Rauf Ali: A walk on the wild side
How to be a good naturalistwhile having a lot of fun
Imagine an elephant nudging you out of your camping tent in the forest. Or walking up to a sub-adult tiger at night thinking it’s a nightjar (a nocturnal bird which likes to sit on the forest road). Or the antics of a smaller denizen of the jungle: “A porcupine began reversing towards the jeep, making us reverse even faster—it’s nasty, what those things can do to a tyre, even a thick one on a jeep..."
Quirky and hilarious, these are just a few escapades in Running Away From Elephants by Rauf Ali, a maverick wildlife biologist and pioneer of ecological studies in India. By the time he died in April 2016, aged 62, he was known as a polymath to his peers. Generously coated with wit and sarcasm, this book holds a mirror to our understanding of natural history, conservation, and life in general. Few can write with such self-deprecatory humour, and Ali did not mince words.
A mentor, teacher, friend and institution-builder, he has left behind a legacy difficult to emulate. His work in primatology and behavioural ecology remains a reference point in academia. Through Rauf, we also get to uncover unknown and interesting facts about his famous grand-uncle, the legendary ornithologist Salim Ali. Needless to mention, the latter did have a profound influence on his young grand-nephew.
Rauf Ali claimed the book wasn’t an autobiography, yet through different narratives we hear about his childhood, college days, field research and professional work as an ecologist. Especially his memories of living in and around his field station in Mundanthurai (now part of the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve), in the Palani hills of Tamil Nadu, and in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. “I was fortunate enough to have begun my career as a wildlife biologist when this discipline was in its infancy in India, and observe the beginning of environmentalism here," he wrote. “Much of this tribe sucks, frankly. However, exciting ideas were generated, and some mistakes made by all concerned. I share some of these."
His inimitable humour tries to knock off age-old dogmas of conservation and ecological narratives and imparts knowledge on how to use natural resources in a sustainable way. Well-loved by his peers, Ali also talks about his students, friends and colleagues, as well as his interactions with several officials, an editor, and with academics.
This book is a gem. Not on how to be a good naturalist but on how to pursue a life in nature.