‘Wild Treasures and Adventures: A Forester’s Diary’ is a thrilling read about birds, elephants, pythons and tigers. It is a peep into the secret crevices of the snow-clad Himalayas, a trek through deep forests of the country and a look at the unique climate and habitat of life in various parts of the wilderness.

From the grasslands of Kaziranga to the arid habitats of Rajasthan, author Sunayan Sharma makes the reader journey through the core tiger area of the Bhensota plateau, the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary and the whispering woods of the wildlife sanctuary named after the Indian born British naturalist Jim Corbett.

Sharma is familiar with forests and knows much about wildlife. He has spent about four decades in the Indian Forest Service. Wildlife management was his main job, serving as Wildlife Warden, Jodhpur region. He was Field Director of Keoladeo National Park and Sariska Tiger Reserve, being credited with the rejuvenation and rehabilitation of the tiger population.

In 17 stories published in this 200-page book, Sharma has shared some exciting experiences of his life in the wilderness, including what he learnt about the love life of heronries.

The water bodies in the central part of the Keoladeo National Park exist in saucer-like depressions. The place is a breeding colony for countless species of birds, including the heronries.

The beauty of the free-floating lily gardens of Keoladeo is so mesmerising that the place is nicknamed the Garden of God. With white, black, pink feathers, red legs and a beak and head in yellow and orange colours, the painted stork is undoubtedly the most beautiful nesting bird of Keoladeo. The storks are profuse breeders, and build around 1500 nests in the park in a good monsoon year.

Sharma writes that the courtship of the stork is unique and even beats the romance of human beings. The male occupies a chosen place for nesting on a tree first. When a female approaches, it offers her a long soft tree stick to be used for building a nest. If accepted by the female, together they start a family, and the declaration of consent is done by the clattering together of both their huge beaks.

The male begins to bring the nesting material regularly and the female arranges it to keep the nest in good shape till the chicks are old enough to fly away. Both male and female storks take turns to hatch for about three to four weeks. The chicks look like snow-white balls of wool for a while and are the darling of bird lovers and photographers. To protect the chicks from the burning sun the storks provide shade by spreading their colourful wings over them.

The long legged, long necked, freshwater and coastal birds from the family of egrets are no less romantic. The grey heron male first occupies the nesting site and then calls for mates in a short but sharp note.

The interested female reaching the site rattles its beak with the male. Then their huge grey wings are flapped together. They also preen each other, before settling down to becoming a couple.

There is mention of a bone-chilling experience when the author missed bumping into a tigress by the breath of a hair in the majestic Kankwadi fort. The Kankwari fort was built by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s General Raja Jai Singh I of Amber.

It was used by Aurangzeb to imprison his brother Dara Shikoh in the 17th century. Today the fort falls deep inside the Sariska National Park and Tiger Reserve. It stands alone on a hillock in the middle of wilderness and is used as a place of rest by the king and queen of the jungle.

Sharma writes about his encounter with timber smugglers and about an incident most dramatic with a poacher called Khyali Lal.

Further south of the Kankwadi fort are several villages located in a fertile area known as the Garh-Rajore Valley and famous for high quality tobacco farming. The valley has great significance from an archaeological point of view as it is the site of numerous Shaivite and Jain temples from the 9th Century.

During the later decades of the 18th Century the centre of power was shifted from Jaipur to Alwar by Rao Raja Pratap Singh. During this time the Shiva temple was well looked after but most of the other places of worship were neglected, leading to the ruin of the cultural heritage of the valley.

There are stories told about the ghost towns of Bhangarh and the lake city of Ajabgarh. Apart from ghosts and other evil spirits said to haunt the abandoned cities, the water and forest rich valley is an excellent corridor for big cats between Sariska, and the Jamwa Ramgarh Sanctuary.

The southern forests of Sariska are rich in biodiversity and the hills with moderate to steep slopes have provided excellent habitat for leopards too.

Apart from big cats, Sharma was introduced to local people. Lala, an Adivasi told him a story about cannibals. Decades ago Lala had fallen very sick and as he lay half dead on the floor of his home he heard some members of his family plotting to sell him for Rs 50 to the Kathodiyas, a community of people who had practised cannibalism.

In a semi-conscious state of ill health, Lala listened to the conversation around him that woke up his survival instincts and he resolved to get well as soon as possible and before the cannibals could get him.

The entire Adivasi population is settled on the undulating folds of the Aravallis with thin to dense forest cover in the tribal belt of the Mewar state.

Sharma’s career began by looking at the Adivasis as habitual offenders and thieves. But his work in the forest provided him an opportunity to spend time in Adivasi villages. He shared a roof and food with these people he knew nothing about.

According to Sharma, ultimately what he learned about the life of the Adivasis in the forest was amazing. An extreme dearth of resources had made his stay in the village difficult but the unique and first-hand experience he had in the company of the Adivasis opened his eyes.

He had been told that the Adivasis were uncivilised and ill-mannered but staying in their village made him realise how pure of heart the forest people are. Sharma felt that those living in urban areas can learn a lot from the Adivasis about human values.

This is a precious little book that could well divert the world’s attention from participating in wildlife population decline, habitat degradation and loss, exploitation, the introduction of invasive species, pollution, climate change, and disease to valuing the flora and fauna on earth, and respecting all human and animal life just a little more.

Wild Treasures and Adventures: A Forester’s Diary

Author Sunayan Sharma

Published by Niyogi Books, 2023