Review: Rewilding - India’s Experiments in Saving Nature by Bahar Dutt
Environmental journalist Bahar Dutt’s new book turns the spotlight on some of the incredible conservation work being done in the countryUpdated: Jan 17, 2020 19:21 IST
The United Nations (UN) had marked the years 2011 to 2020 as the ‘decade of biodiversity’. Ironically, the UN’s grand “vision of living in harmony with nature” seems to have gone horribly wrong and we have been besieged by bad news in the last few years.
Two landmark scientific reports – The WWF Living Planet Report 2018 and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) 2019 -- point to the mass extinction of species or the unprecedented loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems over the past five decades. Over 60% of animal populations have perished since the 1970s and at least one million species are now threatened with extinction.
Further, in September, a survey published in the journal Science, reported that three billion North American birds have vanished since 1970. This was soon followed by more bad news when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), declared that over half (58%) of Europe’s endemic trees are threatened with extinction. Several other reports point to the mass decline of pollinators and insect populations. India too is grappling with the extinction crisis and hundreds of plant and animal species are listed as “threatened with extinction.”
In the midst of this gloom, there is a bit of hope. Case studies show that, if given a fair chance, nature will rebound. Environmental journalist Bahar Dutt’s new book, Rewildling – India’s Experience In Saving Nature, turns the spotlight on some of the incredible conservation work in the country, where scientists and conservation practitioners are fighting a long and arduous battle to save species from going extinct. She makes the point that news about the environment does not have to be bad.
Dutt, also a trained wildlife biologist, travels to far corners of the country to bring a bouquet of natural history stories. Eight compelling narratives of rewilding – a concept where species are given a chance to bounce back and reclaim lost ground in places where they were nearly obliterated.
Here, the plot goes beyond the usual suspects – which is bringing back keystone charismatic species like the tiger or the one-horned rhinoceros. Dutt also writes on lesser-known species, ones that escape media attention. The book encompasses both terrestrial and marine landscapes, which are no less important than the tiger in their role in maintaining the natural ecosystem. You read about the world’s smallest pig, which is endemic to India, about a fish that has a formidable reputation as a fighter, about a winged scavenger hit by a toxic drug, of turtles in peril, of a rare freshwater crocodile crawling its way back, and about the marine beauties inhabiting our expansive coastline.
There are also stories on two urban rewilding projects, as Dutt explains that rewilding efforts need not be focused just on protected areas or charismatic species. “They could be about bringing back pollinators to our cities, reviving a wetland, or reintroducing a bird species that once frequented a neighbourhood.” Revealing more on the stories here will take away from the joy of reading this wonderful book.
However, the chapter on turtles and gharials was mired in controversy when author and columnist Janaki Lenin cited improper use of her work without “appropriate attributions and citations”. The matter seems to have subsequently been settled between the two authors.
Read more: Waiter, there’s a human in my forest
Rewilding is a modern concept emerging from the western world focusing on restoring large tracts of land for large charismatic species to return to the ecosystem. It’s an opportunity to set things right, “to link protected areas through corridors, to bring back species once lost, and to vitalize our forests, rivers and wetlands. To undo the damage we have inflicted on the natural world.” But Dutt explains why it is a far more complex process than it sounds. It requires dedicated long-term financial and human resources along with political will and community support. She reminds us that the concept has limitations in a country like India where wildlife exists in and along with human-dominated landscapes. The scale is incomparable to what is being done in the wilderness of Russia, North America, or Africa. This is not the one-stop solution we should blindly follow.
To repopulate landscapes with captive breeding programmes is a herculean task. Very few have been successful. The author points out that the absence of local community participation is a major drawback. “Rewilding efforts, laudable as they may be, do raise a series of ethical concerns, from the lack of consultation with local communities to their conflict with more established forms of environmental management.”
Read this book to understand why science and policymaking alone cannot save wildlife. And why we need a multidisciplinary approach to save our natural heritage.
Ananda Banerjee is a naturalist, author and artist