The wild plays a central role in our lives. Without tigers, leopards and crocodiles – apex predators at the top of their food chains – ecosystems like the forests would perish. Without the smaller, but no less charismatic butterflies, dragonflies and bees, pollination would collapse, taking down our agricultural system with it.

Wild species are also central to our imaginations. Just like the rhinoceros in Nepal, lions and tigers are symbols of national pride in India. When scientists announced in 2005 that not a single tiger was left in the Sariska Tiger Reserve, the news was greeted with widespread condemnation, impelling park managers to relocate tigers from other parts of the country here. When new cubs were spotted in the reserve in 2012, celebrations were equally widespread.

The tigers of Sariska are distant for many of us – we may never see them in our lifetimes. But they are important to us. They matter.

The Indian subcontinent is richly gifted with biogeographic and environmental diversity. India contains some of the world’s richest collections of species – in the central Indian forests, the eastern and western Himalayas, the Eastern and Western Ghats, the mangroves, coastal and riverine wetlands, and other parts of the country. Even our cities teem with wildlife, if you know where to look.

We have not treated our wild species well. Elephants are killed by speeding trains, dolphins and Amur falcons are caught and killed in nets, bustards and flamingoes die in large numbers, entangled in wires that connect to the growing number of solar plants that feed India’s ambition to become a renewable energy superpower.

Our aspirations of growth and development are important, even essential. But the growth we seek cannot come at the expense of ecology. Not only because it is unjust. Not only because the wild is another part of our own selves. But even pragmatically, we must protect our biodiversity – because economic growth will collapse when the ecology that underpins it collapses.

Stories of hope

Drawing on Neha Sinha’s background as an environmental journalist and conservation biologist, her book Wild and Wilful takes us on a fascinating journey across India. Over eleven essays, the book introduces readers to 15 species and their habitats – such as the forests of Nagaland which shelter Amur falcons each October as they pass through on their long migratory journey, the Kutch desert, where the Great Indian Bustard is being hemmed in by solar plants, and the Asola Bhatti sanctuary, where troops of monkeys, relocated from Delhi, are fed daily at concrete tables.

The stories that Sinha brings us are rich and complex. The relationship between Homo sapiens and other species is at once central to our lives, and full of conflict. We love the wild, but we also worship it, protect it with a parental passion, hunt it, fear it, and butcher it with savagery.

Sinha brings us hopeful stories. Seventy-five-year-old Sitaram Das, aka “Babaji” lost an arm to a mother crocodile, but still he protects crocodiles with passion in the Kotni Sonar community reserve for crocodiles, near his Chattisgarh village, because of his “love without expectation”. Manjeet Kaur Bal, also from Chattisgarh, is an intrepid woman snake rescuer in a male-dominated society who combines public education with snake rehabilitation.

The writer also tells us of drunk men who throw fiery tar balls at elephants – and shares with us the disturbing fact that the environment ministry’s elephant guidelines, released in 2020, recommend the use of fire torches for elephant control. The gorgeous Amur falcon, once senselessly butchered (one lakh falcons were slaughtered in a ten-day period in October 2012) is now protected by local communities in Nagaland. But the leopard, threatened by habitat fragmentation and the growth of cities, is feared and shunned by the very communities who should be most comfortable with it – such as the Wildlife Institute of India, whose administration tried strenuously to trap and relocate a leopard visiting their campus, despite resistance by its students and some faculty.

Written with heart

Many books on wildlife, particularly Indian books, focus on the charismatic beasts – tigers, lions, leopards, rhinos and elephants. These are flagship species, and it is very understandable that such books are widely sought. But wildlife encompasses much more than the “Big 5”. Wild and Wilful is a refreshingly different wildlife book in that sense.

Sure, it tells us stories of these magnificent animals – but it also lovingly details the stories of pesky macaques, tiger-ish butterflies, and migrating rosy starlings. A second important feature of this book is the way it deals with people. All too often, wildlife conservation has been criticised in India for taking an “anti-people” approach, blaming local, often tribal, communities for wildlife poaching while giving a free pass to wildlife tourism, mining, roads, and other developmental activities that have a greater impact on biodiversity.

Sinha writes with empathy about local communities – not with naïve feel-good optimism, but with a realistic depiction of the complex relationships between people and wildlife. Wild and Wilful shows us the many coping mechanisms that indigenous communities have evolved to cohabit with wildlife – and how the entry of cities, commerce and industrial growth has begun to fray these coping mechanisms.

The rich detail compressed into some chapters of the book occasionally detracts from the main storyline of each chapter, but this is a relatively minor quibble. Above all, the book is written with heart, the most essential of our faculties while engaging with nature, as Sinha points out in her “Introduction”. In her words, “while this book is partially about how we affect animals, it is wholly about what animals can teach us about being human”.

Wild and Wilful adds to the growing body of popular writing on wildlife and nature in India. In doing so, it performs an important task. By encouraging people to learn about the biodiversity that surrounds us, it urges us to develop a collective ecological conscience.

Harini Nagendra is a professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, the author of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future, and co-author of Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities.

Wild and Wilful: Tales of 15 Iconic Indian Species

Wild and Wilful: Tales of 15 Iconic Indian Species, Neha Sinha, HarperCollins India.