Ezra Rashkow, “The Nature of Endangerment in India: Tigers, ‘Tribes’, Extermination and Conservation, 1818-2020” (Oxford UP, 2023)

Perhaps no category of people on earth has been perceived as more endangered, nor subjected to more preservation efforts, than indigenous peoples. And in India, calls for the conservation of Adivasi culture have often reached a fever pitch, especially amongst urban middle-class activists and global civil society groups. But are India’s ‘tribes’ really endangered? Do they face extinction? And is this threat somehow comparable to the threat of extinction facing tigers and other wildlife? 

Combining years of fieldwork and archival research with intensive theoretical interrogations, Ezra Rashkow’s book The Nature of Endangerment in India: Tigers, ‘Tribes’, Extermination and Conservation, 1818-2020 (Oxford UP, 2023) offers a global intellectual history of efforts to ‘protect’ indigenous peoples and their cultures, usually from above. It also offers a critique of the activist impulse to cry ‘Save the tigers!’ and ‘Save the tribes!’ together in the same breath. It is not a history or an ethnography of the tribes of India but rather a history of discourses—including Adivasis’ own—about what is perceived to be the fundamental question for nearly all indigenous peoples in the modern world: the question of survival. Examining views of interlinking biological and cultural (or biocultural) diversity loss in western and central India—particularly in regard to Bhil and Gond communities facing not only conservation and development-induced displacement but also dehumanizing animal analogies comparing endangered tigers and tribes—the book problematizes the long history of human endangerment and extinction discourse. In doing so, it shows that fears of tribal extinction actually predated scientific awareness of the extinction of non-human species. Only by confronting this history can we begin to decolonize this discourse.

Raj Balkaran is a scholar of Sanskrit narrative texts. He teaches at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and at his own virtual School of Indian Wisdom. For information see rajbalkaran.com.

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