The 'Loins' of Ranthambore and other Fantastical Animals

In 1997, to escape the punishing Delhi heat, my family fled north to Sangla Valley in Himachal. My memories of that summer are a sweet potpourri of landslides and long walks, punctuated by hysterical screams of “chameleon” every time my older sister Tiya chanced upon a basking reptile. It was an entire decade later, when I began my gap-year with Wildlife S.O.S, that a smirking field biologist informed me that chameleons are not found in North India. Momentarily chastened, I began to comprehend the extent of not just my own ignorance but also that of those around me when it comes to the natural world.

City folk are steeped in an alarming indifference to nature. In 2011, excited at the prospect of going to Rushikulya to witness the hatching of the olive ridleys, I rang a friend to share my travel plans. Halfway through my impassioned soliloquy, she asked, “What’s an olive ridley? Some kind of otter?”

While the average urban dweller can scarcely tell a sparrow from a hoopoe or a peepal tree from a gulmohGulmoharrural brethren are a step ahead. Far from the romanticised trope of the villager who reads the land as we would a book, the Indian countryside is flush with fantastical tales of wildlife. In the interiors of Kumaon, a straight-faced pahadi* revealed to me the secret of escaping a black bear attack – as the bear approaches, with limbs spread wide, grab its paws and begin to dance. Only when it gets distracted and looks away should you make a break for it. Meanwhile, in the lush forests of the Northeast a local man told a friend the hunting trick of the cunning wild dog. The sly wild dog dips its tail in its own poisonous urine. Once duly anointed it leaps across the face of an unsuspecting mithun delivering to the bovine’s face a resounding slap. The mithun stands no chance against such an assault and collapses immediately to the ground – a ready meal for our canid friend. To the west, in Rajasthan, the humble monitor lizard has acquired a Medusa-esque reputation for spreading jaundice to any who dare look it in the eye. Snakes too, feature in more than their fair share of village lore – from revenge-seeking cobras with diamond encrusted hoods to two-faced sand boas and eye gouging vine snakes,
serpents across the country suffer a slanderous reputation.

It’s easy to forgive the public for being misinformed, though, when one takes a glance at the Indian media. An article in one of India’s leading newspapers last year casually described the biodiversity of Bhimgad Reserve Forest: “This forest is home to tigers, leopards, Indian gaur (bison), sloth bear, sambar, barking deer, cheetah, wild dogs, king cobra and a variety of other mammals and reptiles.” The last physical evidence of the cheetah in India was recorded in 1947 when the Maharaja of Surguja shot dead three individuals.

Urban apathy and rural mythology are great fodder for cheap laughs at a gathering of conservationists but they also expose the terrifying reality of how we as a society have alienated ourselves from the outdoors. When kids can identify two dozen different brand logos but not the birds at their windowsill, it’s a worrying statement on our values. When adults prefer to plonk their offspring in front of a television rather than take them outside, it’s a devastating blow to conservation. After all, how can we respect that which we cannot identify and how can we protect that which we do not respect? In his 2005 bestseller The Nature Principle, author Richard Louv coined the term 'nature deficit disorder' – directly linking the lack of nature in our lives to childhood problems ranging from obesity to depression. His book makes it clear that it's not just nature that suffers but people too.

Unless we find a way to reintroduce ourselves to the Great Outdoors, acquaint ourselves with the wilderness and rediscover the magic of nature, conservation in India will continue to be viewed as a ‘hurdle’ to development. Till then, you can be sure that the next time you’re on a game drive in Ranthambhore, someone is going to lean over to ask the guide – “Bhai, loin dikhega kya?”**

* literally 'mountain-dweller'
** "Brother, will we see a 'loin'?" 'Loin' is a malapropism, typically north Indian, for 'lion' - though it can be used as a generic term for all big cats. There are no lions in Ranthambore National Park.

Author: Cara Tejpal

One of India’s finest young wildlife conservationists, Cara Tejpal has worked with organisations such as Wildlife S.O.S and the Gerry Martin Project. She was one of Sanctuary Asia's Young Naturalist Award winners in 2012 and has recently been accepted as a team member on the 2041 Antarctic Youth Ambassador Programme.

Note: Article originally published on the Planetwildlife Magazine

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