Saturday, May 21, 2011

Green Holidays

Most people’s idea of a green holiday is to make a trip to a wildlife reserve. A recent study of 10 Indian reserves shows that wildlife tourism in India is growing at 15% every year, and that 80% of the visitors are domestic tourists. We could perhaps view this as a positive sign, because, according to conventional wisdom, people will protect what they love. But the question that I’m tempted to ask is, with well over one million people visiting nature reserves every year, are we ‘loving our wildlife to death’?

Let’s look at some of the direct impacts of ‘green holidays’. Although there are over 600 wildlife reserves in India, most people flock to just a few where they can see large animals. Since tigers are perennial favourites, tiger reserves such as Ranthambhore, Kanha, Corbett, Bandhavgarh and Bandipur attract large numbers of visitors. The first big impact around our most popular reserves is the haphazard development of tourist resorts. Often, these resorts occupy every available plot of land around the entry points to a reserve. A majority of them dump their garbage nearby - out of sight of their guests, of course - and often release raw sewage into the nearest stream. They may also buy firewood from local people who illegally cut it from the same reserve! Profligate water use by resorts also leads to a depletion of the water table in the entire region. Loud parties and other incompatible activities add insult to injury. Eco-tourism? Think again.

The next big impact is the way visits into the forest are conducted. Barring a few exceptions, it’s a free-for-all in most of our popular reserves, with several hundred vehicles allowed in daily. Since most visitors are not nature lovers in the real sense, but are simply fixated on getting the maximum bang for their buck, resort vehicles race around the forest trying to locate ‘popular’ species, raising clouds of dust that can rival a war zone. It is not unusual to see a tiger surrounded by 30-40 jeeps full of tourists, all dressed in their colorful best, and shouting at the top of their voices. The drivers and the so-called guides who accompany the tourists are more interested in the tips they can earn, and therefore neither educate nor restrain visitors. And as for the guests, even the most educated seem to forget that they are in a nature reserve, and behave as though they are in an amusement park. The sad fact is, the few who crave a genuine wilderness experience will almost certainly not find it in most of our wildlife reserves.

It need not be so. Here are some tips for making your trip an experience in truly communing with nature.

First, avoid the most popular reserves. Not only will you be putting more pressure on them by going, you’ll just get a mouthful of dust for your efforts.

If possible, avoid peak tourist seasons, weekends and popular holidays.

Select your place of stay with care. A nature oriented ‘no frills’ guesthouse or ‘home stay’ can offer a more ‘close to nature’ experience.

When visiting the reserve, don’t be obsessed with seeing a tiger, leopard, elephant or whichever is the most ‘popular’ animal in the place.

Learn to appreciate and enjoy the forest in all its beauty.

Tell your driver and guide that you want a quiet drive so you can soak in the ambience, and stop and pay attention to all the other wonderful creatures in the forest.

Wear dull-coloured clothes and carry a pair of binoculars.

Above all, maintain silence. Breathe in the clean air and let the sounds of nature wash over you. There is no better stress buster.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A shorter version of the article appended below appeared as an editorial in the April 23rd issue of Economic and Political Weekly under the title ‘Protecting India’s Protected Areas’. Here is a link to the EPW version:

Whose forest is it anyway?

Praveen Bhargav and Shekar Dattatri

The Saxena Committee’s recipe for redressing historic injustices to forest dwellers will precipitate an ecological crisis.

While there has been a huge uproar over the auctioning of the 2G spectrum at throwaway prices to private corporations, a far more valuable asset of the nation, biodiversity, is to be handed over to thousands of Grama Sabhas for virtually unregulated and limitless exploitation. This is one of the key recommendations of the Saxena Committee, which was tasked with suggesting ways to strengthen the implementation of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA).

The FRA, which was enacted during UPA 1, continues to be the subject of fierce debate. On one hand are those who insist that millions of forest dwellers should be allowed to exploit all forests, including Protected Areas (PAs) such as National Parks and Sanctuaries, for their livelihood; and, on the other, those who argue, on the basis of empirical and scientific evidence, that extractive exploitation within our small PAs cannot be ecologically sustainable at current human population densities, especially when linked to national and international markets.

