It started as early as the first books I read as a child: a prickling of skin, the spread of goosebumps, a feeling that something noble, wonderful and magical was going to happen; all through the presence of a Great Beast. My love for creatures great and small developed through the remarkable, sometimes epic, sometimes tender ways animals are developed as characters in so much of our great fiction.
The hugely popular CS Lewis presents an alternate view of Christianity. The God of The Chronicles of Narnia is Aslan, a huge lion with a flowing tawny mane, walking over sea and land, speaking in the voice of a man. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings has oliphants (elephants, only better) and giant eagles. Rowling's Harry Potter features delicate, pure unicorns, but also the more hardy Hippogriff, a bird-animal who is so useful when our hero is in need of a ride through the sky.
Then there are more sophisticated accounts of the merging of animal and human consciousnesses in formative books for both children and adults. Philip Pullman's The Dark Materials trilogy for instance, has ‘daemons’, which are animal extensions of human characters most representative of the individual's personality. Lyra had a fluid, sharp marten as daemon, her father (played by Daniel Craig in the movie adaptation: special note to the ladies) had a powerful, quiet snow leopard. Several mythical interpretations look at animals, particularly large animals like dragons, tigers, lions and sea serpents as moral compasses. Whether toe-curlingly destructive or blindingly good, the beasts serve didactic lessons to humans. With a whip of their tails, a mythical flame of tongue, and a leap of faith, they show the way that must be taken by the human protagonist.
Then there are lyrical, heart-stopping stories of everyday creatures. James Herriot for instance, and his narrations of how, with a smile in his heart and a prayer on his lips, the rural veterinary doctor tended to cows, sheep, dogs and cats. Later, he would write down the non-fictional accounts such as The Lord God Made Them All, breathing life – literally and metaphorically – into the animals he so lovingly cared for.
In India, I am lucky to be amongst real Great Beasts. Beasts like lions (a stand-in for Aslan), elephants (or oliphants), tigers, leopards, rhinos (all three are part of Lewis' books), eagles (hippogriffs) and gibbons and martens (all daemons from Pullman's universe). Unlike the Beasts of fiction though, these creatures don't have plots written for them. And unlike their literary cousins, the Great Beasts of India have neither lucid human voices to speak with, nor swathes of magic to help them out.
If we were to follow ecology though, the Great Beasts would have very happy endings. Tigers for instance, need space and seclusion to thrive. Each tiger carves out its own territory, which it holds and defends from other tigers or large carnivores. They straddle and occupy a mind-boggling array of habitat: West Bengal's mangroves, the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, the white-hot forests of Madhya Pradesh, the swaying, rainbow-coloured grasslands of Assam, the sticky bottle green forests of Kerala. So fitting then, that the pan-Indian tiger should be our National Animal.
If rarity is an indicator of magic, then lions are really magical. We have the last Asiatic Lions of the world in a nook in Gujarat. Stately, tightly bound in family structures or prides with strong natal bonds, lions have slowly but surely expanded outside Gir National Park. They need more space. They need, in fact, alternate habitat, which has already been readied by Madhya Pradesh. The Gujarat government has so far—and it's been years now—refused to let go of “their lions”, and their pride.
Eagles, leopards, Nilgiri martens and gibbons are all on the threatened list in India. What's driving them into dust is the humdrum of daily human life, which cuts deeper into the wild. This World Environment Day, I urge you to think of wild creatures and their needs, and how our economic paradigms are taking the magic out of their lives. Think of the sensitive, living lungs our forests are, the way mangroves and grasslands keep carbon sequestered tightly in the ground, and how our kids should get to see the stripes of a tiger, the spots of a leopard, and the ‘pants’ on a rhino. Think of the choices we should ask our government to make to secure these wild animals, most of which were magical in our childhood, but only just.
Once the stuff of legend, we are lucky enough to have wild India with us still, fragmented but breathing. It would be most un-magical to let it die.