of the Bhopal gas disaster, and his description of the duplicity of Union Carbide makes for gripping reading.
Being in government both at the Centre and in the states, his book is educative about how governments work and how they fail to offer protection. Among Ranjitsinh’s successes was to be a principal author of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which forever did away with shikar rights, and to have been responsible for the creation of more wildlife sanctuaries than perhaps anyone now living. But he also describes how, on many occasions, good advice is ignored, or action is agreed upon but never taken. To read this book is to understand how the great Indian bustard, the wild buffalo and the hangul deer of Kashmir now stand on the brink of extinction, why lions are still only found in Gujarat and why the cheetah was never reintroduced. He is eloquent on the enormous benefits to Indians of protected forests and grasslands, and on their continued over-exploitation and destruction. So much of what he says seems plain common sense — for example, that officers in charge of wildlife should know something about it. But the Wildlife Institute of India, set up for this purpose, has become, instead, a research institution as states fail to send their officials for training.
This is a book not just for those who love India’s wildlife and her natural landscapes but for anyone who claims to love India and is concerned about her future. For our welfare is inextricably linked to the welfare of the natural world.