Thursday, August 5, 2010

Army is green.

First Published : 31 Jul 2010 10:43:00 PM IST
Last Updated : 31 Jul 2010 12:33:01 AM IST

When Major-General Thomas Hardwicke took the steamer back to England in 1835, he had with him a treasure — the largest collection of drawings of Indian animals ever formed by an individual. Hardwicke, who arrived in India in 1778 as a cadet in the Bengal artillery, was the first to pursue a “scientific investigation of India’s natural history”. An aspect that is quite unsung, unfortunately, is the kind of engagement the Indian Army has had with natural history and conservation. A comprehensive pictorial, glossy, coffee table book titled Natural History and the Indian Army, published jointly by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the Oxford University Press, addresses this shortcoming. And it does it well. The book brings together articles written by army officers who were naturalists, photographers and sportsmen, that were published in the issues of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS) from 1886, when the first issue of the Journal was brought out, 3 years after the BNHS was formed. This treasure trove has been edited by J C  Daniel, a keen naturalist, author and former honorary secretary of the BNHS, and Lt Gen Baljit Singh (Retd.), who played a role in promoting an interest in wildlife and conservation in the army. Singh was also a trustee of the WWF-India. One wonders whether this publication really falls in the coffee-table category, for the text is thorough and at the same time, exceptionally engaging.The book opens with a detailed account of the Indian Army’s contribution over the two and one quarter centuries, from 1778 to 2002, penned by Lt Gen Baljit Singh. He chronicles the work of these illustrious army officer-naturalists in India.The list of army men who followed Hardwicke is illustrious: Capt Sykes, Col RW Burton and his brother Brig Gen RG Burton, Col Fenton, Lt Col ASG Jayakar, Surgeon Major TC Jerdon, whose work on birds and mammals is stupendous, Lt Col AH Mosse, Col Kirtikar, Lt Col SR Tickell, Col Swinhoe, Brig Evans, Col Bingham, Col Sir RN Chopra, who was the only Indian in the army to have been knighted for his work in natural history, Col RSP Bates and Lt Col KG Gharpurey, besides others. It contains excellent pictures that include paintings taken from T C Jerdon’s 1846 book, “Illustrations of Indian Ornithology”, illustrations such as that from “Indian Serpents”, an 1801 published book by Patrick Russell, and photographs, both black and white and in colour, including those taken by present day naturalists/wildlife photographers. The first article featured in this collection is by Lt Col K R Kirtikar on the Strychnine tree. A highly poisonous tree, it has its supposed uses as a purgative, and as a curative in fever and even snake bites.Lt Col L L Fenton, a keen sportsman (shikari), writes on all aspects of the Kathiawar lion. Even in 1909, when this article was penned, the lion’s home was limited to the Gir forest. The article describes how the home of the species dwindled due to human-related factors and others, like famine.A quarter of the 24 articles contained in the book are by Lt Col Richard. W Burton. A fearless sportsman, he wrote over 200 articles on various aspects of natural history. “A History of Shikar in India” traces the sport right from the pre Mughal period to contemporary times, both species-wise and area-wise. Here, in this book are also featured his article on the wild dog and another on his experiences fishing for the mahseer.Of great significance is his article “Wild Life Preservation: India’s Vanishing Asset” (1948). He was “the first naturalist to campaign for the preservation of Indian wildlife”, and this article here was actually a pamphlet prepared by the army on “the dire need for the conservation of the wildlife of the country” and was sent to the Indian government. An insightful and comprehensive article authored by Brig WH Evans is on the butterflies of India. In this 1922 article he writes about collecting butterflies, an activity that has, of course, since been prohibited by the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.Lt Col AHE Mosse’s article on the leopard, the panther, is on the methods of sighting it. He also gives graphic descriptions of his personal experiences. The ‘sitting up’ method refers to ‘sitting up’ for the animal over either a kill or a live bait. “The most usual site for a machan is a leafy tree, though a sheltered rock or a thick bush with a bank behind will sometimes afford an excellent position,” he points out. Bird photographer Lt Col RSP Bates (1942) made quite a pioneering contribution to bird photography in India. He gives an account of the birds he encounters in the Kazinag Range in Kashmir in June of 1942. Slaty-headed paroquets, yellow-billed magpies, Kashmir rollers, Indian red-breasted flycatchers, and Jerdon’s hedge-sparrows are only some of those birds. “To Col Frank Wall we are indebted more than to any other man for our knowledge of the Indian snakes,” write the book’s editors. The colonel’s articles on the cobra (1913) from his book, “A Popular Treatise on the Common Indian Snakes” and the golden-tree snake (1908) are exhaustive, to say the least. Now for that one article that made for very captivating reading, even sweet at times. It was, for this reviewer, “The Asian Elephant” by Lt Col J H Williams, (Elephant Bill, also the eponymous title of the book he authored). And just to let you into what the article is about, without telling you too much, the author draws the similarity between the elephant and man. I fell in love with this story!It is an engrossing and inspiring book. When I turned the last page, I wanted to see and converse with the writers. And hear of their passion, the thrill, direct, first hand. I highly recommended this book. —

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