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Keeping forests alive

Print edition : Jul 18, 2003 T+T-
S.THANTHONI

S.THANTHONI

Interview with Valmik Thapar.

As Machili fought a male tiger, much bigger than she was, the ferocity of the fight was astounding. They tenaciously attacked and rolled over on the forest floor. Fur flew in all directions. The tigress fought courageously, and was finally able to ward off her suitor. The reason why Machili put up such a determined fight was that she wanted to protect her two cubs. Machili's mate, Boombooram, had probably been killed by poachers, and a new adult tiger was trying to take his place. If Machili were to allow this, the new tiger would kill her cubs so that she would come into oestrus. She was keen on ensuring that the cubs survived.

At the end of the 45-minute film "Danger in Tiger Paradise", screened for a select gathering in Chennai in the first week of June, the audience broke into a spontaneous applause.

What delighted them was a scene that held out hope - another tigress, with four cubs, walking on a beaten track on the forest floor. The presenter of the film Valmik Thapar, is one of the world's leading tiger experts and environmentalists. Mike Birkhead is the producer and Colin Straford Jones, the cinematographer. It took more than two years from 2000, at the Ranthambhore Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan, to shoot it. " A tiger has a right to live just as you and I," Thapar told T.S. Subramanian in an interview.

For the past 28 years, Thapar has been working to preserve the tigers and their habitat. In 1989, he set up the Ranthambhore Foundation, "a small, catalytic organisation" whose main aim is to use the local community in the protection of forests. "If you do not save forests, this country will not survive," he says.

Thapar has written several books including Land of the Tiger: A Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent; Tiger: Habitats, Life Cycles, Food Chains, Threats; Secret Life of Tigers: The Cult of the Tiger; and the latest, entitled Battling for Survival - India's Wilderness over Two Centuries. Excerpts from the interview:

Can you talk about the work you have been doing for the tigers and for India's natural treasures?

For the past 28 years, I have been following the trail of the tiger. The tiger lives and walks in the richest part of India, which is Forest India. There are 16 different types of climatic forests in the country.

In this country we have shortage of land but somebody wants it for mining, an industrial group for a river valley project, a hydro-electric or a thermal project. I have had the privilege of watching from the tiger's point of view how everybody has suffocated the forest land. For me, the tiger is not just a striped animal, which is beautiful. The tiger's forests are responsible for the birth of 600 rivers and perennial streams.

Unfortunately, since 1990, we have no political leadership, which understands the importance of Forest India. That wisdom died with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Indira Gandhi's personal obsession was to keep Forest India alive, and she did it from 1968. Two years after she came to power, she banned the export of fur. In 1970, she banned tiger hunting. In 1972, she created the Wildlife Protection Act. The following year, she set up Project Tiger. In 1980, she brought in the Forest Conservation Act.

I remember ornithologist Salim Ali praising Indira Gandhi's work in conserving the tiger. He made a pertinent observation that if the person at the top is interested in something, there is a result.

Not just the tiger. In her time, 200 national parks and sanctuaries were created. Find out how many more were created in the last 20 years. In 1980, she created the Department of Environment. In 1985, after she died, her son put into practice her plan to create the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Rajiv Gandhi also passed the Environment Protection Act.

The political will to protect the forests was not there. Was there no follow-up?

In 1990, there was no political will to save the natural world. By 1995, a lot of public interest petitions came up in the Supreme Court. People were getting worried because they saw forests being snatched away and the forest cover dwindling. From 1996 until today, the Supreme Court has passed nearly 200 orders and interim orders to save India's forests. These orders saved entire stretches of forests in the northeastern States. Huge areas of the Western Ghats were saved by banning logging and the operation of saw mills. These are big decisions, and nobody realised their importance.

The forest cover ought to be 33 per cent.

Twenty per cent is still a big thing. If one-fifth of India is Forest India, every government and political party should have it in its manifesto to keep it alive because water is in the forests. If you want to give water and life to the people of India, you have to save the forests. This connection has unfortunately vanished from the minds of the politicians. My understanding of all this has come from tigers.

I have spent my life watching tigers. I have seen about 165 different tigers in various parts of India in the past 28 years. Of them, more than 100 were in the Ranthambhore National Park. The tiger is what connects me to the natural world. When I see a tiger, it gives me enough energy to keep fighting and battling for the next year because it is a creation of nature, which is like magic. There is no other creation that has the same impact on me.

We still have 40 per cent of the world's population of wild tigers. This tiger population survives because of the links that the local people had with nature, apart from the laws enforced by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

My book The Cult of the Tiger is about the worship of the tiger. Across Asia people worshipped the tiger and had shrines for it.

Is this true of Siberia?

