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India’s natural treasury

Bittu Sahgal |

Swimming 20 mts. down, in the deep of the Andaman Sea, just off the coast of a newborn rainforest, I felt at peace with the planet and the universe. I held my breath for as long as I could to experience the silence, without the sound of my own exhalation. Just within my vision, 15 mts. away, I saw MitaliKakar, the founder of Reefwatch Marine Conservation (who taught me to dive) gazing at a fan coral the way an art afficianado might the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.

Not far from us, we knew that the world’s largest sharks were slowly filtering food from tropical waters that gave birth, billions of years ago, to all the magnificent diversity of life we see on land today.  And when we returned to shore, we saw mud banks slick with tropical rain, where salties (salt water crocodiles) bred in mangrove estuaries thick with fish.

Further out to sea, past the walls and outcrops of the corals we had come to explore, dolphins, turtles, jacks and manta rays that glided and floated through an inexhaustible larder stocked with sea grasses, weeds, plankton, lobsters, shrimp, prawns and jellyfish. 

Unimaginably powerful geological events that were responsible for pushing a breakaway piece of what was once Gondwanaland northwards, were still active, forcing plate tectonics to lift the already lofty Himalaya higher still. It is this mix of nature that is India’s greatest wealth. It is this heritage that we are sworn to protect.

Homo sapiens, an accident of evolutionary fate, has for inexplicable reasons been gifted dominance over the incomparable diversity of ecosystems that were birthed on the Indian subcontinent. What a rich piece of the planet we Indians are fortunate to be placed. A moderate climate, fertile soils, sparkling rivers and rain-washed forests that bursting with food are the order of the day.  This is our own private heaven of plenty that our progenitors came to colonise.


To die for

Unique, mysterious and forever fascinating, over the millennia the natural history of the Indian subcontinent remains largely unstudied, its natural wealth barely appreciated.

To our utter good fortune, however, whale sharks, saltwater crocodiles and green turtles still swim the coastal waters of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  And in the legendary snow-capped Himala-yan ranges that were thrust so sensationally skyward 25 million years ago, the snow leopard, still pads dominance over musk deer, Tibetan antelope, ibex, marmots and voles.  Even the apparently lifeless Thar that sprawls between the warring states of India and Pakistan throbs with life. And to the east, bordering Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, mists swirl permanently through cloud forests that shelter remarkable life forms ranging from tigers, elephants, rhinos and gibbons… to the world’s largest moth, the Atlas.  Over 4,000 species of flowering plants including some of the rarest orchids on earth are to be found in this wild wonderland.

Riverine grasslands in protected forests such as Manas in Assam still offer refuge to endangered species such as the Bengal Florican, pygmy hog and the hispid hare.

 And the great floodplains of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, though radically altered by man’s agricultural lifestyle, are among the most generative in the world. 

In the Western Ghats, an ancient chain of hills running from north to south along the western coast, giant squirrels travel miles in the canopy without once descending to the forest floor. And along the narrow strip of peninsular India, 50 million Indians thrive on the productivity of a mosaic of corals, sandbars, mangroves and beaches.  India is clearly still a land to die for. Its bounty wounded, but unmatched. 


A history of protection

In 1271 a Venetian adventurer related incredible stories in his Book of Marvels of a land filled with curious animals — elephants, rhinos and great striped cats.  That land was India.  The man was Marco Polo. A thousand years before him, Emperor Ashoka had promulgated protective laws banning the felling of several species of trees and the establishment of sanctuaries where wild animals were protected.

Nature conservation was never a novel concept to India. The Vedas listed the virtues of sacred groves thousands of years ago and Gautama Buddha preached non-violence to all life forms in a deer park close to Sarnath.

In 3 BC Chandrgupta Maurya had segregated forests into two types, one for commercial use… the other for worship.  Only restricted hunting was allowed and the punishment for breaking the law was death. Timber was exceedingly valuable even then.

Many of Alexander the Great’s ships were built using hardwoods from India. But in those distant days technology was elementary and transport slow. What scars there were quickly healed.


The big slide

The Moghuls and their shikar, however, made a deep dent in the populations of carnivores such as the lion, tiger, leopard and cheetah. The elephant suffered even more.

By some estimates perhaps as many as 1,00,000 riding elephants were incarcerated by the Moghuls in their stables.  But even this had a relatively limited effect on most species because the forests were still vast and before long animals re-colonised vacated niches. 

When the East India Company landed in India, the rules of the game changed.  Their colonial attitude was not merely directed at India but at nature itself.  So brutal was the extraction of timber that even they agreed that it was necessary for the teak forests close to the Malabar coast to be strictly protected as far back as in 1803.

This nevertheless hardly prevented Nelson from building one of the world’s largest fleets using our wood and our craftsmen.  But even this damage was to pale before the ruin brought upon the land soon after the Second World War. 

Desperate to recoup financial losses, the pace of timber extraction was accelerated.  And on a subcontinent awash in guns and explosives, all wild animals were fair game. Both Britishers and Royal Indians began to “bag their tigers” with an urgency that brought the species to the very brink. 

Such attitudes obliterated the tolerant values we were gifted with by our ancestors. This is why we must now struggle to save, what we used to love, respect and protect as a matter of course in bygone days.

(Bittu Sahgal is the editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine)