I am speaking with the president of India in his palace. But I can't help being distracted by the monkeys.
The presidential palace — Rashtrapati Bhavan — was built in the waning days of the British Raj, and its last non-Indian occupant was Lord Mountbatten himself. With 3 million cubic feet of stone containing 340 rooms, it was designed to impress and symbolically impose the will of the Empire on a population that today numbers 1 billion humans.
Today, however, it is the palace gardens — 300 acres of leafy green splendor hemmed in by the crush of New Delhi — that attracts the attention of primates…both human and non-human. Bonnet macaques, the common Indian monkey, long ago set up noisy residence in this oasis, bringing distinctly Third World chaos to an otherwise immaculately groomed English garden.
Now the macaques' squabbling on the windowsills of the palace threatens to drown out the voice of the small man I have come to see. Behind a giant teak desk, and dwarfed by the cavernous office which he almost apologetically occupies, Abdul Kalam speaks to me as if a teacher to a student about his hopes for India and my interest in conservation.
It doesn't matter to me, because I am eager to hear from this rare Indian politician: a scientist by training who is widely reputed to be a true intellectual.
In India, two things are constant; people and bureaucracy. Town or country, there is always someone in sight. And to manage its billion, India has a particularly virulent strain of bureaucracy.
While the British introduced this machine of governance, India perfected it (as it did with cricket and tea, other British imports). And their innovation so impressed the British that they in turn exported Indians to all corners of the world to micro-manage their empire.
I'm here not on business for The Nature Conservancy, but on a personal trip to document Indian conservation efforts for a film. But how is conservation even possible in a country with so many social needs? And given the legendary red-tape of Indian government, wouldn't conservation efforts move at a pace more suited to evolution rather than preservation?
Surprisingly, in terms of diversity of big animals, India is second to none. When Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz exclaims “Lions, tigers, and bears — oh my!” she might well have been talking about India instead of Oz. For this is the only place in the world where earth’s three mega-carnivores coexist.
It is too generous to say that wildlife is thriving in India. But in pockets and corners of the country, elephants in the hundreds still bathe in rivers at noon-time; the spotted deer still crops the dewy grass at dawn; and the alarm call of the peacock rings through forests at dusk, heralding the tiger on the move.
Though Abdul Kalam is by training a rocket scientist, his conversation with me is surprisingly visceral rather than intellectual. He urges me not to overlook the importance of individual behavior or cultural sentiments in understanding current outcomes.
How people feel, he says, is as important as policy. Indeed, he adds conspiratorially, his own goal is to make "a billion people smile" — a sentiment said with such sincerity that I find myself nodding in agreement.
Maybe culture explains why India has managed to conserve despite the chaos, the crowding, and the stigma of bureaucratic inertia. When I ask about the region’s other mega-diverse country — China — and the huge investment in conservation going there compared with India, Abdul Kalam acknowledges that perceptions of order may attract conservationists eastwards.
But I am reminded that travel to India to see a tiger is commonplace, while a similar eco-trip in China would be as futile as a tourist avoiding the attention of trinket peddlers in either country. Conservation in India has important fundamental allies: an ancient religion (Hinduism) in which important gods take animal form; a population that mostly eschews meat; and a people who culturally connect with nature.
Ganesh, a familiar god in India, renowned as the remover of obstacles, and thus a favorite on the desks of U.S. graduate students, is depicted as an elephant. Shiva, the god of destruction, is draped with snakes. There is a god, it seems, for every manner of Indian wildlife — from monkeys to peacocks. And with 300 million gods, perhaps conservation, too, has a patron among the Hindu pantheon.
A military aide interrupts our conversation: The president has a helicopter to catch. As I get up to leave, I can’t resist asking what he thinks of the monkeys. “Do they give you any trouble when you are out in the garden?” I say.
“We have ways of keeping them from being a nuisance,” he says.
Traps, poisons, birth-control, dart guns and nets leap to my Western-trained mind. “What ways, Mr. President,” I hesitatingly ask.
“Guard monkeys,” he proudly replies. “Large langur monkeys. We have them trained to chase away these troublesome little macaques. They have trainers and are employed here — full time!” He notices my astonishment. "Shall we go into the gardens?" he offers.
“Are the langurs paid?” I jokingly ask, hoping for a clever repartee.
But he takes my question seriously. “Most certainly,” he says.
Then as Abdul Kalam, leader of the largest democracy in the world, steers me by the elbow into the emerald-green splendor of Rashtrapati Bhavan's gardens, he adds — lest I am troubled still by inadequacies of the Indian Civil Service: “We even give them a pension when they retire.”
The opinions expressed in "Wild Life" are the author's. They should not be construed as the position of The Nature Conservancy or any of its other employees.February 24, 2011