For the birds & the beasts: MK Ranjitsinh's memoir is a must-read for wildlife lovers
If you know MK Ranjitsinh, you know that no one knows India's forests and wildlife like he does. Talk to him about any of India's wildlife sanctuaries and national parks and he will narrate their entire history and share intricate details about the various wildlife species that inhabit these forests.
Having worked in the field of wildlife conservation for more than five decades, Ranjitsinh is a walking encyclopedia on India's conservation history. He was the prime architect of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and several other legislations that define India's robust conservation policy.
Credited for notifying several national parks and sanctuaries, Ranjitsinh has travelled across the length and breadth of this country looking for ways to protect India's diverse wildlife. He is also credited for helping save the Central Indian Barasingha from extinction. In fact, not many know that a species of swamp deer found in the forests of the North-East has been named after him.
Among the many notable achievements in his long career, Ranjitsinh was the first officer to introduce the cattle compensation scheme way back in 1973. After years of resistance, the scheme has now been implemented across national parks and reserves which has led to a dramatic drop in the number of revenge killings of predators by locals.
Yet, so little is known about the man who in many ways shaped the wildlife conservation policy of India. It is for this reason that his memoir, A Life with Wildlife: From Princely India to the Present, makes for a necessary read for all those who are interested in India's conservation history and where it stands today.
A walk through time
As the title of the book suggests, Ranjitsinh traces the history of wildlife conservation in India and narrates in great detail the hunting exploits of the Mughals, the British and the princely states which, according to him, dealt a deadly blow to many species that roamed the forests of the Indian subcontinent.
Born in the royal family of Wankaner, Ranjitsinh in his memoirs vividly recounts details of his boyhood which he spent watching wildlife near their family palace. He refers to 1950s as the “deadly decade” which witnessed the annihilation of wildlife and destruction of forests. Ranjitsinh points out in his book how the maximum destruction was caused in the former British territories outside the jurisdiction of forest departments and in those princely states which were not kept as private properties by the erstwhile rulers.
The most interesting part of his book is that he credits the princely states for maintaining some of the best-preserved wildlife 'islands' in India. He has written about how the rulers did not allow hunting in their reserves which helped in maintaining healthy wildlife populations on these reserves.
Ranjitsinh pointed that of the 617 notified national parks and sanctuaries more than half were hunting reserves of the British and the princely states with the latter accounting for 277 such reserves.
Post independence, these princely states retained their hunting reserves as private properties when they acceded to India where wildlife continued to flourish for about a quarter of a century before the Indian government acquired them.
Errors of the past
Recalling Jawaharlal Nehru, Ranjitsinh refers to him a genuine lover of nature and wildlife, who created the Indian Board for Wildlife. However, the author claims that Nehru committed the mistake of designating "forests and wildlife" as a state subject instead of including it in the Central or Concurrent list. By the time Indira Gandhi came and included it in the Central list, Ranjitisnh says “ the damage was already done by then.”
It was Indira Gandhi who rectified the mistake and introduced the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and Ranjitsinh was its prime architect. He was also chosen to assist in the creation of several national parks and sanctuaries in India.
He fondly remembers Indira Gandhi as someone who had a personal interest in conservation and how in his first meeting with her, he proposed the idea of a comprehensive wildlife legislation across the country and allocating central funds for creating infrastructure and other capital expenditure in these areas.
Indira agreed and ensured that Ranjit was transferred from Food and Agriculture ministry to take over as in-charge of wildlife in India. With the backing of the prime minister, Ranjitsinh was then appointed as the member secretary of the task force given the mandate to initiate Project Tiger.
He recalls his several meetings with Indira and how the decade following 1972, most of which was ruled by her, was “perhaps the most significant epoch of all in the post-Independence conservation history of India”.
The big cats
In one of the chapters, Ranjitsinh also discusses the reintroduction of the cheetah in India that had been extirpated by over hunting.
Ranjitsinh is an authority as far as wildlife conservation in India is concerned and till date remembers minute details about flora and fauna of almost each and every reserve of India. In fact, Ranjitsinh has for decades been pushing the government to reintroduce this magnificent species in parts of India where it was once found in abundance.
“No other animal, perhaps, has a greater claim for ghar wapsi, for a return to its homeland of the Indian subcontinent, than the cheetah,” he writes.
He had lobbied hard with the government to reintroduce cheetahs in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary which was initially chosen to be the second home of the Indian lion outside Gujarat.
However, the Gujarat government did not want to part ways with some of its lions which eventually led to the talks of the cheetah reintroduction. Kuno once had a large cheetah population. However, the project never took off and Kuno still awaits both the lion and cheetah.
However, Ranjitsinh hopes that the cheetah would one day return to India claiming that – “The most difficult thing to eliminate is a good idea”.
New age & new ideas
Talking about the conservation in the 21st century, the author highlights how except for Chipko Movement and a few others, India has had no “green movement” and how conservation of the environment, forests, and wildlife has never been a political issue in India.
He lists out five major failures and several threats that according to him have hampered India's conservation in the 21st century.
Lauding India's conservation record, Ranjitsinh warns that all of it is set to change in the 21st century which will witness the extinction of a large number of life forms, faunal, avifaunal and floral.
He cites the example of one of his favourite birds, the Great Indian Bustard, which he at one point of time wanted to be named as India's national bird. According to him, the bird would be the first to go extinct considering there may be less than 150 bustards in the wild. He has also cited several other species that are on the brink of extinction and argues that there is no political will to save them.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen