Vast and varied treasures of nature
Randeep Wadehra

Tigerland and other unintended destinations
by Eric Dinerstein
Universities Press, Hyderabad.
Pages 279. Rs 375

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed`85 For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope." This warning from conservationist Wallace Stegner is timely considering the fact that 78 million acres of forest land and 50,000 species of life forms are destroyed annually. Apart from countless species of flora, insects and microbes, there’re only 26,000 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians known to science. And what a precious wealth it is.

Have you heard of vegetarian vultures or penguins thriving in the tropics? Or of giant ‘homicidal’ trees and the ones that grow lush on toxins? Nature, in her primeval form, can be awesome and mysterious. Only those besotted with such pristine splendour spurn the ‘civilised’ world’s comforts and dedicate themselves to the unraveling of its enigmas.

It is a world enthralling enough for Eric Dinerstein to become a dedicated conservation biologist; and to inspire a scientist like Bill Haber to turn his discourse on pollination systems and sexual reproduction of plants "into an ecological interpretation of the Kama Sutra; how the decurved bill of a violet sabre-wing (a hummingbird) perfectly fits the flowers of an African violet vine; how only a single species of night-flying hawk moth has a tongue long enough (25 cm) to reach the floral nectaries of the deep-throated corolla of the Solandra vine; and how the long-tongued bats lap nectar from the musky-scented flowers of an air-plant`85"

Konrad Lorenz’s magniloquent query, "Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?" indicates the interdependence of different geographical entities on our planet. For example, moist air currents from the Amazon, deflected by the Andes, cross the Atlantic and precipitate over southern Africa. And the ones that slip over the Andes influence snowfall in the Himalayas. We already know how El Nino affects the global weather including monsoon apart from harming breeding of marine life and seabirds in the Galapagos. This book recounts more than such natural phenomena. It unfolds Nature’s beauty while exposing the perils it faces.

The sub-Himalayan region is rich in wildlife – the great one-horned rhino, elephants, tigers, gharials, river otters, langurs etc and the flora-like dwarf juniper, monkshood, primrose, poppy, various types of shrubs and herbs including raj briksha – a medicinal tree. Tiger, the largest carnivore on land is on the brink of extinction as are other species, viz., nilgai, hares, various types of deer etc. Along with yaks, wolves and marmots, Himalayas, especially Tibet and Ladakh, are home to snow leopards – a cat more sinewy and fitter than ordinary leopards of lower areas. The total historical range of the snow leopard used to be more than 1,00,000 square miles across the mountains of Asia, but by mid-1980s it had been reduced to about half, thanks to poachers.

Central America’s cloud forests, where one witnesses rainbows almost daily, are home to a rich variety of flora and fauna. Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve has African violets, orchids, ferns, bromeliads etc. Birds, amphibians and insects are a riot of colour – dazzling quetzals, three-wattled bellbirds, toucans, golden toads (extinct since 1980s), glass frogs, bright morphos and other butterflies.

New Caledonia is home to giant monitor lizards, terrestrial crocodiles, and towering Agathis trees (known as kauris). The 40 species of its primates, called lemurs vary in size ranging from that of a mouse to that of a gorilla (extinct). The elephant bird (extinct) could tower over an ostrich. Among other birds the horned parakeet along with 20 per cent of 350 belonging to the parrot family live on this island. New Caledonia’s national bird, kagu, is an endangered species. Its fruit bats too are threatened due to fast dwindling dry forests. Another odd specimen is the world’s only parasitic conifer that survives by tapping the tissues of other plants. The island’s native wealth of flora and fauna is threatened by the invasion by alien species of plants, vertebrates and invertebrates. Mining is destroying its ecology.

The rivers of Venezuela are home to water moccasins, alligators, snapping turtles, piranha, stingrays, electric eels and giant river otters (endangered) that are capable of fighting off a jaguar. Ya’Kwana Indians and local biologists have been enlisted to conserve the otter in the Orinoco and Amazon tributaries like Caura. The Manu National Park is home to at least 332 bird species including New World’s most spectacular bird the Guianan cock-of-the-rock, 13 species of primates along with jaguars, tapirs, parrots etc, not to mention the predator bird from the north - osprey. Then there are aggressive and poisonous species of Azetica and Paraponera ants – the latter’s sting can paralyze a man for hours.

Ecuador’s Galapagos archipelago hosts one of the last sanctuaries on earth where animals live without fear of humans. Its Genovesa island is the rendezvous for the Great Frigate Bird, and hundreds and thousands of other birds like finches and such ocean goers as boobies, petrels etc. The archipelago has 14 subspecies of giant tortoises (weighing up to 630 pounds and live to be 150 years or more), the only marine iguana, lava lizards, flightless cormorants, and the sole penguin species in the northern hemisphere that breeds in the tropics.

Africa’s Tarangiri has six species of vultures and one of them is a vegetarian. Serengeti plains sustain a rich variety of wildlife thanks to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve. But it’s the miombo that has caught the author’s attention. Covering 1.4 million square miles straddling 11 African countries, it’s the largest block of natural habitat in sub-Saharan Africa. The miombo supports over 3000 animal and 8500 plant species. There was a time when lions and black rhinos used to abound here.

The science of conservation biology was born only in the early 1980s. Would it be able to rescue and restore the geography of hope? If the experience of Montana in America’s Great Plains – where bisons, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, long-billed curlews, elks, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, deer, wolves and grizzly bears are being enabled to make a comeback in their natural habitat – is any indication there is a faint glimmer at the tunnel’s end.

To rescue and restore Stegner’s island of hope, the likes of Dinerstein do much more than write traditional dissertations riddled with "dry verbs and bleached adjectives". If you haven’t read this book you’ve missed something invaluable.