As a general rule, books on environment and wildlife very rarely make good reading. Majority of them are aimed at fellow ecologists and conservationists and thereby talk in a ‘closed circle’ language that leaves an ‘outsider’ befuddled most of the times. But with Rauf Ali, there was no danger of limiting himself into such a cocoon. And his book—Running Away From Elephants: The Adventures of a Wildlife Biologist—proves that Rauf was not only unique in his approach to various environmental and wildlife issues but was so with an amazing capability to interact as an equal with whether a junior-most guard in the forest or the senior policy makers in the government. He was equally at ease in academic circles in one of the best universities in the world as he was in the middle of a forest.
Rauf’s memoirs—there is a reason the book is not termed an autobiography as Rauf, even while tracing his life and times, manages to impart a sense of randomness in the narrative—clearly bring out his multifaceted personality, and his wit and matter-of-fact tone provide an untrammelled view of his area of specialisation for the reader.
Those interested in him as a person would find his bird-watching experiences with Dr Salim Ali—the father of ornithology in India and the author’s granduncle—and his hostel days in BITS Pilani quite riveting to read. Those interested in the more serious ecological issues would find fulfilment with Rauf’s teaching days in Pondicherry and his experiences in Andaman and Nicobar islands. In both the cases, what comes out strongly is Rauf’s sense of humour and his clear-headedness in dealing with various situations and issues he faced over years.
Research clearly is what fascinated Rauf, right from his early days to the time he had become an influential voice in policy making and academics. Rauf’s description of his days in the forests of Tamil Nadu’s Mundanthurai region is riveting. He embellishes the narrative with anecdotes that not only make the book an engrossing read but also provide a window to the way environmental policies are treated and implemented in our country. While Rauf’s encounter with a herd of wild elephants during a misty evening in Sengaltheri is the stuff thrillers are made of, his face-to-face with a tigress is hilarious.
In fact, Mundanthurai region continued to figure in Rauf’s life time and again. His study on the social behaviour of bonnet macaques was an eyeopener in many ways—not only with respect to the behaviour of macaques towards each other in different ecological regions close to each other but also concerned the impact of human activities over their behaviour.
The same all-encompassing attention to various facets of an issue continued to mark Rauf’s work later in life too, whether it was the task of delineating Protected Areas in the Palani Hills of the Western Ghats, or setting up of Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning (FERAL) in Pondicherry, or studying the environmental damage caused by introduction of ‘chital’ (spotted deer) and other species to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
This quality of keeping an open mind and an observant eye is what led Rauf to being named as a finalist for the prestigious St Andrews Prize for Environment in 2011. In face of many obstacles, he managed to add value to coconut resources of women self-help groups in Car Nicobar by facilitating production of virgin oil rather than selling raw coconuts. It is this innovative streak that communities and academicians in India will miss today. Rauf Ali’s passing away in 2016 was indeed a major loss.
Running Away From Elephants: The Adventures of a Wildlife Biologist
By: Rauf Ali
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: `499; Pages: 224