Of deep concern are two drastic measures recommended by the committee. First, it proposes democratization of forest governance by dismantling state protection and progressively handing over the management of India’s forests to Grama Sabhas. Second, it favours adoption of market-friendly policies and de-regulation of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) to facilitate their trade. The majority opinion of the Committee appears to be that local stakeholders will have the innate wisdom and restraint to ‘sustainably’ exploit forest products while ensuring the preservation of natural ecosystems and endangered species.

Reality check

The troubling fact about this politically correct ‘sustainable use of forests’ theory is that no one knows exactly how much resource extraction is ecologically sustainable. While it is imperative that we redress injustices done to impoverished forest dwellers, it is vital that we do not perpetuate injustices to wildlife, which do not have either a voice or a vote. Today, India’ s National Parks and Sanctuaries are the last refuges where endangered species have some degree of security. Rampant, market-driven exploitation of forest products in these ecologically sensitive hotspots of biodiversity can adversely affect the delicate balance of nature. A tiger that requires 3000 kg of live prey a year needs a healthy herbivore population for its survival, which is only possible in a healthy habitat; an adult elephant needs about 250 kg of fodder a day to fill its cavernous stomach. What level of human extraction of forest products is ‘sustainable’ to these species?

Scientific studies have shown that most species of large wildlife decline and disappear when they have to compete with high-density human populations. Even in the vast forests of the Amazon, human-wildlife coexistence works only where traditional forest dwellers live at low densities with no links to outside markets. In the Indian context, where forests have shrunk drastically, and turned into tiny islands amidst a sea of humanity, it would be suicidal to dismantle State protection for our Protected Areas.

It is well documented that the forests of India’s North-East, which have largely been under the control of autonomous tribal councils, are suffering from severe faunal impoverishment, also known as the ‘empty forest syndrome’. As starkly revealed in the documentary film, ‘The Wild Meat Trail’, by Rita Banerjee and Shilpi Sharma, many tribal communities that have enough cultivable land and livestock to meet their nutritional needs, are relentlessly exterminating wildlife from their community forests by shooting, trapping, and snaring every creature, from the smallest to the largest, for cash; the majority of this illegal wild meat is sold in local markets that cater to consumers from neighbouring towns and villages, for whom wildlife meat is a delicacy.

In contrast, many wildlife reserves across the country, where the protectionist paradigm has been in place since the 70s, such as Corbett, Kanha, Kaziranga and Bandipur, support some of the highest wildlife densities in the world. This is not to say that all is well with the system of forest management in India. The tiger extinctions in Sariska and Panna, and many other failures, leave us in no doubt that forest governance is in dire need of sweeping reforms and a change in authoritarian mindsets. But the remedies proposed by the Saxena Committee may end up being worse than the maladies it is ostensibly setting out to cure.

Today there are about 600 Protected Areas in India - an impressive sounding figure, until you realize that all these put together constitute just around 3-4 % of our total land area. Yet, this tiny proportion of our country holds the key to the survival of its billion people. Our mountains, rivers, wetlands and, above all, forests, provide innumerable ecosystem services that we take for granted, but without which life, or economic progress, would be virtually impossible. These are irreplaceable ecological treasures that must be regarded as sacrosanct.

Granting land and community rights even within Protected Areas to growing populations of forest dwellers engaged in raising crops and livestock, and commercial collection of forest products for insatiable markets, is a retrograde step. It is a matter of record that since India’s independence, vast areas of wildlife-rich grasslands and wooded areas under the control of local communities have been decimated. While the consequences of mining and dams in forested landscapes are clearly visible, the insidious destruction caused by millions of people extracting forest products remains largely unseen. The truth is, this is like a cancer that is eating away our forests from within.

