A sturdy hard back with a themed front cover in glossy white splashed with a generous daub of green and with a completely green back, the first glimpse that “Secrets of Similipal” presents is captivating enough. The interest of the reader is further aroused as he/she takes in the brief foreword written in impeccable English by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. And when the reader, led on by the informative and well-written preface by a field expert, Suresh Chandra Mohanty, a former Chief Conservator of Forest, comes to the first chapter of the book, he/she is hooked to it right away, as the present reviewer was.
To start with, author Debabrata Swain’s framing of a primarily geological and environmental subject matter by lines from Viswa Kabi Rabindranath Tagore and a poetic coinage – ‘Salmali Saila’ – from the great Odia poet Radhanath Ray makes an immediate and powerful impression. This coupled with the graphic and panoramic coloured photos of the undulating hills and grasslands, the magnificent waterfalls and the abundant flora and fauna of the mountain range that is the jewel in the crown of Mayurbhanj makes the book a feast for the eyes. The reader thus rushes headlong through the six well-orchestrated chapters – Landscape, Forest, Fauna, People, Management, and Corridor – to a befitting finale, calling for our willed participation in the management of the unique ecosystem. The author recalls with gratitude the illustrious forerunners who have paved the road for an exploration of the place and the telling of an uncommon tale that he is helping to continue. The effect is one of Aladdin’s treasure trove, put on gorgeous display, albeit with a rider that if we don’t care for its preservation we stand to lose it all.
But the book is not about the parade of beauty alone. There is a lot of brain work involved in it, especially the cerebral disposition of a natural scientist, which Swain essentially is, being originally a student of biology. Naturally writing about a book like this on the part of a reader like me, from a liberal arts background, is nothing short of audacious. The book is packed with technical and scientific information and data that I can only note but cannot process or put in proper perspective.
Often the liberal arts education in our society does not prepare people for a thoughtful and sensitive encounter with the resources of our natural world, simply because we do not know their name, nature and function and can’t, therefore, tell one from the other. Not that the students of science are exempt from such a handicap. Their knowledge too is theoretical and book learned. In a situation like this the arts and the sciences are doomed to inhabit parallel universes with no communicating door between them. In his book ‘Conquest of Happiness’, Bertrand Russell righty warns us against the unfortunate consequences of such a rootless education. The effort to bridge the gap between the liberal arts and the hard sciences, between gnosis and praxis, must be made from either side of the divide in the interest of a truly holistic education. This is what Swain, a former Indian Forest Service officer and currently a member of the Lokayukta of Odisha, has creditably done.
Each one of the chapters has a literary and anecdotal beginning and each is presented in a reader-friendly style. The result is a book about a dome of ‘many-splendored glass’ that is Similipal, at once pristine woodland of unmatched beauty, a reservoir of biodiversity, a sanctuary for a rare breed of tiger species, called melanistic tiger, with broad black stripes across its body, and a reserve for elephants. He has written knowledgeably, reliably and passionately about the place and about the conservation strategies needed to augment the government’s effort to keep Similipal as a top ‘biosphere reserve’ in the country. The fact that Swain belongs to the district of Mayurbhanj gives an extra edge to his timely call for studying the unique eco-system of Similipal diligently and dispassionately, and not just singing paeans to it in verse. For, as he points out, ‘anthropogenic pressure is a major ecosystem stressor’ (p. 77), and Similipal which is ‘surrounded by 1,200 villages within the transitional zone, besides 62 villages inside the buffer as well as zone of the reserve’ (p. 77), is particularly prone to losing its balance and dynamism. Local needs-based management efforts, therefore, play a key role in the survival of the ecosystem.
Swain has the habit of evoking in almost every chapter a synoptic history of Similipal since its recognition as a biodiversity hub. This reiterative habit has the effect of impressing the key facts about this ‘biosphere reserve’ on the memory of the reader. Here is one example: ‘Similipal reserve forest is a sanctuary, and the core area of the sanctuary is a proposed National Park under Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. It has been constituted as a tiger reserve since 1973. It formed part of Mayurbhanj elephant reserve in 1992 and declared as a biosphere reserve in 1994’ (p. 106). And Swain has not failed to stress throughout the book the vital fact of the interdependence of the life and land forms.
“Secrets of Similipal” is a delightful and edifying book. In the wake of the recently concluded climate conference – COP 26 – in Glasgow, it assumes a special significance, serving as it does as a survival kit for mankind, threatened with extinction by the fact of human greed overrunning human need and denuding the mother earth. Similipal holds the key to mankind’s future in a much more fundamental way than does the building of a megalopolis.
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