Book Reviews

Review Published in HINDUSTAN TIMES

Mysteries of the Wild


By Colin Willock

COLIN WILLOCK has been head and senior writer-producer of the Anglia Television unit for nearly three decades and has been involved in the production of the well-known Survival specials, a series of spectacular wildlife documentaries which have brought the mysteries of the forest into the drawing rooms of the world. Kingdoms of the East is based on these Survival specials and is a treat for any wildlife enthusiast. Where it clearly scores over the usual glossy tiger and buck photographic album is in the strength and width of its conceptualisation.

Two hundred million years or so ago, the entire land mass was congealed in the super continent of Pangaea, the southern part of which is known as the Gondwanaland. The continents as we know them today were joined together or at least lay very close together. Evidence of this fact is through the fossils of dinosaurs which are found in every continent. As these continents drifted apart through the ages, dramatic changes took place, like formation of mountain ranges, islands, and oceans. What effect this movement had on animal species, leading to the extinction of some, the survival and evolution of others, is a fascinating subject and forms the background for the Kingdoms of the East. The zoologists world is divided not into continents but zoological regions, in each of which certain species and families of animals have managed to survive. The Nearctic region covers North America; the Neotropical region stretches over South and Central America. The Palaearctic region covers Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Asia Minor. The Ethiopian region coincides with Africa south of the Sahara. In addition there are the Oriental and Australian regions. The Oriental region rich and varied in its flora and fauna covers the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, China Thailand and most of the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines. The Wallace line is the transitional zone that separates the Oriental region from the Australian. The book covers this area taking us from the big cats of northern India to the elephants in Sri Lanka, the Herons of Hong Kong and the Orang-utans of Borneo and Sumatra. In the process it unveils many a fascinating mystery and a wealth of interesting detail.

To what, for instance, does the tiger owe its stripes? If, as one theory goes, it originated in the extreme north and moved southwards, then it should not have had stripes at all. But even the Siberian cousin has these stripes, this “fearful symmetry.”

On the other hand it may have originated in the south and developed stripes for camouflage in the jungle and then moved north. But than why did it have a thick fur which it surely does not need in the jungles of India. It’s sad to read the scores of the tiger hunters of yore. The Maharaja of Sarguja claimed 1150 tigers, George Yule of the British civil service killed 400 in twenty five years; Maharaja of Rewa and several others crossed the five hundred mark. Such was the devastation that Jim Corbett gave the tiger only ten years of survival in the fifties. Fortunately the Project Tiger and other efforts have proved him wrong.

In Hong Kong, there are 40 species of mammals, 350 species of birds both resident and migrant, 70 species of reptiles, 20 species of amphibians, 200 butterfly and 2,300 plant species. And one thought Hong Kong was just a crowded and somewhat over-rated place where one could get reasonably priced electronic items. But one cannot forget that in the same place one can get any kind of food despite stringent laws. The book tells us of raids on 14 Hong Kong restaurants. In 1987 during which it was found that giant salamanders, pangolins and even golden eagles were kept alive to satisfy the whims and fancies of gourmet diners. In another restaurant across the Chinese border in Shenzen, rich Hong Kong merchants dine on clouded leopard, eagle, owl macaque, python and even tiger soup, all of which are regarded as health foods, aphrodisiacs and even status symbols.

BACK to India and to one of our unique species - the gharial which is the only member of its family Gavialidae. Its appearance is unique with its extraordinarily long jaws, smooth skin and bright colouring. Adult males sometimes have a mysterious hollow on the tip of their noses which may be a breathing accessory or simply a sign of male status. The gharial exists only in the river systems of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra and does not even reach the Godavari, Tapti or Narmada systems even though their northern tributaries are very close to the source streams of the Ganga.

There is also a fascinating chapter on the man of the forest - the Orang-utan. These giants, in a larger form, were more widely distributed once. But today they are confined to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo with the one from Borneo being distinguishable by its slightly darker colouring.

The book is replete with memorable and superb photographs which alone would have made it is a worthwhile buy. There is a close-up of a leopard having an afternoon siesta on a tree, another of a pensive macaque of Hong Kong, a family of painted storks of Sri Lanka and dozens of other equally remarkable ones. For those who missed the Survival documentaries, this book should make up to a large extent.