Policy Imperatives

Earlier high-level committees and Government bodies, including the Tiger Task Force, the National Wildlife Action Plan, National Forest Commission, National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, the Elephant Task Force, the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Wildlife Institute of India, have all pointed out the need for retaining up to 4 percent of India free from incompatible human uses to sustain and strengthen biodiversity conservation. This provides a reasonable ‘common minimum agenda’ to secure some critical landscapes that have already been identified by these expert committees on the basis of scientific data. With a planetary ecological crisis looming, only wise stewardship of our natural ecosystems can buffer India from the impacts of climate change. Biodiversity conservation is not a luxury but a vital necessity.

It is therefore imperative that we insulate at least the 3- 4 % of India comprising PAs from all incompatible and extractive uses, while allowing scientifically monitored multiple use of other categories of forests. Equally important, we must redress past injustices to forest dwellers through forward-looking policies that will enable many to join the mainstream and improve their own lives and those of their children. It is a sorry testament to land reforms and governance that we are still advocating apportioning forestland to people in an ad hoc manner, despite the fact that this will not solve any of their problems in the long run. Such a ‘solution’ may assuage our middle class guilt, but will it really help either forest dwellers or the nation? What will happen when, a few decades hence, human populations inside forests have increased, resources have been depleted and habitats have been degraded beyond redemption?

What forest dwellers require is not a marginal improvement of their status quo but a set of proactive solutions that will provide real emancipation; such as fair resettlement outside Protected Areas, education, micro finance, vocational training and new livelihood options that can get them out of their dependence on forests.

Social justice, development and conservation are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is a matter of setting the right priorities and long-term goals – where to develop, where to conserve and how to deliver social justice. It is possible to achieve all three goals, but only if we dispassionately analyze policies that have succeeded and further strengthen them on the basis of the best ecological and social science.

Handing over our national ecological assets to untested and legally non-accountable Grama Sabhas in the hope that they will nurture them is a utopian gamble that we can ill afford. Such a move, and the unregulated exploitation that will follow, will wipe away all the hard earned conservation gains of the past few decades and severely endanger India’s ecological security. Instead of trying to turn the clock back on the historic injustices perpetrated by the British on forest dwelling communities, the government must leapfrog ahead and take innovative decisions that are rooted in the realities of modern India.

(The writers were members of the National Board for Wildlife from 2007 to 2010).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Truth about Tigers

Watch it now on You Tube!

The Truth About Tigers is a first-of-its-kind video guide for all those who want to understand tigers and the problems associated with their conservation. It aims to put the distilled wisdom of top tiger experts in the hands of viewers so that they are empowered to ask the right questions and demand the right actions.

Two years in the making, the film combines stunning footage shot by some of the world’s leading wildlife cinematographers with deep insights from experts such as renowned tiger biologist Dr. Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and wildlife crime fighter, Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. Internationally acclaimed actor, Roshan Seth, provides the narration, and one of Britain’s top documentary composers, David Mitcham has contributed to the music score.

This unique film takes one through the tiger’s life, from birth to death, and illustrates how different human activities impact the conservation of this great predator. More importantly, it provides practical solutions to tackle the crisis, clearly outlining what the government needs to do and how citizens can contribute to saving our national animal. An accompanying website not only provides more detailed information and guidance, but also links to the video on You Tube and Vimeo. A request to all those who read this: please pass on the link to everyone you know. Tigers need all the help they can get, and creating awareness is the first step towards change.

Praise for the film

Superb job. The footage is excellent. And the editing is very well done too. I especially appreciated the script which is concise, not sensationalized, and informative. I hope the film gets a wide distribution. Congratulations - George Schaller, Wildlife Biologist

The film really is marvelous and I should think enormously useful. I was truly impressed — not only with the footage but with the spare, careful, clear writing – Geoffrey C. Ward, author of Tiger-Wallahs

it is pitch perfect. The voice, and words, and all the sound, are exactly right. The shots are brilliantly chosen to illustrate and drive the logic and the words. Really, a masterpiece – Ruth Padel, author of Tigers in Red Weather

Sunday, February 14, 2010


To mark the 25th anniversary of the declaration of Kerala’s famous Silent Valley rainforest as a National Park, Shekar Dattatri, and his colleagues have produced a documentary highlighting the vital necessity of protecting such forests. Titled ‘SOS – Save Our Sholas’, the 24-minute film, narrated by celebrated conservationist, Valmik Thapar, showcases the rich biodiversity of the southern Western Ghats forests and the problems that beset this fragile landscape. The film lays particular emphasis on the immense water harvesting capacity of these forests, and underlines the fact that all the major rivers of peninsular India originate in the Western Ghats.

