IN THE LAP OF NATURE
- 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”.