Wherever the tiger roamed, this connection is there. The tribal people in Siberia and India believe in the same thing. It was how the human brain connected to the tiger. Fascinating. In China also, they worshipped the tiger. It all changed after Mao Zedong came... Tiger was no longer the god. Changes took place in the cultural fabric of India too. These are changes that will lead to the depletion of the forests since people do not have the long-term vision. Fifty years ago, this country had a long-term vision. We now want to do things for tomorrow. We are enveloped by greed. Everybody wants to make quick money. So the tiger gods are gone. Quick money gods have come in. So it is a battle.

What we are fighting today is a battle to save the tiger, the forests, the rivers, the natural world. Why do Chennai and New Delhi have such tremendous water scarcity? ... We have to drive for 12 hours from Chennai to find the nearest forest. Why? Why were the forests encroached upon and destroyed? It is all a game of money.

The bureaucrats are to be equally blamed.

Absolutely. I blame politicians because they govern the way the bureaucrats work. Every time I travel, I find one person among the Indian Forest Service or the Indian Police Service officers who is totally committed. The parks have survived because of them. In Ranthambhore, G.V. Reddy, who was the forest officer, fought for justice for six years. Ranthambhore was a success. In Panna, there was P.K. Chaudhry. There are good people in the government and outside it. When they join hands, you have some strength to deal with issues.

I believe that the Indian Forest Service should be bifurcated: One cadre for cutting, planting, desert development, and so on, and the other called the Indian Protected Area Service, for protection of sanctuaries. We have 570 natural parks and sanctuaries. But they (Forest Department authorities) do not want it. It is equally important to bifurcate the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Environment is only an urban issue. There should be separate Ministries for Environment, and Forests and Wildlife. Having them clubbed together has caused much confusion, and so the priorities are not looked into. In 1968, Indira Gandhi wanted to create the Indian Wildlife Service. But the Forest Service prevented her from signing the file.

So she wanted to create the Indian Wildlife Service.

Yes. She was advised (to do so) at that time by Billy Arjun Singh and the late M. Krishnan. I am calling it the Indian Protected Area Service. (It is tragic that) 20 per cent of India's land does not have a separate Ministry. Forest guards do not have shoes or uniforms. They do not work in shifts. About a 100 forest guards die every year.

How do they die? Are they killed by poachers?

They are killed by the timber mafia and poachers. Nobody cares. We persuaded Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to set up a Forest Commission to look into the problems faced by the forest staff. Former Chief Justice of India Justice B.N. Kripal is the Chairman of the Commission. Today, 30 per cent of the posts of forest staff are vacant. We do not treat this with priority. These are the major issues that I am involved in.

The Supreme Court constituted the Central Empowered Committee. I am one of the five experts on it. The Supreme Court asks us for recommendations and advice on hundreds of cases about forest land that have reached the court. It is a statutory authority, and it has been created under the Environment Protection Act. It is a fantastic idea. (Its work) takes up a huge amount of time, but it is challenging. We have dealt with several cases, including the Kudremukh case in Karnataka.

How did you conceive the idea of setting up the Ranthambhore Foundation? What work does it do?

Ranthambhore Foundation was set up in 1989 to use local communities for protection (of forests). We run a newsletter. We do tree planting programme around Ranthambhore. We involve people from other disciplines - a lawyer, a businessman, a chartered accountant and a bureaucrat. If you can get these four disciplines together, nobody can cut a tree.

In Karnataka, the State government has not enforced the court's orders to remove the encroachers in the Thatkola reserve forests in Chickmagalur district?

Karnataka, Muthanga in Kerala... They will enforce the orders. But it is difficult because there are so many activist organisations that everything becomes politicised. How and where do you draw the line? It requires re-thinking, reforming institutions and bringing people together to understand why protection of forests and wildlife is necessary.

I hold the corporate world responsible for the huge destruction of natural wealth. They destroyed huge tracts of land by mining but never reclaimed the land. They never put one rupee back. Between 1990 and 2003, they made money. But how much of the money was ploughed back? Except for two or three big industrial concerns, the rest did nothing. We live in a world of fashionable talk. Everybody would say, "You work in the forests, deal with wildlife. Fantastic," But what do they do? Go and live in the forests? Fight for the forest guards? Fight for the local villager and see that he is involved in the process of protection, not exploitation?

There is a lot of talk about the inter-linking of rivers. What is your opinion?

I am very concerned about this. Suresh Prabhu is in charge of the inter-linking of rivers. I have worked closely with him when he was Minister of Environment and Forests. My suggestion is that he should find the best expertise to advise him. Linking of rivers can be very harmful because it can affect ecology, habitat, forests and so on. I am very worried about this.