_Land of the Tiger: A Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent_ by Valmik Thapar is a beautiful coffee table type book that I originally bought for its gorgeous full color photos of Indian wildlife and natural landscapes but ended up reading its fairly extensive text (and was glad I did so). Written to accompany a PBS television series (which unfortunately I have not seen), it is a great non-specialist introduction to the wildlife of India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, and Bangladesh.
The introduction noted the very rich biodiversity of the subcontinent (2000 fish species, 1200 bird species, and 340 mammal species for instance) and focused on why wildlife has done as well as it has in a region of 1.2 billion people. Despite the growing influx of Western television and consumerism, religion and its respect for many wild animals remains a powerful force, particularly among rural areas and especially among the Hindu population of India and the Buddhist population of Nepal. One particular group, the Jainists, have such a high regard for life that its members are against harming insects and cutting down trees (one Jainist sect, the Bishnoi of the Thar Desert, which Thapar detailed in a later chapter, even celebrate the martyrdom of some if its members years ago in an effort to save a grove of trees). Sacred groves are maintained throughout the subcontinent (which provide vital wildlife habitat), worship of tigers, elephants, monkeys, snakes, and peacocks (which Thapar provided some very interesting details on) have played a large role in their conservation, and many local communities have worked hard to protect local animals from poachers and have tolerated their consumption of some of their crops or livestock so great is their reverence for some species.
The second chapter explored the fauna of the icy mountains and arid plateaus of the Himalayas. The many melt-water fed bogs, marshes, and lakes of the region provide refuge for many migratory species such as the bar-headed goose and other waterfowl, while the region boasts year-round residents like the lammergeyer or bearded vulture, two species of crow-like birds called choughs (both species of which have been observed on the peak of Mount Everest), and several pheasant species such as the chir pheasant and western tragopan. Other animals discussed were Himalayan brown and black bears, yak, black-necked cranes, snow leopards, bharal or blue sheep (favorite prey of snow leopards, taxonomically according to some experts somewhere between sheep and goats), Himalayan ibexes, Himalayan tahr (a mountain goat), musk deer, kiang or Tibetan wild ass, leopards, Tibetan wolves, dholes or Indian wild dogs, Himalayan lynxes, and the tiger (a recent arrival). In the lush forests of the lower, eastern Himalaya one can find many orchid species, satyr tragopans, blood pheasants, red pandas, and the golden langur.
Chapter three was titled "Sacred Waters" and covered life in the great Indian rivers, river valleys, and flood plains. One of the most fertile of these areas is the terai, a 60 kilometer-wide flat marshy strip that stretches 1,600 kilometers across the Gangetic plain in northern India and parts of Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, home to tigers, elephants, swamp deer, Indian rhinos, marsh crocodiles or muggers, and many other species. Highlights include coverage of India's seven stork and nine eagle species, the migratory fish known as the mahseer, the black soft-shelled turtle (a sacred species, known only from one location, a shrine in Bangladesh), Gangetic freshwater dolphins, the gharial (a species of crocodilian, the male is distinguished by a growth called a ghara on the tip of its snout, which in Hindi means "earthen pot"), and hog and swamp deer (which cannot graze in areas where the grass grows too high and are dependent upon such animals as elephants, rhinos, and wild buffalo for opening up the terrain).
Chapter four was on the wildlife of the sea, coasts, and nearby islands and focused in particular on sea turtles, flamingos, the interesting Andamanese and Nicobarese island peoples (the latter group believes that their ultimate ancestors were a man and a female dog), sea snakes, dugongs, the megapode (a bird species that uses the heat of decaying vegetation in mounds it creates to incubate its eggs), various monitor species (one of which, the water monitor, is known to lay its eggs in megapode nests), various crab species, and the Bombay duck, a member of the salmon family and a major food fish on India's western coast.
The next chapter examined desert wildlife. Very interesting to me were the black buck (a very fast herbivore that evolved to evade the now locally extinct cheetah, this species has a prominent place in Hindu mythology), the chinkara or Indian gazelle, the caracal (or "gazelle cat," which like the cheetah was once trained to hunt), and the Gir lion.
The following chapter was titled "Wet Forests" and covered the evergreen forests of India, which annually get drenched by the monsoon. A wonderful chapter, this section covered sacred groves called kavu; the shola (patches of montane evergreen forest, interspersed with open grassland, a naturally occurred feature); flying frogs, lizards, and snakes; the fascinating life cycles of the fig wasp and the hornbill; as well as lion-tail macaques, Nilgiri langurs, Malabar giant squirrels, Nilgiri tahr, Nilgiri martens (all found in the wet forest of the Western Ghats) and the hoolock gibbon, clouded leopard, golden cat, and binturong (found in the very wet forests of northeastern India).
The final chapter analyzed the life habits of the tiger and its associated fauna, both in the drier, desert-edge environs of Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan and the moist bamboo forests of Madhya Pradesh - "Kipling Country," land of the _Jungle Books_. In addition to lots of information on tigers, the author covered sloth bears, gaur or giant ox, the sambar (largest of the Asiatic deer), nilgai or blue cow (India's largest antelope), cobras, peacocks, and elephants.
The epilogue was brief and basically general comments by the author on the troubled future of the region's wildlife.