Saving wildlife

Print edition :
A collection of essays on a conservationist’s single-minded campaign for protection of wildlife sanctuaries in Karnataka.

ON February 7, 2016, a dramatic news story was telecast on television channels in Bengaluru. A leopard had strayed into a school on the outskirts of the city. As a cordon of State Forest Department officials and others armed with rifles and sticks gathered to catch it, the frenzied animal tried to leap across a wall and bite whosoever crossed its path. One of its victims was Sanjay Gubbi, a wildlife scientist and conservationist. It attacked him as he tried to scramble up the gate. As he fell to the ground, it bit his right arm. Gubbi tore himself away from the animal with great force and swung his binoculars at it. Gubbi required 55 stitches in his right arm and several weeks of physiotherapy in order to be able to use his arm again. As Gubbi’s injury began to be discussed, his conservation work also began to be talked about.

The book under review, Second Nature: Saving Tiger Landscapes in the Twenty-First Century, is about Gubbi’s wildlife conservation efforts to which he has dedicated more than two decades of his life. Gubbi has been a Member of the State Wildlife Board for the past 14 years.

Since Gubbi has lived and worked in Karnataka, particularly Bengaluru, the stories that are collected in this book pertain to his efforts at safeguarding and extending the protected areas in the State so that the animals inhabiting these reserves have a good chance at survival. The book succinctly describes the tedium of applied conservation practices, and in this it is different from the thrilling stories written by an earlier generation of naturalists or a later generation of wildlife biologists.

Followers of environmental issues in Bengaluru will be familiar with the campaigns Gubbi has undertaken and discussed at various fora. A book collating these valuable experiences is useful to both conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts.

In the introduction, Gubbi says: “Government decisions are often unpredictable. I sometimes doubt if science ever comes into play when making decisions about conservation in India.” If science does not come into play, what does? The book shows that myriad factors come into play in issues relating to conservation. His intervention at a meeting where the Chief Minister was present perhaps helped a forest retain its conservation status. Gubbi told the Chief Minister that the government could get a bad name if it allowed mining in a forest area as such an activity would pollute the water in the region. This must have resulted in the political decision to not allow mining in a crucial election year.

Gubbi sums up the fundamental credo that has defined his work: “Put simply, tigers are threatened in India and elsewhere. To sustain a healthy population of tigers, a forest must fulfil two basic criteria: plenty of prey and large, unbroken spaces. Addressing these two issues is key to survival of tigers and that has been my life’s work.”

Night closure of highways

At the outset, Gubbi explains one of his key campaigns—the closure of highways at night in wildlife habitats to mitigate road kill.

He, along with a team of conservationists, was successful in getting the authorities to close at night the stretch of the Mysore-Mananthavadi Highway that passes through the Nagarahole sanctuary. (On April 20, the Supreme Court upheld the closure of the Mysore-Mananthavadi highway for vehicular traffic from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and also rerouting of a part of the highway.)

At the Kerala-Karnataka border of Bandipur sanctuary on August 18, 2009. The Karnataka government banned vehicular movement on two highways (Gundlupet-Sultan Bathery and Gundalpet-Gudalur) passing through the forest region at night to protect wildlife. The Kerala government and various trade bodies have taken the matter to court.   -  K. K. Mustafah

This highway, which is located in the southern part of the sanctuary, connects Karnataka and Kerala. Considering that a number of animals end up as roadkill, closure of the highway for a few hours helped reduce the threat animals faced while crossing the highway at night- time. After several years of pursuing the issue legally, an alternative route was found. A 10-kilometre stretch of the highway has been reclaimed by the forest now.

Gubbi describes at length the ongoing legal battle for the closure of the Bandipur highway (passing through the Bandipur sanctuary) at night. The closure of this stretch in 2009 affected transportation to Kerala. The matter was taken to first to the Karnataka High Court and now continues to be fought in the Supreme Court.

In another essay, Gubbi describes the steps he took to have the boundaries of the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve in north-west Karnataka extended. Similarly, he petitioned the Forest Department and succeeded in getting the Male Mahadeshwara Hills in Chamarajanagar district notified as a wildlife sanctuary. Gubbi and his team also took up the case of mini hydroelectric projects in the Western Ghats, which affected the environmental sensitivity of the region. While they could not stop the projects, they succeeded in halting their unchecked growth. It was also thanks to Gubbi and his colleagues that protected areas in the State have extended significantly in the past few years.

In perhaps what can be considered the best essay in the book, Gubbi describes his tenacious campaign to ensure that thousands of temporary forest guards got a slight increase in wages in the form of a hardship allowance. Apart from regular Forest Department staff, temporary staff are employed on daily wages.

“The front-line staff in our wildlife divisions are the jawans of our forests but they do not get the respect that jawans serving on our borders do,” he writes. While the Chief Minister had agreed to a marginal wage hike, a senior bureaucrat stymied the plan. How Gubbi went about meeting the Chief Minister subsequently and how the bureaucrat’s decision was rescinded is a compelling story.

Gubbi writes that while conservation biology is taught in academic institutions, there is little focus on real-world conservation issues. This anthology shows how complicated the task of conservation is. The book is intensely personal and grounded, without any attempt at romanticising the job of a conservationist. Gubbi has made a painstaking effort to show what it takes to be involved in the realpolitik of conservation and what it means to take on powerful forces.

He writes: “Conservation needs both time-tested and new approaches to beat the difficult, often impossible, odds we face. We need supporters from all walks of life, many of whom may respond differently depending on the scenario.... Life skills are extremely important but unfortunately this is largely ignored by mainstream conservation training programmes the world over.”

These life skills involve deftness to deal with politicians and bureaucrats while working closely with the media and the local population. Gubbi acknowledges that conservation is an uphill battle and the odds are against him but he has persisted in safeguarding the forests of Karnataka through a variety of ways, which include forming alliances with the unlikeliest of people. This book is a must read for wildlife lovers and for young people who are interested in a career in conservation.

For his work in conservation, Gubbi was awarded the prestigious Whitley Award in 2017. Gubbi writes on conservation issues for Kannada and English newspapers but this is the first time that he has published an anthology of his work in English.