“A British friend of ours who saw one on the IISc campus some years ago said: ‘This is the first animal I’ve seen whose eyes are bigger than it’s butt’,” author and ecologist Kartik Shanker told me as we talked about lorises. Unlike the British gentleman, I first found about the primate in Shanker’s latest children’s book, Lori’s Magical Mystery. It was, in fact, the stunning illustration of the loris’s eyes across the cover (by Prabha Mallya) that had attracted me to the book.
Lori’s Magical Mystery tells the story of an unusual friendship between a loris (Lori) and a drongo (Don) – another fascinating creature whose existence I was unaware of. A quick Google search led me to a spectacular video of the bird tricking a mob of Meerkats – turns out it’s an exceptional mimic.
Where the wild things are
Shanker’s book isn’t the only recent example of a children’s book written by a wildlife conservationist and environmentalist. Two books I recently read – When I Grow Up I Want to be a Tiger by Prerna Singh Bindra and The Secret Life of Mammals by Vivek Menon – are part of the list. Bindra has been a conservationist for over a decade and has served as a member of the National Board for Wildlife and on Uttarakhand’s State Board for Wildlife, while Menon is the founder and executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).
While Lori’s Magical Mystery is meant for children over 12, Bindra’s book targets a younger audience and tells the story of a young Tiger cub who one day finds that his mother has gone missing. Menon’s book is non-fiction – a comprehensive field guide for young wildlife enthusiasts. Filled with hundreds of fun facts, pictures and notes from Menon’s personal experience of working in the field of conservation, it is a modified version of his bestselling 2014 book, Indian Mammals: A Field Guide, which was meant for adults.
Shanker’s book is full of references to birds and animals I’d never heard about. My curiosity about them led me to turn to the internet, and one Youtube video led to another (I blame the autoplay feature). Before I knew it, I’d looked up not just several of the birds mentioned in the book – the Blue Flycatcher, the Scarlet Minivet and the Frogmouth – but also found myself spending several minutes watching videos and reading about other Indian animals.
Of course, I eventually returned to the book, but I also had another question to consider: is this exactly what Shanker had hoped the book would do? And what about the others? Did their reason to tell these stories also align with their goals as environmentalists?
“Kinda, yes,” he said when I asked him. “I guess to some extent I wanted to share (with children) the excitement that my students and I feel about some of these things.” It’s the excitement that he felt the first time he dived at a reef and saw a bunch of strikingly colourful reef fish – the kind he’s seen his students experience when they spot a mixed flock of foraging birds with babblers and minivets and of course, drongos.
When I spoke to Bindra, she told me that working in this field can be really grim. “There’s little good news. One crisis after the other...it can get overwhelming”. She wanted to relive the magic of nature and wildlife that had got her into this profession in the first place. “And I wanted kids to feel that. For them to know tigers better and to understand that animals feel emotions too,” she added.
With Menon’s book being non-fiction, his reasons seem more clearly defined. He told me that his book aims to “develop a sense of responsibility towards wildlife and its conservation among children”. There is, he claimed, a high potential for engaging the young in wildlife conservation.
Unlike Menon, the idea of educating children about ecology or conservation did not play on Bindra’s or Shanker’s minds while writing their books. “I’d be happy if even one child in a thousand says after reading the book, ‘Wow, I would really like to go out there and see this cool stuff!’” said Shanker. “But it was not written to draw kids to nature...It was fun for me to write and I thought it might just be fun for others to read.” Bindra agreed. “You don’t thrust lessons down their throats...But at the same time your story tells something to the children, right?”
Going by the book
Whatever their motivations, each of these writers are playing a part in enhancing children’s understanding of the wild – be it through facts or just a great story.
And they themselves grew up reading books by Gerald Durrell, Jim Corbett, James Herriot and EP Gee. “Among the Elephants (by Iain Douglas-Hamilton) influenced me most among wildlife books,” said Menon. This reminds me of how reading Ruskin Bond’s short story The Leopard had made me realise that we were not alone, that our actions affect other animals living on this planet.
Talking about other mediums, like documentary films that share similar concerns, both Bindra and Menon said that books have an edge over them. “Books accord more flexibility to our imaginations and incite greater curiosity,” felt Menon. Bindra said that books are far more accessible. “Even in a local train in Mumbai, you can pull a book out and be transported.”
It wasn’t reading alone that spurred their interest. Bindra told me that since her father was a government servant, she grew up in a huge bungalow with a backyard that used to invite a gamut of animals. She recalled spending a lot of time there looking at peahens and watching snakes and mongooses fight.
“And back in college, if a squirrel or baby bird had fallen or a puppy had been injured, I’d help with their treatment,” she said. “They used to call me ‘Animal doctor aunty’”.
For Shanker, it was the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) that he had helped start at the end of his bachelor’s degree that was a trigger. They had started organising turtle walks to collect and protect the eggs in hatcheries till they hatched. The group remains active 30 years after it was founded. “It was the turtle that sort of turned me,” he said.
In his book, Menon also cites instances from his childhood that played an important role in getting him interested in the field – from watching a pair of dragonflies mate in his father’s pond at the age of 11, through being chased by a bear through an apple orchard while climbing the Rohtang Pass in Class IX, to watching red dogs hunt a blue goat in Eravikulam.
Take them to the wild
Books help children get a glimpse into a world that they are often denied – a world full of near fantastical plants and animals – and help sensitise them toward wildlife through a written narrative. But the one thing that all three writers agree with is that there is nothing as important as experience to make the next generation more aware of the importance of wildlife.
“I think reading is fine, National Geographic channel is fine, but I really think that it’s experience more than anything else,” said Shanker. He explained that sensitivity comes from using our senses – seeing, hearing and smelling. “I think until you experience it for yourself, you don’t realise what nature is.”
Menon recommends visiting sanctuaries and participating in local nature walks, bird walks and nature clubs, especially for those who live in urban areas. “It is important to engage younger people in our efforts to conserve wildlife in a more pragmatic manner,” he said.
To keep wildlife close to her, Bindra, who currently lives in the concrete jungle that is Gurgaon, has hung artificial bird nests around her house which are now home to several Bulbuls. “You can attune children to nature, even while living in a city. It’s possible,” is her belief.
Parents have the opportunity to expose their children to an education that goes beyond the realms of academia to enhance their understanding of the world. Though Shanker got interested in the field when he was in college, he does remember his mother taking him to watch Living Free – the movies based on Joy Adamson’s books about a couple raising an orphaned lion cub – when he was really young. “She thinks that must have planted some seeds,” he said.
Bindra, too, said her mother instilled a sense of compassion and kindness in her that helped her relate to and care for animals.
Menon feels deeply indebted to his parents, who themselves had no interest in wildlife but allowed him to do what came to him naturally.
If we want our children to reap the benefits of nature, be inspired and be stunned by its beauty, it is crucial that we take active steps to make that happen – by buying them books, taking them out to parks and taking trips to the jungle, by making an effort to ensure that the wild isn’t invisible to them. Only then will there exist a chance that they will get to like it.
“And when you like something, you fight for it, right?” asked Bindra.