Uphill task completed

IN THE past century, humans have polluted the oceans, poisoned rivers and lakes, made deserts of good, arable land, felled forests, and severely eroded the mountainsides. This book seeks to protect the best that remains of this superb wilderness.

The implications of the uses and misuses of the biological diversity of these natural resources are only dimly perceived by most of us. But they are far-reaching. The information in this book assumes crucial importance on an issue of global ramifications.

It is the first comprehensive directory of nature reserves of the Himalayas and the mountains of Central Asia. It lists all the 450 nature reserves in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and the former USSR. For a paucity of available information, only 130 are described in detail. The rest is meant for use by international bodies, governments and non-government organisations (NGOs), scientists and the discerning public the world over. Indian readers, in general, and those who love the Himalayas, in particular, will be fascinated by the accounts of 17 national parks and 42 sanctuaries and game reserves in the Himalayas.

Each country-section has at its very beginning vital information on almost all aspects of the constitution and policies relevant to the protected areas, national participation in international agreements like the World Heritage Convention, the Man and Biosphere Programme, United Nations environment programmes, authorities responsible for administering and managing such areas, and brief reviews of physical features and the resources available.

For those interested in advancing the frontiers of knowledge through further research, there is a comprehensive list of references not only for each country but also for each sanctuary and park.

Since most people confuse "sanctuary" with "national park" and "biosphere reserves" with "game reserves", the book brings out lucidly their differences by taking original legislation of the respective countries as source material.

The Nature Reserves is a veritable treasure of such information as location, date and history of establishment, area, land tenure, altitude, physical features, climate, vegetation, fauna, etc. However, for some reserves, information about physical features, vegetation and fauna seems to be somewhat inadequate. The Pin National Park has, for instance, been disposed off with a single line on physical variables, conservation and management practices. The wide variety of existing flora and fauna are described in relation to different habitats, with emphasis on seriously endemic, economically important and globally threatened species. The names used are local, English and botanical. Highlighted are archaeological features, cultural monuments and ethnic groups. Too briefly described, however, are conservation, management and management constraints like invasive species, poaching, fire, pollution, disease, agricultural encroachment, impact of tourism and threats from within and without for each individual reserve.

All entries are in alphabetical order. However, the 20 maps don't go well with this storehouse of information: they do not show physical features, precise location, altitude, etc. As for major parks, very few have been mapped. Offsetting this is a set of 12 beautiful colour plates telling the story of the main mountain habitats.

Protected areas are often poorly managed with little consideration for the people living in and around them. A recent survey reveals that legal procedures have been completed for the establishment of only 40 per cent of 52 national parks and about 8 per cent of 209 sanctuaries. Only 43 percent of the national parks and 28 per cent of the sanctuaries have any management plans at all. In this context, what seems a major shortcoming of the book is the field-testing of the information dished out by the governments and agencies.

For instance, although the number of national parks and sanctuaries swelled in India from 5 and 60 respectively in 1960 to 69 and 410 respectively in 1990, exceeding the government target, not many of them are managed properly; nor is their species' count reliable. And although everyone talks about wildlife species and the urgency of their survival, very few works are available on the plant species in these reserves. This book is no exception.

Anil Yadav is working with the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi