Rauf Ali’s book is an unconventional addition to the annals of natural history

Rauf Ali in his book, Running Away from Elephants, writes with wit and without guile and this makes Running Away from Elephants a bracing experience     

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
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Cara Tejpal

Nobody likes a critic, but I may have found an exception to that rule in Rauf Ali. Which seems reasonable, given that the late wildlife biologist lived a life inimical to convention. Over a career that spanned continents, institutions and species, Ali remained ever-suspicious of the status quo. No subject was sacrosanct, and this proclivity to question everything gave him the ‘bad boy of conservation’ reputation that he clearly delighted in during his lifetime.

Running Away from Elephants is Ali’s wildly meandering but rivetting account of his professional life. Born to a conservation pedigree of sorts, he was a mere 12 years old when he began to accompany his granduncle Salim Ali on research trips to Bharatpur for the Bombay Natural History Society. Those were the bird sanctuary’s glory days, a time when hundreds of pairs of Siberian Cranes would still make an annual pilgrimage to India, and these expeditions fuelled Ali’s interest in the natural world.

While pursuing a Ph.D at the University of Bristol in the UK, a chance encounter with the renowned primatologist John Oates diverted Ali’s attention from birdsong to monkey behaviour. It was this twist of fate that brought Ali back to India and ignited his enduring love affair with Tamil Nadu’s Mundanthurai Wildlife Sanctuary (now part of the Kallakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve). The three chapters of the book that are dedicated to these initial years of studying bonnet macaques in the rainforest are chock-a-block with anecdotes and insights on both wild animals and the humans that surrounded them. Later, research and teaching opportunities took Ali to the United States of America, Bangalore and then Thailand, where he stayed for three years before returning to India to build his home in the experimental community of Auroville.

In 2000, a decade after first stepping foot on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to visit a doctoral student, Ali accepted a job at a research base in the Andamans. With its plethora of endemic life forms and unique cultures, the islands gave him a new playing field. Here he chose to battle with the problem of invasive species, more specifically the spotted deer and abandoned logging elephants that were (and still are) wreaking ecological havoc on the islands

By this time, Ali was disillusioned with academia. He felt that political manipulation was given precedence over science. Still, when Pondicherry University approached him to help establish a Department of Ecology, he was seduced by the prospect of freedom to choose faculty and students. Unfortunately, Ali’s misgivings were validated and he found himself straightjacketed by an inflexible administration, frustrated by unfulfilled promises and the victim of a vilification campaign by members of the faculty who couldn’t digest his candour. In the end, he received a termination notice from the university, after a confrontation with another professor degenerated into a brawl. Despite his rocky relationship with the university administration, Ali forged extraordinary bonds with his students who flourished in classes that were held on the beach and in pubs, and whose work he generously explores in the pages of this memoir.

In 2000, a decade after first stepping foot on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to visit a doctoral student, Ali accepted a job at a research base in the Andamans. With its plethora of endemic life forms and unique cultures, the islands gave him a new playing field. Here he chose to battle with the problem of invasive species, more specifically the spotted deer and abandoned logging elephants that were (and still are) wreaking ecological havoc on the islands. Armed with irrefutable evidence of the damage being caused, Ali called for urgent control measures but once again found himself thwarted by bureacracy. Then the tsunami struck, and along with it the brainwave to help the Nicobaris market the virgin coconut oil that they were already producing instead of the low-quality copra that was being exported to Port Blair and bought for a pittance. The initiative chugged along in fits and starts but not before money and machines were lost to island politics.

Rauf Ali’s style isn’t whimsical like the majority of nature writers. He shares none of Jane Goodall’s poignancy or M Krishnan’s lyricism. Often he writes without tact, taking no great effort to conceal the identities of those he critiques. He’s given to go off on a tangent, and the book is punctuated with commentary on topics ranging from the social function of ragging in colleges to the inept administration of Auroville. But Ali writes with wit and without guile and this makes Running Away from Elephants a bracing experience.

Throughout the book, he unpacks and explores theories and beliefs that are taken for granted by conservationists and ecologists and provokes one to examine his own position on these. For those of us who are used to scientists toeing the line and preserving social niceties, it’s exhilarating to read Ali’s more radical ideas. For example, he advocated the legalisation of marijuana on the grounds that the Narcotics Act was prima facie impacting wild elephant populations by (criminalising and so) pushing ganja cultivation deep into the Western Ghats and thus fragmenting prime elephant habitat.

Ali struggled with bureaucratic institutions throughout his career. His experiences on various projects led him to a simple conclusion. He writes, “The most important criteria for success are the dedication and integrity of the individuals heading the programme.” Good leadership, he asserts, is paramount, “because no institutional memories are created, and the same mistakes are repeated ad nauseum.” I’d wager that today’s field biologists would agree.

His wry, whiskey-swigging style keeps Running Away from Elephants from becoming drab even when the topics get serious. Ali was a reservoir of knowledge on ecology and conservation, and his book is a valuable, if unconventional addition, to the narrative on India’s post-Independence natural history. Though readers remain in the dark about much of Ali’s personal life (there is next to no allusion to family, lovers or personal struggles), a dizzying number of characters find place in his book. Perhaps this is what makes his cynicism palatable—that he is unafraid to give credit where credit is due. He evidently took great pride in the work of his students and it is true that these men and women now comprise a healthy chunk of India’s most sharp and outspoken conservation scientists. Truly a formidable legacy to bequeath to a nation that has for too long ignored the voices and warnings of environmentalists.

(Cara Tejpal is a writer and wildlife conservationist with the Sanctuary Nature Foundation)


Running away from Elephants; Publisher: Speaking Tiger; Price: Rs 499

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