2:11 PM, Tuesday Oct 05, 2010

A bird for a nation


The recent announcement making the Gangetic dolphin or Susu as the national aquatic animal has been widely welcomed as sign of how seriously India will take the ecological restoration of its polluted rivers. The anointment of this riverine mammal comes nearly three decades after the tiger became India’s national animal.
Yet, in newly Independent India, there was an active debate not so much on the animal but the birds that ought to best represent the new nation state. Salim Ali, ornithologist extraordinaire, the first Asian to be Fellow of the Royal Society, thought rarity ought to be the qualifier. A rare species would help sensitise people at large to conservation.
He picked the heaviest of Asia’s land birds, the Great Indian Bustard. With a range in western and central India and extending southward into the Deccan, it was and is by any stretch an elegant creature. But few know about its existence let alone its habits.
The naturalist M. Krishnan mischievously added that the chances of a mis-spelling would lead to great embarrassment. He argued instead for a bird that would be common, easily seen and drawn by children: the common myna.
He was ahead of his time. The mynah is indeed the national bird but not of India, of Bangladesh. Indians settled for the peacock. Its cultural and religious associations were all too well known and it is at home in the big city as much as in village squares.
Why in any case should nations or peoples get fixated on birds or animals? England was a pioneer in this regard with swans, all of them being declared royal property by the time of Elizabeth. The ringing of the swans on the river Thames was and is a ritual well and extensively observed.
The keen reader of epics in India will know how central swans are to the story of Nala and Damayanti. Yet, swans are a freakish occurrence. The story’s rajhansa was perhaps the bar-headed goose, a migrant in north India in the cold season.
More often than not, it was birds of prey that attracted royal attention. Sanskrit texts accurately described one of the early tool users, the bearded vulture or the lammergier. This vulture of the mountains drops bones from great heights on to rocks so it can get at the marrow when the impact shatters bones.
Only recently and after considerable work did Rishad Naoroji identify the lammergier for that most vital of characters in Sanskrit epics: Jatayu of the Ramayana. His book, Birds of Prey of the Indian Subcontinent (2006), shows via pictorial representations that it was the bearded vulture that was probably the inspiration.
Emblems are not about rarity or abundance alone. They signify the values a bird or animal holds for those who rally around it. The debate in the United States of the late 18th century brought this sharply into focus. The bald eagle eventually made it and is today the symbol of the most powerful nation on earth.
Yet, as Benjamin Franklin was quick to observe, it was a pirate of the air, a marauder and not an apt symbol at all. He opted for the uniquely American turkey, which was consigned to be a dish at the Christmas table rather than as national icon. Critics of empire might argue that the eagle anticipated the country’s drive for power at first in the Americas and then the world at large.
Yet the eagle was not so bad a choice. It is large, elegant and has the habit of nesting on the same tree every year. By mid-twentieth century, the United States had enough bird watchers who would meticulously keep records of where they nested and how many eggs hatched. The case of Hawk Mountain turned out to be crucial.
Surveying decades of records, Rachel Carson, a keen biologist and nature writer whose prose matched her brilliance in research; put the pieces of the jigsaw together. The eagles were nesting but despite careful tending no eaglets emerged from the eggs. As Carson was to deduce in her book Silent Spring in 1962 this was due to the pesticides that accumulated in the environment.
As the chemicals worked their way up the food chain, the top predator of the skies was the most vulnerable. It was only after years of careful regulation that the amount of pesticide residue in fish declined and the bald eagle was taken off the list of endangered species.
The bald eagle, an icon of power, had become a symbol of vulnerability, leading to a huge surge of environmental consciousness. As its meaning and role changed, so too did human views of nature.
Will the Ganges dolphin do for India what the eagle unintentionally did for the US? Only time will tell.
A bird or animal as symbol for a nation may mean a lot more than we think. Icons do matter, for more than anything they reflect the changing value we place on the web of life of which we are but one strand. 

n Mahesh Rangarajan is an environmental historian. He recently co-edited the book Environmental History: As If Nature Existed

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