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A south Indian wildlife safari beyond tigers and leopards

A visually attractive new field guide casts an informed eye on the rich diversity of wildlife in south India

Orange Awlet.
Orange Awlet. (Surya Ramachandran)

For most people, the word “wildlife” tends to conjure up visions of large mammals—tigers, leopards elephants, maybe a few birds. But beyond these conspicuously visible species of vertebrates, an incredibly diverse ecosystem of smaller creatures lurks around us, unnoticed and unappreciated. They thrive away from our careless human gaze, they hunt and are hunted, manifest their power and glory, and leave their mark during their brief time on the planet. It is to such creatures big and small that seasoned naturalists Surya Ramachandran and David Raju want to draw attention in their visually stunning new book, Photographic Field Guide: Wildlife Of South India (Notion Press, 360 pages, 1,500).

Stream Ruby.
Stream Ruby. (Surya Ramachandran)

True to its name, the volume is replete with colour photographs, taken by the authors and others, documenting a wide range of fauna in the southern states, as well as Goa. This region, Ramachandran says on the phone, has over 1,920 species, living along the coastline, swamps, marshes, rainforests and a variety of other climatic and geographical conditions.

Red-crested Pochard.
Red-crested Pochard. (Surya Ramachandran)

A cross-section of these species is represented in the pages. The more complex moths, arachnids, fish and invertebrates have been left out of the survey to make the book user-friendly and less cumbersome. But even so, it is a hefty and handsome tome (albeit a slightly bolder typeface would have made it more comfortably legible), classified into several sections, with scientific information distilled into jargon-free prose, and a pleasure to hold and behold. With such a trusty and quickly navigable guide by your side, you will be spared the ordeal of having to look up species information on your phone while you are on a safari.

Ramachandran and Raju worked as wildlife guides in central India and co-wrote an earlier book on the region’s fauna based on a decade of fieldwork. Inspired by the success of that project, they decided to embark on the current one a couple of years ago.

Kashmir Flycatcher.
Kashmir Flycatcher. (Daniel V. Raju)

“When we were working in central India, most tourists seemed to be interested in tigers and leopards but now the trend is changing,” Raju says.

Over the last few years, thanks to a wider awareness of India’s flora and fauna, as well as the work done by dedicated groups of citizen scientists, there is a growing interest in insects and other smaller animals. “We wanted to spread this message to a larger audience, so we put tiger, frog, butterfly, dragonfly, all in the same book,” adds Raju.

Sri Lanka Bay Owl.
Sri Lanka Bay Owl. (Surya Ramachandran)

Indeed, there is a wealth of peculiarity strewn along the pages of the book—from the mysterious purple frog, also known as the Sahyadri pig-nosed frog, to a survey of limbless amphibians called caecilians, to a dazzling array of fan-throated lizards. Next to each of the images, the authors provide the scientific name and habitat of the creatures, along with quirky trivia in some cases. Did you know, for instance, that the chocolate pansy butterfly is so territorial by nature that it chases away other butterflies from its patch?

Apart from their careful aggregation of data, Ramachandran and Raju draw attention to the need for wildlife conservation throughout the book—and through concerted public action, not merely government policy.

Nagarjunasagar Skink.
Nagarjunasagar Skink. (Surya Ramachandran)

Going to safaris armed with cameras and mobile phones, barging into animal habitats with no regard for their feelings, and creating mayhem in tourist spots are more likely to disconnect us from nature than forge any enduring bond with it.

To heed the call of the wild, we must, Ramachandran and Raju say, learn to notice the dizzying variety of wildlife in our backyard and care for it as our own. Only through such acts of everyday empathy and mindful travel will we be truly able to care for the forests and protect their inhabitants.

Star-eyed Tree Frog.
Star-eyed Tree Frog. (Surya Ramachandran)

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