The declaration of Silent Valley as a National Park was a landmark event in India’s conservation history, and came about due to a vigorous campaign waged by people from all walks of life against a dam proposed by the Kerala State Electricity Board across the perennial Kunthi River that runs through the valley. The dam would have submerged a large tract of virgin forest.

Almost 20 years ago, Dattatri and his colleagues produced the first ever natural history film on this virtually unexplored forest. The 50-minute film, ‘Silent Valley – An Indian Rainforest’ became an instant hit with audiences, and also bagged two National Awards and half a dozen international awards at wildlife film festivals in USA, Japan, Italy and other countries. ‘SOS – Save Our Sholas’, produced by the Trust for Environmental Education, draws upon the best sequences from the earlier film, but also contains new material shot by Shekar and Thiruvananthapuram based natural history filmmaker Suresh Elamon.

“We felt that a crisp film on the subject was sorely needed as an educational aid, particularly in schools and colleges, to introduce young people to the immense importance of shola forests. It is very gratifying that Delhi based Centre for Media Studies has selected the film for its ‘Greening Young Minds’ project, and is distributing the film to ten thousand schools across India”

In its first outing the film has won a Technical Excellence Award for Best Story at the recently concluded Vatavaran Environment and Wildlife Film Festival in New Delhi. The jury, led by Award Winning filmmaker Jahnu Baruah, described it as a “Visually powerful, well-scripted film that succeeds in creating the much needed awareness for the conservation of Shola forests”.

The film, which was supported by SPEC India and ENDURO India, is now available in English and Hindi, and will be made available also in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Marathi later this year.

From Frozen Thoughts magazine


- A S Gopal

“What most of us want above all is ‘quality of life’. By this I don’t mean the latest car or the biggest television, but fresh air, clean water and a green world - things that are becoming increasingly scarce. It is vital that each one of us works to reverse the present situation. Every person is a potential conservationist, but what’s important is action. One doesn’t have to give up everything to become a conservationist. Even small actions in everyday life can make a difference. Conservation can be saving water, power, nature…it can start at home. It’s really a shift in attitude on how we use the finite resources of the earth. A great bonus is the feeling of satisfaction that one gets from doing the right thing - more joyful than anything money can buy”. These are words straight from the heart of a globally acclaimed wildlife filmmaker. In 2004 he won the Rolex Award for his work in conservation filmmaking, becoming the only wildlife filmmaker to win this coveted award. For over a decade he has joined hands with NGOs in making films on conservation. His films on wildlife have been widely telecast on international television channels such as National Geographic and Discovery. His film on conservation of the rainforests of Kudremukh played a pivotal role in stopping mining operations in that region. His camera has captured the beauty of nature in the far corners of India. Meet Shekar Dattatri.

Wildlife filmmaking requires patience as well as alertness. When asked how one can develop these paradoxical traits Shekar says, “If you are passionate about wildlife, you don’t think of the waiting as patience. The longer you wait, the greater the chances of success. As in any aspect of life, one needs perseverance, as the rewards tend to accrue only beyond a certain threshold. Some of my most wonderful moments have come from sitting in a ‘hide’, which is a small camouflaged enclosure of cloth or leafy branches set at a strategic place in the forest where I often sit from dawn to dusk to film wildlife. Sitting in a hide requires tremendous discipline and your senses have to be on alert every minute of every hour, as you scan the forest. You can’t read a book, listen to music or take a nap, because if you do so, you will miss what you came to film. I love being a fly on the wall in the jungle. Every moment is filled with anticipation, and If something incredible happens, it is a bonus.”

