Wild notes from the British Raj
Edited by Dr Ashok Kothari and Boman Chhapgar, Wildlife of the Himalayas and the Terai Region, is a coffee table book that gives readers a ringside view to this wild and breathtaking territory, sourced from researchers and hunters in the British era. Dr Kothari sheds light on compiling this handy guide to Himalayan fauna
What makes the natural history of the Himalayan region unique so that it deserved an entire encyclopedia?
The Himalayas, with dense forests and perennial streams, is home to a variety of birds, animals and plants. Many unique animals also dwell in the area around the snow line. The birds and particularly pheasants are famous for their dazzling colours. Often, modern cameras fail to capture their beauty.
In the age of DSLRs and high-resolution images, why did you decide to opt for illustrations (which are quite stunning and accurate)?
Artists like John Gould never came to India. The lithographs were done looking at the birds shot in the Himalayan region by ornithologists and hunters and sent by slow moving steamers to England. They used vegetable colours, which survived for almost 150 years. Evans Fraser, who owned a famous departmental store in Mumbai, which became Handloom House later, presented his entire collection of precious books to the BNHS in 1925 (Birds of Himalaya Mountains and six volumes of Birds of Asia by John Gould were part of the books presented by Evans). Many bird photographs in here are from John Gould’s books. We took a while to select pictures. Our efforts to reproduce stunning colours and minute details of the lithographs were positive. This is an art book with reproduced rare paintings; the only photograph used is that of the editors.
The book contains excerpts taken from titles written by researchers and hunters from the British Raj. It’s interesting anecdotal information but does it make the information a bit outdated? Has the fauna of the Himalayan and Terai region remained unchanged since the 19th century?
The forests have thinned out. Animals are less. Those were the days when every Englishman coming to India carried guns for hunting. Since then, Lesser One-horned or Javan Rhinoceros has disappeared from India. Once it ranged over most of Assam and Bengal. When Colonel Kinloch wrote the article they were in plenty in the Sunderbans. He shot a Javan Rhinoceros in 1878 near the left bank of Tista River in Bengal. Kinloch was a big-game hunter and also an expert on the habits of animals. Sumatran Rhinoceros, which was once common in Assam and Burma (Myanmar) has also disappeared from those areas.
While the findings might have been exhaustive, did you leave out species due to space constraints? The book has more information about animals while the breathtaking bird paintings are carried with detailed captions. Will you work on another book dedicated to the birds of the region?
We had to leave many birds and plants, as 215 pages were not sufficient to give extensive information. We have tried to give information on most of the animals of Tibet, Himalayan and Terai region. Colour plates of many other Himalayan birds have been featured in our earlier coffee table books.