Magazine article History Today

Jungle Book Memories

Magazine article History Today

Jungle Book Memories

Article excerpt

India remains Asia's most important preserve for wildlife. However, there has been a drastic decline in the number of big game. It was in the late 1960s that Indians began ringing alarm bells over the disappearance of wild cats, elephants and rhino. Before the Second World War there were thought to be over 40,000 tigers. However, by the late 1970s tiger numbers were believed to have fallen as low as 1,800, poaching for international trade being the biggest problem.

The 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, instigated by Indira Gandhi's government, was the first serious attempt to tackle the crisis. A major effort since then has seen tiger numbers grow to more than 3,500, although the figures are disputed. Conservationists remain deeply pessimistic about the future of big game because of the profits for poachers. Elephant numbers have fallen to 20,000, and one-horned rhinos to only 1,900.

Poaching in jungles for big game is, of course, a world problem - and in May 1995, the Duke of Edinburgh, president of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, warned that something drastic needed to be done to curb the growing threat to wildlife. The catastrophe was caused by the combination of destruction of forests - essential habitat for big game - and uncontrolled poaching for exports of skins and bones. The problem was exacerbated by corruption which turned forests into playgrounds for poachers as those who were supposed to enforce laws succumbed to bribes.

The duke went on to point to one of the main problems - the rise in the world's human population to nearly six billion. As the population has expanded, forest cover has shrunk. This has been a disaster for the `kings of the jungle' - each tiger needs up to 100 square kilometres of land in order to flourish. The amount of green cover in India is disputed, but the tropical state of Kerala, in the south-west, is a good example of what has been taking place. At the turn of the century, it was one of India's richest wildlife areas, with more than 50 per cent forest cover. Experts say forest cover is now as little as 5 to 12 per cent.

Indian conservationists, contending with ruthless poachers, have made a commendable effort in the last few decades to try and ensure a future for their country's wildlife. However, an attitude of care and concern can be traced back to the Raj era - a heyday for hunters but also for animal protection measures. The truth was that many Britons in India had a great affinity for nature. Zoologist Gerald Durrell, born in Jamshedpur, Bihar, in 1925, had only one preoccupation - animals. This led to him fulfilling his dream of placing endangered species in a zoo in Jersey.

Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book - symbolised by infant boy Mowgli reared by wolves - reflects a tenderness, affection, respect and romance for wildlife. At Barrackpore, Calcutta, Lady Canning went sketching on an elephant. Many artists came to India to paint the wildlife, including uncle and nephew Thomas and William Daniell. John Gould, who became curator of London's Zoological Society's Museum in 1827, during his world travels undertook a series of remarkably accurate drawings of birds, including those of India.

The setting up in 1883 of the Bombay Natural History Society was further indication of the interest of the British Raj: its object being to promote the study of animal and plant life in Asia. For many years the moving spirit behind the Society was Stanley Prater, whose 1948 Book of Indian Animals helped educate the Indian public about wildlife on their subcontinent and the need for its preservation.

Anne Wright, a Briton born in India who remained in the country after Independence has dedicated herself to saving India's wildlife. She was awarded the Order of the Golden Ark from Holland in 1979, and an MBE from Prince Philip in 1984, and was one of the founding trustees of the World Wildlife Foundation of India in the late 1960s. …

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