Shekar tries to carry over the simplicity of jungle living into his daily life, preferring a minimalist lifestyle. He says, “For me, money is not the all important thing. And in any case the best things in life are truly free. The forest, the trees, the birds, the tiger, my walk at the Theosophical Society, the peace I get from watching the waves in the ocean – you don’t need money to enjoy all these. The greatest gift I’ve given myself is to not do anything that I don’t want to do, irrespective of the potential rewards. In that sense, my life is extraordinarily rich. Being one with nature is the ultimate spiritual high. Every blade of grass, grain of sand, and snowflake represents the pinnacle of perfection. But to be a conservationist, one has to learn to be ‘passionately detached’, because the results are often not in one’s hands alone. You have to put in your utmost every time and hope that the rest of society can see the value of conservation.”

Speaking about his beginnings, he says, “At the age of 13, I joined as a volunteer at the Snake Park in Chennai. Those days, most parents didn’t allow their children to do such things. I was exceptionally lucky. In India most parents are either too conservative about what they want their children to do or needlessly pushy. Whereas, all that a child really needs is some encouragement and freedom to pursue his or her interests. Today, many of my contemporaries enviously say ‘if only my parents had allowed me to do what I wanted to, my life would have been different’. In my case, there was no pressure to excel in academics and I was able to concentrate on the things that made life interesting - like reading books and exploring the natural world around me”.

While filming animals does he feel for the hunter or the hunted? Shekar says, “I am naturalist and an unsentimental observer. Predators have to kill in order to survive and it is foolish to interfere. If you rescue every hunted animal, who will feed the hunter? If you rescue every dying animal, who will feed scavengers like vultures and hyenas? A natural ecosystem finds its own balance”.

Tourism is on the increase and when asked what his suggestions are to the common man to enjoy wildlife he says, “Today wildlife tourism is a booming business and we are converting what should be temples of peace into chaotic amusement parks. The moment a human enters the forest, there is pressure on it. The mostly urban consumers who can afford safaris in jungles, take all their city-bred bad habits with them, talking loudly, littering the forest with food wrappers and giving tips to drivers to go closer to animals than they should so that they can have an ‘exciting adventure’. The resorts that cater to these customers often throw their garbage in the forest and let their sewage into the streams and waterways. Irresponsible tourism is destroying the very beauty that we want to enjoy. When people enter a place of worship they go with silence in their hearts. If they go to a forest with the same attitude they are likely to see and absorb more and have a more fulfilling holiday. My advice is, go to a forest to enjoy it in its entirety, and not to compete with other tourists about how many animals you saw. Be proactive and ask your driver not to disturb animals by going too close or revving the engine. Ask the resort managers how eco-friendly they actually are and how they are dealing with the waste they generate. If more and more people start demanding the right actions, the people involved in the wildlife tourism business will change”.

When asked if he feels that we are fighting a losing battle to save the forests, Shekar says, “if I was a pessimist I wouldn’t be taking the trouble of talking to you. As much as I am realistic, I am also cautiously optimistic of the future. I believe that the human species will one day stop being a parasite on the planet and learn to live in better harmony with the earth’s other inhabitants. We have been inflicting wounds on nature that will take time to heal. By recklessly multiplying we have far exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth. The rest of nature works on an intricate system of checks and balances, and no other species destroys its own habitat. Our assault on natural ecosystems will exact a heavy toll if we don’t start applying the brakes now. When basic resources like clean water become scarce, large-scale social unrest will become inevitable. Everyone can make a difference by using the earth’s finite resources as frugally as possible. To waste these resources just because one can afford to pay the bill is foolish.”

