Chaos as life

RUNNING AWAY FROM ELEPHANTS:THE ADVENTURES OF A WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST By Rauf Ali, Speaking Tiger, Rs 499

By Shreyashi Ganguly
  • Published 8.06.18
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RUNNING AWAY FROM ELEPHANTS:THE ADVENTURES OF A WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST By Rauf Ali, Speaking Tiger, Rs 499

"This is most definitely not an autobiography. That is for famous people, and I'm not one." With these lines right at the beginning of his book, Rauf Ali, who passed away in 2016, set the tone for the discussion that follows. Humorous, candid and full of rapier thrusts of wit, Running Away from Elephants is different from most other autobiographies for the simple reason that Ali does not try to neatly compartmentalize his experiences into the good, the bad and the ugly. As he walks the readers through his student life in Bristol, his teaching stint at Pondicherry University, his days navigating the rainforests of Tamil Nadu in search of bonnet macaques and, for that matter, his venture of exporting virgin coconut oil to Nicobar, it becomes increasingly clear that his experiences are jumbled up, chaotic, all over the place. But then, so is life.

Growing up, the author shared a house with Salim Ali and their annual trips to the Bharatpur bird sanctuary sowed the seeds of what was to be a life-long passion for wildlife biology and ecological conservation. Surprisingly, Rauf Ali's efforts to overcome language barriers and intellectual differences in his negotiations with the many people he encounters - forest officials, academics, and bureaucrats - make for an interesting study in social anthropology.

The stories inform as much as they entertain. Ali raises an important point about the paucity of research on invasive alien species - fauna that are artificially introduced into an environment not suited for them which end up creating considerable damage. Unfortunately, even after almost two decades since his research, not much advancement has been made in this field which means that India incurs a loss of 91 billion dollars every year owing to this.

What stands out is Ali's ability to effortlessly switch between subjects. He talks about the one time when CID agents, sent to spy on him, spilled the beans under the influence with as much zest as he weighs out the pros and cons of the Silent Valley project.

Refreshingly, the author does not just dwell on his accomplishments - of which there are many. He weaves in the broader political churnings of the times into his personal narrative; thus offering an understanding of the socio-political trajectory in which environmental conservation in India has travelled. Undoubtedly, there is much more that needs to be done in this sphere but Ali has succinctly shown the way.