Man of the Wild

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Conservationist Vivek Menon on charismatic mammals, environmental awareness and the urgent need for land securement
Indian Mammals: A Field Guide | Vivek Menon | Hachette India | Pages 528 | Rs 850
Indian wildlife does not make for an obvious bestseller. But veteran conservationist and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) founder Vivek Menon has managed to sell 20,000 copies and counting of his eight books on wild things (10, 000 of the last one), the latest being Indian Mammals: A Field Guide (Hachette India, 528 pages, Rs 850). Enamoured of elephants and admiring of gibbons, Menon travels widely and wildly, regularly procuring land to give over to wildlife. He spoke to Open amongst some of our most venerable mammals at Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC), before three weeks in the Arctic. Selected excerpts follow.

The book is very user-friendly; was this intentional?
What gets you hooked is something you can experience directly, even around your house; some people don’t notice the mammals around us. Look at Delhi; we have the largest antelope, the Nilgai, and people don’t even think about it.

Can it be used as a guidebook while walking through India?
Hopefully. I hope people use it in daily life or pass on this passion to others. On Twitter, someone posted a picture of a seven-year-old looking through my book to find the deer from a fairytale. She had the page opened to the blackbuck! It’s fascinating when a book transcends [genres].

Why did you write on mammals specifically?
My original training was to study birds. But for a number of years, I worked with the elephant, and it became a passion. Somehow, people associate me with elephants, and with mammals.

Are elephants smarter than monkeys?
Yes. Elephants are near persons. (Apes are also close to us, as are whales and dolphins. But some monkeys are further from humans than elephants.) If we were less arrogant as a species, we would call them ‘persons’, if personhood were defined as a set of attributes, and not necessarily ‘equal to a human being’. Like us, elephants plunder, run amuck, kill each other, rape– aberrant elephants mount other elephants of the same sex. Some aberrant elephants in Southern Africa have even tried to mate with rhinos. Their matriarchal structure appeals to me as a Malayalee, close to some of my relatives!

It’s the cuddly mammals we seem to love, the dolphins and elephants.
Most mammals have forward-facing eyes; these are important to draw people in, our hormones get excited by them. We don’t relate to what make our eyes migrate to the side. With rodents, when the eyes migrate to the front, we say ‘So sweet’; when it’s a guinea pig or hamster, not a rat. I feel sorry for rodents, some of the most tested upon mammals. It’s barbaric.

Which are the most political mammals, aside from human beings?
Chimps. Once I’d gone to Rwanda to see gorillas, and I crossed over to Uganda and saw a group of chimps. The difference between these two is vast. I crossed over to them, they were chasing a colobus monkey and it was torn apart; then came squabbles over the best piece of meat. There was a female trying to get some meat from a male, proffering herself in exchange. I thought, ‘This is the closest we get to humans’. All the traits we see in ourselves, the moment we see resource. That small percentage of DNA that sets apart a gorilla and a chimp; you can see evolution taking place.

Which is the most dangerous mammal?
In India, other than us, the elephant. They kill 500 people a year. In the Northeast, the rhino. Then the three Bs: bear, boar and buffalo. The only mark I carry in 30 years of walking the forest is from the boar.

What has been your scariest experience?
Plenty—rhinos and elephants several times. I once saw a rhino chasing an elephant; it bit out a chunk. I mention in my book that Indian rhinos bite; African rhinos use their horns.

Does the human fear of decreasing resources lie behind apparent callousness toward other mammals?
I don’t think people link the two. And the moment there is climate change, you will want to see nature surviving around you. Gibbons, for example; they are our potential food tasters. It eats many wild fruits; potential resources.

What are the big needs in conservation?
The WTI lists seven big ideas. Ecological research; rescue realities; working with communities; anti-smuggling; litigation; public campaigns; and land securement. If you want to preserve nature, land is the ultimate solution. But what is the point of knowing all of this and saying we can’t do it?