‘A Walk on the Wild Side’ by Neel Soni: A conservationist’s journey into Jim Corbett

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“We have colonized the future of the young generation and we should start apologizing to them for that”. This was Bittu Sahgal’s reply to the ongoing environmental crisis in India where nature is being destroyed for the sake of economy. Sahgal, an environmental activist and the founder of Sanctuary Nature Foundation was present for the book launch of ‘A Walk on the Wild Side’, a wildlife photography book by Neel Soni, who is an 18 year old teenager, but more aware of the depleting environmental conditions than most adults. The launch which was held at The Lodhi,New Delhi on October 10, included environment activists, conservation photographers and senior journalists like Swati Thiyagarajan, Latika Nath, Vijay Bedi and Rajiv Makhni.

Neel Soni, who has been covering the forests of Jim Corbett National Park for the last six years, describes his book as “not an essential coffee table book” but a part of him and his journey. He started writing a journal as a young boy when he had just begun to explore the forests of Corbett. What has come out as the book is the collection of the journal entries that were formatted and edited by his design team. It is more like a photographic travelogue which is very natural and raw. Upon being asked about the place that Corbett holds in his heart, Neel says that Corbett helped him channelize his creative energy in the right way. He believes that he has finally started to understand the change that needs to happen to protect the environment. People are slowly raising their voice and more people are getting to know about the silent tragedy that took place over so many years.

Bittu Sahgal, who wrote the forward to the book, says that it was impossible for him not to do so. He saw Neel grow up and was astounded by the quality of his work. According to Bittu, India is in a transitional phase right now. The economic worth of forests like Aarey, Sanjay Gandhi National Park or the ridge forests has not been understood by economists. For him, the economy is a subsidiary of the environment. Biodiversity is not an animal to be protected but it is our life. Our agriculture, food, water, social and economic security, all depend on the survival of species. Neel’s book explores the wildlife of Corbett National Park, particularly the Tiger population. Bittu believes that tiger count and numbers can be interpreted in many ways but that is not the real thing. The real point that we need to know from satellite and ground proofing, is the status of the forest cover. He believes that for the sake of the Indian subcontinent, places like Corbett should not be considered as mere forests, but life-rafts in an era of climate crisis. India is the most vulnerable country in the world from the climate crisis that is hitting the planet. Protecting the ecosystem with tiger as a mere symbol is not enough.

In his concluding remark, Bittu mentioned that successive governments have depleted the natural resource base of India. The fact is that a vast part of the Indian subcontinent has already been depleted. The reason behind this is that the ecosystems have not been recognized as infrastructure. However, his hope lies in the next generation like Neel, who are initiating and bringing about a change. The younger generation has woken up and if the people of his (Bittu’s) generation want to be remembered well by history, then they should stop doing the damage they are doing now in the name of economy.

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