Recognising the interlink between culture and conservation
Book Review in the Hindu dated 20th January 2015
NATURE WITHOUT BORDERS: Edited by Mahesh Rangarajan, M.D. Madhusudan, Ghazala Shahabuddin; Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd., 1/14, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 595.
Nature is apparently quite simple and at the same time equally complex. To understand the way everything works is generally to recognize the interconnectedness of everything and also to realize the limitlessness of all that is natural. These days, public debates are quite rampant on issues relating to global warming and environmental degradation and the need and necessity to conserve and preserve whatever is left of biological diversity. And so rife are issues in terms of defining and redefining Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) on account of the inordinate deterioration of the human-nature frontier in hitherto unprecedented ways — the urgency for understanding ecological structure and function has never been so thus imminent in order to plan for a safe present and future for all life. Nature without Borders is certainly timely and relevant.
We read that just by maintaining green pockets or isolated reserves humans cannot forever maintain the ecological process and functions that are at the core of the ecosystem and thus forestall environmental disasters, for it is virtually impossible to enclose nature within any boundaries. It is only by inquiring into ecology, economics, and culture and by asking how they are interwoven that now we can move on ahead. The editors of Nature without Borders argue for acknowledging and reviewing those larger matrices which are as critical as corridors or core habitats.
Eight essays prefaced by a substantial introduction comprise the book under review. Shifting through time and space the essays deal with human-nature nexus in complex terrains across snow-clad mountains and deep jungles as well as through pastures, farmlands and urban spaces. Black sheep, grey wolf, Sarus cranes, marine life forms, fish, dolphins, and the elusive Snow Leopard all figure in the pages of this impressive collection of seminal articles.
In their study on trawling and fishing the authors draw attention to the inordinate squandering of marine life through the intervention of today’s technology. Although known marine extinctions are far fewer than terrestrial ones, extensive commercial fishing has led to the collapse of about a thousand populations that once supplied the world’s seafood.
The Sarus Crane is a six-foot tall majestic bird that is globally threatened, found largely in the rice-wheat landscape of the Gangetic floodplains of North India. And the essay that deals with this bird and its environment pleads for an integrated awareness of cultivation and conservation. The large cultivated fields of Uttar Pradesh are ideal for the Sarus Crane and the people’s way of life conducive for their survival. The largest global population of these birds occurs in Uttar Pradesh that has over 199 million people with a density of over 800 people per square km and 57 million livestock all of whom use every bit of the land and landscape. Two aspects of farmer behaviour are critically important for the bird’s survival: their practice of retaining wetland patches of all sizes and of course their positive attitudes toward these majestic cranes. The need of the hour apparently is to recognise the explicit interconnectedness of culture and conservation.
The mountain ranges of the north and the west provide an array of wild sheep, antelope, gazelle and wild goats. This is also a terrain that is interwoven with the lives of predator and prey, wild and the domesticated spaces, of herding and trading as well. It is here that the most elusive and the most beautiful of the big cats, the Snow Leopard survives. This most camera-shy big cat first filmed in the wild as recently as the 1970s treads the same mountainous tracks as humans and livestock. And quite different from the territories inhabited by the elephant and the tiger, which are merely ecological islands interspaced by human habitation that in turn endanger and hamper their natural movements and threaten their sheer survival, the snow leopard’s terrain spilling over vast areas beyond its conservation range still becomes conducive to its lifestyle — in fact the snow leopard depends heavily on livestock raised and reared by human hands.
Wildlife conservation has always been threatened by the expansion of agriculture and landscapes fragmented by plantation crops. And the primary response to this has been the creation of protected areas such as national parks, sanctuaries, and nature reserves with added restrictions on resource use. We are given to understand that over 1,00,000 protected areas covering roughly 18.8 million square km or 12 per cent of earth’s terrestrial surface area has been set worldwide to preserve natural areas. However, considerable biological density also exists outside these bounded territories in human-modified habitats like the plantations and farmlands. Of course, there is always the factor of conflict and confrontation, and nature never plays by the book.
“Restoring Nature: Wildlife conservation in Landscapes Fragmented by Plantation Crops in India” is a seminal essay that deals with such contexts and conflicts in an area of great regional and global significance, the Western Ghats, and the authors highlight well-researched findings and engage with on-going interventions arguing for extending conservation beyond borders and territories. Tigers and leopards, elephants and people all exist in a vibrant mosaic.
And any inquiry into conservation ecology calls for the critical appreciation of this interlink. Nature spans rather than spills over borders and people remake the land not as and when they please, but as a contingent result of a series of contests and choices by a myriad factors. Thus in order to get the bigger picture, we need to allow ourselves to be enriched by variant perspectives that draw on human ecology, history, culture and the changing social dynamics.
This is a sensitive collection of essays centred as they all are on a very pragmatic approach, be it about the conservation ecology of wolves or the fight for an urban forest in Delhi. The idea of the border has very little sense when it comes to nature. However as the editors argue the borders within which we have tried to sequester nature against the siege of human demographic and economic growth are important symbols for they remind us of what we would like to secure and against what. And in the end as we close the book we feel the wisdom of the poet emerging: when we build walls what are we walling in or walling out?