A View from the Machan: How Science can Save the Fragile Predator By Ullas Karanth New Delhi Permanent Black
The 1980s and 1990s saw a profusion of natural history writing by eminent Indian naturalists such as M Krishnan, E R C Davidar and Valmik Thapar. But scientists such as E O Wilson or John Terborgh, who could effectively communicate the scientific understanding of the workings of nature to the layperson, are still few in India. Popular writing by biologists remained a neglected area in India for a long time. However, a recent trend in biology writing, pioneered by the Indian publishing house Permanent Black through its Ecology series, seems to be picking up steam. An example of such writing were seen in the 2003 book Battles Over Nature that brought together social scientists and biologists on controversial politics and science of conservation. A View from the Machan by the well-known biologist Ullas Karanth is another welcome addition to this genre. What scientists can bring to such writing is the scientific understanding of eological structure and function -- in the light of which future changes in ecosystems can be understood.
The nitty-gritty of wildlife biology that goes into ecosystem monitoring is explained in a language accessible to the lay reader. How does a biologist transcribe questions into observational field studies? Why is 'sampling' preferred to 'counting' in wildlife science? What are the different levels of understanding of population ecology that are essential for long-term management of habitats? These questions raised by Karanth are critical to understanding current controversies in tiger conservation, fuelled by the latest extinction crisis in India.
Based on his long field experience Karanth also dwells at length on the relative merits of various conservation strategies in India.Using examples from mammalian ecology, he makes a strong case for retaining strictly protected areas alongside mutiple-use forests and industrial landscapes. This is necessary to minimise human conflict with large mammals such as elephants and tigers, for preservation of specialised and habitat-restricted species and for the defragmentation of habitats to increase long-term viability of animal populations.
That apart, this volume is valuable because we get to know what drives a wildlife biologist in India despite enormous challenges -- such as the unresponsive, and sometimes antagonistic, bureaucracy and lack of institutional support for ecological sciences. What comes across clearly is the critical importance of supporting scientific research in our conservation areas, which would need changes in our forest bureaucracy and scientific institutions. The argument gets strength since it's advanced by a biologist who has spent three decades in forests studying endangered species. This lucidly written book is recommended for conservationists of all hues.
Ghazala Shahabuddin is an ecologist with the Council for Social Development, New Delhi
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