Jungle Books: A glimpse of India's wild

  • Prerna Bindra
  • Updated: Aug 21, 2014 12:22 IST

Two exemplary field guides will make you want to set off for the jungles right away!

Jungle Trees of Central India
Pradip Krishen
Penguin India
Rs 1,499 PP400

Indian Mammals: A Field Guide
Vivek Menon
Rs 850 PP528

As a child, blessed with homes with rambling yards in mofussil towns, I had a close affinity with trees: the jamun which fed us and the visiting langurs, the neem to which I owed a broken leg and many bitter concoctions, a banyan that was home to assorted fauna and a dwarfed ‘botalburoosh’ which burst into red every spring. As one grew older and learned to live boxed in tiny apartments, I and the trees went our separate ways. Even visits to the forests were focused on work. I saw trees, but never looked at them. That changed in 2007 with the advent of Trees of Delhi, an informative, delightful book which defined the capital through its trees, and renewed my acquaintance with old friends.

It was the last word, I thought. But with the Jungle Trees of Central India, the author and India’s ‘tree man’ Pradip Krishen has achieved a new high. He states upfront, “I like trees. Especially wild ones,” and that pretty much sets the tone of the book, which can only be a labour of love, underpinned with a vast repertoire of knowledge gained from the field. Walking, feeling, discovering, learning… some books are created that way, like EHA’s Naturalist on the Prowl or Thoreau’s classic essay Walking, or Ruskin Bond’s and Ranjit Lal’s works. Such books have declined, along with such leisurely pleasures.

Jungle Trees is an extravagantly illustrated field guide put together in a very attractive package by designer Kadambari Misra. It is scientific in nature, but not necessarily subservient to science. The author lets his instinctive sense define what is a tree, and then lets the trees decide what is Central India. He gives ‘keys’— supplemented by beautiful photographs — to flowers, leaves, fruits, barks, to identify trees. That barks could be such robust and distinct characters comes as a surprise: just see the texture of the tendu (to name one), if it sounds implausible. Krishen takes us through the seasons, gives a history lesson on forestry in India, addresses some mysteries (why are new leaves red?), takes us through forest types and worries for its increasingly precarious future: “Perhaps we will only learn to value our jungles when we are on the brink of losing them altogether.”

The guide to each tree is well described, with information and pictures on its range, taxonomy, physical characteristics, seasons, and interesting bits about its medicinal and other uses. There is also unexpected information — like the existence of the incredible ‘mango gallery’, a valley of wild mango trees in Mahadeo hills — that comes from intimate and exhaustive knowledge of the subject. Forgive the profusion of superlatives, but if ever a book deserved them, this one does. This seminal field guide represents a lifetime’s work. Pack it along — and never mind the weight — on your next trip to the jungles of central India. As one wedded to the Terai forests, I hope the author will now turn his attention there.

Also on my review list is another field guide I am delighted to add to my shelf, Vivek Menon’s Indian Mammals. One would think that there would be enough quality guides to the complex world of India’s myriad mammals. But anyone setting out to be a naturalist relied on The Book of Indian Animals by SH Prater, which dates back to 1948. It’s a fine work, but outdated. Then, in 2003, Menon brought out the first edition of Indian Mammals, a precise-yet-informative field guide, aided by photographs, and beautifully presented. The second edition is more comprehensive and erudite. In easy language, it takes us through India’s 400-odd species of mammals and provides a fascinating peek into not just the charismatic mega fauna, but also the lesser-known and the elusive. There are interesting tidbits (lions court for nearly a week, and when the female is in oestrus, she may mate up to a 100 times), and information on the not-so-glamorous animals such as rodents (porcupines are the largest, and there are squirrels that ‘fly’ or more correctly, glide) and bats (though much maligned, they play a critical role as pollinators. Incidentally, India has 123 species). There’s a fair emphasis on India’s largely ignored marine life, like the critically-endangered dugong — also known as the sea cow, which is the only ‘vegetarian’ sea mammal and is a relative of the elephant.

The text is also enlivened by sparks of dry humour. For instance, Menon remarks about the sorry plight of the state animal of Chhattisgarh: “The wild buffalo or ‘van bhainsa’, is fast becoming the ‘one bhainsa’ given that there exists only one female among the remaining seven males in Udanti Wildlife Sanctuary.”

Drawing on years of field experience, the author also guides you on understanding mammal behaviour. My only grouse is that the book could have done with a better design. The book’s biggest contribution is that it showcases mammals beyond the tiger, and other mega fauna and inspires curiosity too. One hopes that both these books become compulsory reading for decision makers and politicians, who need to know what we stand to lose as we relentlessly ‘develop’.

The writer is trustee, Bagh Foundation, member, State Board for Wildlife, Uttarakhand, and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife

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