CHENNAI: Flipping through the 26 stories, alphabetically, in Preethi Menon’s When The Jungles Whisper, I am reminded of a game we played as kids Name-place-animal-thing. Whenever we were assigned the alphabet Q or Y, the go-to response for the ‘animal’ section was Quail or Yak. While Preethi’s book also mentions these two species, I am fascinated by the 24 others and their friends while also learning that the quail might be extinct now.
It is this awareness of critical, endangered and extinct species that Preethi wants to present in her 100-pager. Each chapter is alphabetised and has an alliterative title to catch the attention of readers for mostly 7-10-year-olds, but it has a lot of learning for all age groups. Preethi introduces us to 26 species some familiar and some not so that find their homes in 26 different cities in India. From Flying Frog and Hangul to White-Winged Wood Duck to Xanthophryne Tigerina Toad, the book opens the door to the vast wildlife of India.
Into the jungle
With a deep fascination for the countryside, the woods, and the jungles, this educator from Bengaluru would eagerly look forward to spending her summer vacation in her parents’ villages in Kerala when she lived in Kuwait. However, it was her husband’s passion for the outdoors that took her to the many national reserves where she could deepen her love for wildlife.
“Several postings in different places, on account of my husband being an ex-serviceman, gave us ample opportunities to visit many of these reserves. From treks to the Silent Valley in Wellington Nilgiris, and Dandeli Ganeshgudi Western Ghats, to exciting safaris to Gir, Bandipur, Tadoba, Ranthambore, to bird watching in Ranganathittu, Tawang and Shillong in the Northeast, Chilka Lake, Odisha, and Jorbeer Conservation Reserve, Bikaner, and nature walks in Coonoor and Munnar these places offered thrilling experiences,” she shares. This interest grew beyond borders and she visited the Savannahs in Masai Mara, and the Amazon forests.
But with India teeming with endangered species, it made sense for her to turn her experiences into tales. “And what better way than to tell these tales to children who are full of curiosity and empathy. The tales had been swirling in my head for a long time but between my teaching and quotidian chores, they remained on the backburner. The lockdown gave me more flexibility with time and the stories finally came to life,” she says.
The book follows the theme of a story within a story where Kanna and Molu are listening to tales narrated by their grandmother. You might come across several species in the same chapter. This, Preethi says, was done to show the interconnectedness of the wildlife and the harmony with which they live.
Preethi picked the most critically endangered and the most vulnerable species in India from the IUCN Red List (International Red List of Threatened Species). While there is a lot of information available on the Internet, to verify the authenticity, she reached out to wildlife enthusiasts like Romulus Whitaker and Raju Kasambe, who helped make the book as factually correct as possible.
Apart from that, her spottings during her birdwatching experiences also made it to the book. The Steppe Eagle and the White Rumped Vulture in Jorbeer, catching a glimpse of the Nilgiri Tahr in Ooty and Munnar, bisons, sambars and elephants galore in Bandipur and Nagarhole, Blackbuck/Kala Hiran in Jayamangali Reserve, the Red Panda, and the Himalayan Monal in Sikkim Himalayan Zoological Park, are some. “Every time I spotted one of them, I would go back, review my stories and add a detail I would have earlier overlooked,” she adds.
The overarching themes of the storybook are the animal-human conflict, loss of habitat and thereby being endangered. Preethi strikes a balance between characters complaining of human invasions and humans helping some species survive. She makes special mention of the many conservation schemes and measures in place all over India to protect the endangered species and this, she says, “is testimony towards the changing mindsets and attitudes of the people.”
The book has illustrations by eight illustrators who have an interest in wildlife. “To some illustrators, I gave my ideas and I let some use their imagination. I want children to appreciate the little things that we take for granted — sunrises and sunsets, the chirping of the birds, the flora and landscapes,” she shares.
Now that Preethi has introduced us to several species of India that we were hitherto unaware of, she wants to use the same concept in her book on endangered species found across the globe.
“The big five of the forests of Africa, the birds found in Amazon forests like the Greater Ani, Hoatzin and the Silver beaked Tanager, animals like the Southern Amazon Red Squirrel, Brown Capuchin Monkey, Squirrel Monkey, Red Howler Monkey, Llamas, Macaws and Viscachas in Peru, the Chestnut-eared Aracari in Brazil, and the penguins in Ushuaia, Argentina, Orange-billed Chough bird in Bhutan are all species I want to write about. There’re so many more endangered species in India that I have not covered which I would love to write about,” she says. Like Ammuma in the book would say, it is time to research and learn more about the species mentioned here.
Drawing the jungle
The chapters are illustrated by Parvathy Subramanian, Tanisha Tiwari, Divya Menon, Mukund Ravishankar, Saswati Patra, Krithika Ramesh, Vibha Jayaram and Tayyibah Kazim
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’sBooks
Price: Rs 299
Coupling her travel experiences to the far and the wild forests of the world with the rising cases of endangered species in India, it was only a matter of time before Preethi Menon penned down When the Jungles Whisper for future generations