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How would Hagrid plan a safari in the Aravallis?

India has announced the world’s largest safari in the Aravallis. It’s worth considering how Hagrid would have planned it

Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid.

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For a generation that lived with, and grew up on, Harry Potter, the series wasn’t just about magic. It was on relationships, belonging and love. And in the Potter sky of emotions, games-keeper Hagrid was a shining star: blazing warmth and a moral, directional compass. On 14 October, Robbie Coltrane, who played Hagrid on the big screen, died. He was like the finest kind of best friend from the movies—his death feels like the end of an era.

Portraying a half-giant character, Coltrane played to Hagrid’s vulnerabilities, not his brute strength. He was a man frequently bewildered by games of power but he stood by his values and animals. For me, the most subversive thing about Hagrid was that he enjoyed animals for exactly what they were—untamed, angry, loving, wilful. When he spoke about Buckbeak the Hippogriff, or dragons, he noted their feral characteristics, as much as other traits like magnificence and beauty. His ethic was unflappable: In the same way that we appreciate a diversity of traits in people, animals should be seen and accepted for theirs too.

For many of us, this was the first mainstream pop-culture character valuing wildlife for being truly wild. It reminded me of the way House Of The Dragons interpreted dragons in season 1’s final episode—as animals that should not have been tamed (animals, like elephants, with great power and minds of their own).

In India, the question of wild animals being wilful is one we live cheek-to-cheek with. In November, visuals of a grassy patch near Ooty’s golf course were shared. In the video, we see verdant lawn grass and a dense, florid bush. From that bush emerges a rather chubby-looking animal. It is completely at ease, walking slowly, powerfully—the famous catwalk that has won so many fans. The tiger walks, and, later, reclines next to a cow it has killed.

This is a tiger near a golf course, bringing to mind the sight of herds of elephants crossing highways, lions sauntering on the beaches of Gujarat, and massive birds of prey sitting on powerlines, pinning their steely gaze on the city below them.

New plans for wildlife, though, focus on containing animals, smoothening their so-called rough edges. After bringing African cheetahs to a safari-style setup in Madhya Pradesh, India has announced it will have the world’s largest safari (10,000 acres) in Haryana’s Aravallis.

 

The Indian pitta.
The Indian pitta. (Neha Sinha)

The Aravallis, part of the world’s oldest fold mountains, have some of the most tenacious Indian natives. Slow-growing palash and jaal trees, which can withstand dust and sun. Dhau trees, which can grip undulating, dry slopes. Leopards, which can walk kilometres for precious water, their chequered coats melting into the thorny landscape. Indian-eagle owls, which can perch on bare rock radiating the full glare of the sun.

Yet the world’s largest safari will make something that is not analogous with these wild animals—cages. It will also pour concrete and metal on soil and rock.

Chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar has announced that the safari will have 10 zones, including an area for snakes and other reptiles, an enclosed bird park, enclosures for big cats, an underwater world, an area for foreign birds and animals, and so on.

It’s worth considering how Hagrid would plan this safari.

I think he would start with deciding where to put the human. People would be allowed to see animals from exciting but safe distances. A network of CCTV cameras outside porcupine dens, waterholes where wild nilgai and francolins drink, places where hyenas feed. Imposing watchtowers which would take you to the eye-level of a powerful Steppe eagle, wintering in India, away from its home in Central Asia. Floating paths through marshes where waterfowl from the Palearctic gather. People (not animals) would stick to trails, as they did in the Forbidden Forest, and there could be enclosed, transparent pipe-tunnels for visitors to walk through.

Second, he would ask for restoration because nothing is more exciting than the natural wild—able to withstand desert loo winds, monsoonal gales, frost and drought. He would ask for catching rainwater and making streams and marshes full of turtles and fish, with shaded mossy areas. He would seek to restore the forest with tiers, replete with lush woodland undergrowth loved by the Indian pitta, which travels from southern India every year to breed in the Aravallis. He would bring in boulders from areas where they get blasted for wider roads, ancient rocks that stand on the edges of our comprehension of time. He would steward areas dedicated to open soil where monsoonal puddles could form, to be filled with frog chorus. Areas with wild typha and Saccharum grasses, which fill underground aquifers with water. He would allow foreign animals in enclosures so we could see a different set of tails and claws—but only in 20% of the total area.

Finally, Hagrid would teach us some ethics. Because animals follow a code of conduct, not books of manners. He would remind us that live animals are not shows to be live-streamed on demand; they are meant only to be viewed from afar. That viewership is about luck, not guarantees: Wild animals don’t always wish to be seen. He would point out that places between two states of being—water meeting land, rocks meeting sand, wind meeting slopes—are places where we, the human, without tails and claws, should tread with respect and caution. I can imagine him giving a lesson in the Aravallis to a group of starry-eyed kids, saying animals don’t need to be contained—our worst impulses do.

But Hagrid is a fictional character, and Coltrane is dead. The way to keep him alive is to think about how beloved fiction can enter the non-fiction of our lives—through a chosen community, through whispers between Aravalli thorns and its old, heat-loving rocks. By restoring our oldest places to their natural states, and ensuring we walk with respect.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of  Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species.

Also read: ‘Kantara’ and the Adivasi struggle for forest rights

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