A pair of cheetahs lie in the tawny grass, their alert, expressive faces studying us intently as our vehicle comes to a stop 50m away. For 20 minutes we watch them playing together like a pair of mischievous young dogs—pawing, biting, rolling over and pouncing on each other. But when they finally stop fooling around and rise to their feet, it is clear they are ready for a hunt, two lean predators setting off in pursuit of prey.
Watching cheetahs at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, I can’t help feeling a sense of regret that these animals no longer exist in India. The last of our cheetahs were shot in Surguja in Chhattisgarh by the maharaja in 1947, a grim punctuation mark to British and princely rule, as well as a tragic beginning to independence. These swift and graceful creatures once raced across the Deccan Plateau and prowled the Gangetic Plain. Recent proposals to reintroduce the cheetah in Madhya Pradesh by importing their African cousins have been controversial and abortive, a misconceived effort in hindsight conservation. The projected Rs.264 crore budget for this project would have been better spent protecting those animals that survive rather than trying to bring a lost species back to life.
While visiting Kenya with my family earlier this month, I found myself reflecting on the differences between wildlife preserves in Africa and India. Though I’m neither a scientist nor an expert, much of my life has been spent in India’s jungles. Visiting the Maasai Mara, Amboseli and Nairobi national parks was an eye-opening experience that led me to question some of our approaches to conservation in India and made me appreciate the rich natural legacy that still exists.
For me, there is no greater pleasure than observing herds of elephants and other wildlife in the Corbett National Park or along the banks of the Kabini river at Nagarhole, Karnataka. Often, though, it is the smaller creatures that catch my attention—a Malabar giant squirrel lounging on the branches of a rosewood tree or a paradise flycatcher bird stitching the air with its tail. Flagship species and apex predators are always impressive, but the wildlife moments that remain most vivid in my memory are of watching a pack of wild dogs hounding a sambar stag on the lakeside at Periyar or a python in Bharatpur uncoiling itself in the dust, still swollen from a midday meal.
In Africa, there are obvious differences, of course. During one morning in Amboseli, we saw more animals scattered across the plain than I have seen in the last decade of visiting parks in India. Numerically, there are simply more creatures and a greater variety of large mammals. But the terrain and habitat is also significantly different and dense vegetation makes it much more difficult to encounter animals in the Indian forest. Seeing herds of wildebeest and zebra crossing the Mara river during their annual migration is an overwhelming drama. In their presence, we feel outnumbered as human beings, which is never the case in India.
However, the biggest difference, between wildlife preserves in India and those in Africa, lies in the behaviour of our own species. The motivations and expectations that most people bring with them to a national park in India are considerably different from what I witnessed in Kenya. At several points, I found myself watching fellow tourists as much as I was observing wildlife (and it should be noted that many of the groups were from India). Generally speaking, I sensed that most of the visitors maintained an attentive silence and understood that they were privileged to enter these protected domains of nature. There seemed little sense of entitlement or superiority and a kind of hushed reverence for the spectacle of life that crossed our paths—giraffes, elands, hippos, hyenas, warthogs, gazelles and impalas.
In contrast, I have often encountered jeeploads of tourists in Indian parks who treat their visits to nature preserves as a social outing or a picnic at the zoo. This “jungle mein mangal” attitude prevails from Kaziranga to Mudumalai. It represents the arrogance and indifference of our species but also a cultural bias towards anything that is “wild” or “untamed”.
Nature should never be reduced to a form of exotic entertainment. Instead, we should learn from wildlife and appreciate the inspiring stories of our fellow creatures with whom we share this planet. Almost everyone who enters a park in India hopes to see a tiger, which is understandable, but when this obsession with large carnivores leads us to ignore the multitude of other birds and animals that fill the forest, the true value of being in a sanctuary is lost. I’m sure that the same mindset occurs in Africa, where watching lions on a fresh kill in Maasai Mara was one of the high points of our visit. Nevertheless, in Kenya, there seemed to be a greater appreciation for the diversity of species beyond the so-called “Big Five”—the lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros.
As the two cheetahs strode off into the vast grasslands of the Serengeti, which spread from Kenya into Tanzania, I would have liked to go with them and watch them hunt. Yet there was also a certain fulfilment in knowing that they were passing freely beyond my field of vision, somewhere I could not follow, except through my imagination. The real meaning of a sanctuary, whether in India or in Africa, should be a place where man excludes himself and allows other animals to have dominion over the land.
Stephen Alter is a Mussoorie-based author. His most recent book is In The Jungles Of The Night: A Novel About Jim Corbett.