On its surface, What’s Left of the Jungle by Nitin Sekar is exactly what it promises to be – “a conservation story.” And yet, this immersive, insightful and ambitious new work goes beyond the limits of its title to tell a deeply human story, a story of change, development, relationships, and inescapable forces that govern our lives, including the people and animals who call the jungle home.

That the book is both wide-ranging and highly specific (down to the minutiae of seed-colouring within elephant droppings) is one of its biggest strengths, allowing Sekar to deftly pull back the layers of what it means to be a working conservationist in the midst of rapid technological and social change.

The structure alternates perspectives and timelines: every other chapter tells the story of Sekar’s years as a PhD student, when he set up a field study on the Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal to examine one aspect of how elephants may support their ecosystem. Sekar, a conservation scientist, now serves as WWF India’s lead on elephant conservation.

His tone is unwaveringly direct and clear-eyed, with plenty of situational and self-deprecating humour sprinkled throughout. His experiences as a student in his mid-twenties navigating a new home, language, and uncooperative jungle environment give this an immediate and accessible feel regardless of the reader’s familiarity with the topic.

The family tale

Sekar is an energetic, determined force as seen through his research efforts and more broadly through his work to bring new opportunities to the village communities; his high expectations often collide with a tangle of bureaucracy, inertia, and implementation roadblocks, and point the way to a nonlinear and nuanced approach to progress. This is not an overly romanticised vision of human-animal interactions; it is, however, subtly impassioned and driven by consistent curiosity and heart.

The other chapters tell the fascinating story of the Atri family, and specifically one of the sons, Akshu. Born and raised in Buxa, Akshu offers a rarely seen, intimate look at life on the frontlines of human-animal conflict. Coexisting with these intelligent, enormous creatures does not make for an easy life; there are growing threats of elephant incursions into their croplands, and Akshu personally watches as parts of his home are upturned and neighbours die tragic deaths.

The reader follows Akshu’s experiences with smugglers and poachers as they hollow out Buxa, seemingly with impunity – so much so that this tiger reserve loses its tigers for more than two decades. And we see the evolution of his relationships, from challenging encounters with an unstable and violent brother to a blossoming love story with his wife to his increasingly profound connection to elephants.

It is the latter that is the most affecting, as Akshu gradually moves from seeing elephants as avatars of Ganesha to respecting them as independent beings, even recognising their “fundamental soulfulness.” His evident kindness, generosity and resilience in the face of the vagaries of village life within the jungle make him a powerful and thoughtful costar in this book’s narrative.

Few easy answers

Despite portraying multiple points of friction, the story is not aimed at villainising any one person or group. The Forest Department, though often alarmingly lax in enforcement, also has officials driven to make change (including through some head shaking and unorthodox methods). On one occasion, a drop in smuggling means that villagers no longer have money to spend in local shops, thus harming the entire community.

In these contested lands, there are few easy answers for successfully managing wildlife, particularly without demanding that the most marginalised pay the price. Often, Sekar points out, the poor in India are asked to live impossibly restrictive lifestyles in order to share space with dangerous creatures, while the wealthy isolate themselves in areas of relative safety. “No densely populated modern society has played by these rules,” he notes.

Sekar goes into Buxa with these tensions top-of-mind. As his journey progresses, he weaves in his growing understanding of what is needed for an equitable model of conservation, built upon close observation and lived experience, and a steadfast interest in finding solutions. His preface quotes a government report on elephant-human clashes that states, “Both [are] victims in the conflict. Both are victims of victims.” This sets the tone for the narrative exploration that unfolds, and results in a moving and important story about one of the pressing problems of our times.

What’s Left of the Jungle: A Conservation Story, Nitin Sekar, Bloomsbury India.