Asked if he had a final message, Shekar says, “We must rid ourselves of the notion that conservation is an act of charity towards nature, because nature doesn’t care. Our planet is four billion years old and it will continue to rotate on its axis and revolve around the sun for billions more. We are privileged to have been handed a Garden of Eden, and our species can continue to reach greater heights if only we can rein in our tendency to destroy everything around us. When honeybees started dying mysteriously by the millions In the US a few years ago, there was a sudden realization that without them to pollinate our food crops, famines would ensue. Even the humblest of creatures on this planet plays a vital role in keeping us alive and we need to be conscious of this fact. We are not the masters of the planet; it is the trees, the animals, the birds and the insects that keep everything going. The sooner we realize this truth, the sooner we can set right the mess we’ve made. In ancient times, people worshipped nature because they knew that everything came from nature. Today we would do well to remember that we are still completely dependent on nature for everything. It’s time to shed our foolish arrogance and show some reverence again”.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tiger hunt

Received this as a forward from a friend; origin unknown. Enjoy!
(apparently a poem written by a Bengali school teacher. Believe it.....or not)

Through the jongole I am went
On shooting Tiger I am bent
Boshtaard Tiger has eaten wife
No doubt I will avenge poor darling's life
Too much quiet, snakes and leeches
But I not fear these sons of beeches
Hearing loud noise I am jumping with start
But noise is coming from damn fool's heart
Taking care not to be fright
I am clutching rifle tight with eye to sight
Should Tiger come I will shoot and fall him down
Then like hero return to native town
Then through trees I am espying one cave
I am telling self - "Bannerjee be brave"
I am now proceeding with too much care
From far I smell this Tiger's lair
My leg shaking, sweat coming, I start pray
I think I will shoot Tiger some other day
Turning round I am going to flee
But Tiger giving bloody roar spotting Bengalee
He bounding from cave like footballer Pele
I run shouting "Kali Ma tumi kothay gele"
Through the jongole I am running
With Tiger on my tail closer looming
I am a telling that never in life
I will risk again for my damn wife!!!!* * * * * * * * * *

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Encounters with a cobra

In the eight years that I've been walking in the Theosophical Society's grounds in Chennai I've come across snakes only 3 or 4 times. This doesn't surprise me much because wooded areas have far fewer snakes than most people imagine. Also, being well camouflaged and alert, most snakes detect an approaching human early and move away before we can spot them.

A few days ago, while walking on one of the quieter paths in the TS, I startled a cobra that was resting in the grass beside the trail, noticing it only when it rose up with its hood spread. As is typical of these shy snakes, the cobra wasn't facing me, but was showing me the back of its spread hood, with the lovely spectacle marks on it. This is a typical warning display that means, "watch out, I'm here". A bit startled myself, I stood stock still and watched the beautiful reptile. A few seconds later, putting its head down, but with its hood still spread, the snake started moving in my direction. A non snake person would have taken this as a show of aggression on the part of the cobra and fled, thinking that the snake was chasing him. However, it was clear to me that the snake was probably just trying to reach its bolt hole beneath the vegetation. I saw it slide into the grass and disappear. When I went closer to investigate, I could see a number of holes in the ground comprising a low termite mound. The cobra had obviously found a nice 'apartment' to call home.

A couple of days later, walking on the same path, I intentionally slowed down to see if I could spot the cobra before it spotted me. As I approached the termite mound, a grey mongoose leapt away, it's hair standing on end, quickly followed by another one. Their body language indicated an encounter with the snake. I quickly moved forward, fearing that they may have killed it, but there it was, standing a foot off the ground, with its majestic hood spread wide. It was obvious that the mongooses had been hassling it. The moment it spotted me the cobra put down its hood and, in one fluid motion, dived into a nearby hole. Had I even blinked, I would have missed this amazing vanishing act.

I couldn't help wondering whether I had saved the snake's life by appearing at that crucial moment. Mongooses are famous for their snake killing abilities and, while the cobra could have escaped from a single mongoose, a concerted attack by two of these intelligent and lighting fast mammals would be quite hard for the relatively slower snake to evade. But why hadn't it dived into the hole in the first place when the mongooses appeared? Perhaps being an adult, venomous and five feet long, it felt well able to defend itself against adversaries somewhat its own size. When it saw me looming over it, the fear of humans that seems to run deep in all animals, sent it diving into the hole without a moment's hesitation!

Photos by Belinda Wright