Tales from the Shikar Raj
Hunting anecdotes are clearly out of place in this age, and serve as nothing more than a sad reminder of a somewhat barbaric past. Especially when they concern the exploits of maharajas, the British, the brown sahibs, the landed gentry, civil and military officials. Most of what is documented in Volume I of The Oxford Anthology of Indian Wildlife ("Hunting and Shooting") is about the natural heritage that was laid waste, and about the carnage in the Subcontinent's bountiful wilds. In defence, the editor says that this is not so much a celebration as "the need to learn creatively from the past".
There has been a significant dearth of nature writing in the Subcontinent when compared to the wealth of literature on the subject in the West. This anthology, in two parts, is one attempt at filling that void. The collection of hunting anecdotes, covering over a century, has been put together from various sources and is well-edited. Some of the accounts are notable for their attention to detail, the description of the landscape and in conveying the thrill of the hunt. Notable among these are the accounts of Jim Corbett, FWF Fletcher, RP Noronha, Sudyam Cutting, James Forsyth and PD Stracey.
However, crucial issues have not been addressed. The editor writes, "Though there are accounts of their [tribal] range of skills and their myriad methods of catching wild animals, this is perhaps the first time that a hunting anthology gives them the attention they deserve". In fact, he clearly does not give the tribals the "attention" they deserve — barring a few references to the skill of the indigenous hunting communities, they find no place in this history of a century and a half, set ironically in their home terrain. The native was the outsider in the sportsman's paradise described in Volume I. They were stereotyped as cruel, with wasteful hunting skills and generally reckless. They were considered rivals for game, which is probably why the editor describes them as the "second set of hunters" in his broad classification. Not the "first", which would have been more natural for indigenous communities who, after all, were here for millennia before the gun and the colonial arrived.
The tribal is ignored even with regard to his participation in the sahib's hunting party. After all, it was the knowledge of the tribal and his expertise of the terrain, as trackers, hunt organisers or simple beaters, which gave the hunters most of their trophies. This knowledge was appropriated in an extractive process that continues to this day — whether in the field of natural medicine or any other. The tribal remains on the periphery, when not regarded as the villain, implicated in damaging the biosphere of South Asia.
Also missing is a perspective on what the shift (from the shikari past to the marginalised present) has meant for the people who inhabited the regions now protected or those continuing to live on their edges. Neither does this volume assess the impact of the shikar raj on wildlife numbers and distribution in the areas, and the damage it did to those who had lived traditionally off the forest. The tribal had to pay for each forest commodity (resin, leaf, honey or bark), while the hunter never suffered for the colossal harm he did to the habitat and wildlife. The tribal communities never had control over the resources, due earlier to the feudal power structures and later due to forest and wildlife laws. There can be no debate on wildlife watching and conservation without including these aspects.
The second volume titled, "Watching and Conserving", deals with the age of 'ecological awakening' — the age of interest and infomation on wildlife. But ours is an age of ecological imperatives, not ecological consciousness. There can be no excuse for making such a false assumption in a Subcontinent where natives displayed an amazing balance with the wild, and where the respect for and protection of bio-diversity has a longer history than what blinkered conservationists can fathom. From sacred groves to the principles governing hunting or harvesting, and the worship of animals, locals had found a balanced way of dealing with natural resources. It is the period that this anthology documents that radically altered this balance —the European sportsmen and local worthies being equally responsible.
The anthology reaffirms the need for purposeful writing on South Asia's nature and wildlife. While this collection may well have served as a "bridge between the shikari past and our age of ecology", it does not, however, do justice to the people on the margins. On the one hand, therefore, we have a somewhat celebratory collection of hunting anecdotes, and on the other, some easy naturalist sentiments.