By Benita Sen
It’s unnerving. Every time one gets on to social media, there is disquieting news about some species disappearing into the dusk of oblivion. Habitat destruction is the sad reality of our times.
The other day, we were visiting a spanking new construction in the National Capital Region. The person showing us around was gushing about the facilities the tower would offer. My eyes fell on green fields just beyond. That was the real eye candy for me. “The fields reach the wall!” I said. The young woman read me wrong. “Don’t worry. They won’t last long. A road will come up there.” Duh!
Not very long ago, I am sure, there was a jungle where now there are fields. And soon, an urban jungle of concrete, glass and chrome will take over. Where did the jackals and peacocks that lived there, go? Where will the egrets and earthworms that live there now, go? Do we want to be the only species in the vicinity? I hear alarming accounts of residents and their representatives not wanting to share space with other forms of life. Dogs, cats, birds… Shoo! Shooo! Shooooo!
Just recently, I stumbled upon this graphic by Rohit summing up habitat destruction. A tiger, sitting amidst stumps of lopped trees, is surrounded by four men. “Kill him, he has entered our village,” says one of the men. “Gentleman, watch closely, your village has entered in (sic) my jungle,”says the tiger. Rohit has hit the nail on the head.
And so, when someone asks me about the hero of my latest book, One Lonely Tiger, published by Penguin Random House India, I am stumped. On the face of it, it’s eponymous. It is the story of one lonely tiger. But this book is not just about an animal at the apex of the food chain. It is about every species. It is about the web of life. Vultures to bees, tigers to ticks, we are all linked. And if their fate is inked, so may be ours. This book is about the interdependence of species. It is about the absolutely adorable Red Panda battling it out high up in the Himalayas. If the Gaur is looking into a questionable future, it cannot be the only creature in its habitat to be so.
Often, we think it is only the larger animals that are under threat. A cursory glance at a list of endangered animals will tell you, your grandchildren may never spot the two-coloured Rameshwaram parachute spider in its natural habitat. Whoever from my generation guessed that the Indian vulture, seen in plenty as you drove or went by train into the countryside, would meet such an abrupt future? Disturbing news keeps coming in from residents on land, in the air or even in water. The golden mahseer is looking at trouble. Most of us are familiar with the travails faced by the Great Indian Bustard and the Himalayan Quail. Each of these creatures has lived alongside us for thousands of years.
So, is it just a downward slide? In a recent interview, Jane Goodall said, “We have compromised their future….Is it too late to do something about it? I don’t believe so. But it does mean we have to get together, take action now….Every individual makes a difference every single day….When, hopefully, billions of us make ethical choices, then we start moving towards a better world.”
If the Olive Ridley Turtle is returning to nest on a beach in a metropolitan city, it is an indication that we still have time to halt and reverse some of the damage.
My book is not just dedicated to creatures of the wild. It is as much for creatures we saw in and around our cities. Like the partridges that we stopped to admire during morning walks, birds that disappeared from the heart of the city we lived in when their home was uprooted to make way for spiffy offices, less than 15 years ago.
One Lonely Tiger is the result of years of living on the edge of forests, walking through them, and even flying a little low over them. I’ve bumped into nilgai and chital and felt extremely guilty to have startled them on the edge of their own habitat. I have startled wild boar foraging outside at midnight by walking out suddenly. I realise that we have shrunk their habitat by constructing more and more.
My book is just as much about my memories of the 1960s when I would wake up in the middle of the night to hear jackals howling nearby.
When did they get pushed back? Where were they pushed back? How many more creatures went with them, creatures that we did not even hear because they do not howl? Is oblivion a place?