A leopard looks straight at you. No, not on a wildlife safari, or in a national park. Not through a zoo enclosure, nor from a wildlife documentary. Perhaps the last place you would imagine confronting this wild cat—if at all—is in the heart of India’s “millennium city”: Gurugram, Haryana. Yet, cowering behind the steel bars of a cage in Gurugram is how this charismatic animal is first introduced to the reader in Wild And Wilful.
In this new, evocative collection of nature writing, wildlife conservationist Neha Sinha pens 15 essays, each focused on an Indian species. Drawing on insights from science and ecology, as well as policy and planning, Sinha chronicles how wildlife survives in a world that is being altered rapidly by human activities.
These tales are not situated in spaces where we intuitively tend to “place” wild animals—untouched forests, remote wildernesses, miles away from civilisation. Instead, the stories relay the resilience of wild animals in the “Anthropocene” (a term often loosely used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history, where human activity has significantly altered ecosystems), and so are deliberately set in the everyday: in cities and villages, near highways and railway tracks, through skies lined with power lines, and rivers arrested by dams.
We meet the Asian elephant in Assam—tight-knit families with vivid personalities, bewildered at the disruption of their ancient migration paths by abrupt concrete walls, highways and railway tracks. There’s the Gangetic dolphin—India’s national aquatic animal—struggling to survive in rivers that are increasingly polluted with silt and noise. We learn of rosy starlings—small birds that traverse continents during annual migrations, only to be confronted by meshes of steel and concrete as they stop over in Delhi.
The animal takes centre stage in each essay as Sinha explores our complex relationship with wildlife, especially the way we “other” them in our daily lives. She argues that animals are often assigned unnecessary ferociousness—questioning why creatures like crocodiles, bats and snakes must be perceived as “relentless animals that don’t stop before killing people”, and be dismissed as savage and primitive. These warped narratives are elegantly contrasted with gentler, more nuanced, portraits of wild animals, through real stories that portray them as thinking, feeling beings, capable of making decisions and exerting agency.
We hear, for instance, the heartbreaking story of an elephant mother, trying to rescue her injured calf even if it means following it into a dark ditch. We learn of mugger crocodiles—powerful, prehistoric creatures that invoke fear, but coexist with people without harming them. In the wonderfully insightful essay Don’t Kiss A Cobra, we hear stories of wildlife rescuers and researchers, and their frustration with the widespread perception of snakes as vengeful, evil, slimy creatures. “A snake is not an evil thing brimming with malice and criminal intent. It is just a snake… and so much more than the sum total of our prejudices and fictions,” Sinha writes.
These perceptions, she goes on to explain, actively harm wildlife and result in poor wildlife management practice and policy. The Leopard And The Cockroach is easily one of the most powerful essays, narrating the fate of wild leopards surviving near cities and villages. Through several case studies, we learn that the mere sighting of a leopard—an otherwise elusive, solitary creature—can lead to mob protests, politician involvement, and result in the animal being trapped, hastily relocated or banished to a zoo. None of these decisions account for leopard behaviour, welfare or ecology, they “are political, not ecological”.
Sinha has been an adviser on numerous national policies for environment and biodiversity management. This allows her to easily weave together anecdotes with the larger context of how policies impact animals. If one page draws you into the fascinating world of underwater dolphin communication using clicks and whistles, the next delves seamlessly into the National Waterways Act and its role in creating louder, more polluted rivers, endangering underwater wildlife.
Importantly, Sinha also highlights that the indicators of a “developed” India can often leave behind a trail of destroyed ecologies and displaced wildlife, even driving species to extinction. In Phoenix Of The Desert, she narrates the tragic fate of two critically-endangered birds: the Great Indian Bustard, a desert avian, and the White-bellied Heron, a freshwater bird found in the Eastern Himalaya. With only about 100-odd birds left of each species, Sinha laments that the habitats of these birds continue to be destroyed to build infrastructure, ironically, for “green” energy like solar parks and dams.
If Wild And Wilful attempts to build support for wildlife, it also offers nuanced perspectives on conservation movements, illustrating how even well-intentioned concern for animals can take on problematic forms. For instance, Letters In The Sky narrates the tale of the Amur Falcon, a migratory bird that was mass-hunted by tribal communities in Nagaland. After a campaigning video condemning the practice went viral, a rather problematic mass public outrage followed, with national and international groups unfortunately criticising an already oppressed community—the Nagas—as uncivilised savages who “hunted everything”.
Sinha’s prose often dives into seemingly spiritual ruminations, and while this may not be every reader’s indulgence, it does not feel out of place. It inspires awe, introduces the reader to a beyond-human world, and invites them to share the author’s fascination with nature.
Wild And Wilful is an important contribution to contemporary nature writing. In weaving together insights from multiple disciplines, it presents stories of contradictions, tragedies, joy and hope. It encourages us to learn to live with wild creatures. “Those who know them understand that wild animals require acceptance for what they are,” as Sinha writes, “not enslavement for what we want them to be”.
Vaishali Rawat is a writer and wildlife conservationist based in Delhi.