Friday, May 14, 2010


By Lavkumar Khachar

The Gujarati daily, Gujarat Samachar of 6th April, 2010 carried a rather critical report filed by one of the Nature Clubs around the Gir Forest claiming poor patrolling within the Lion Sanctuary and the continual possibility of hunters operating inside. I wonder how efficiently the Tiger Reserves are being patrolled. As claimed by the reporter, the guards having been provided motorbikes do not bother to move into the forest on foot as was the practice earlier and as such large sections are seldom visited. These are precisely the places where antisocial elements would make their headquarters. Over large swathes across magnificent Tiger country the Forest Departments' writ operates on paper if even that, as is proved by the recent ambushing of a large contingent of paramilitary forces on the eastern edge of the Central Indian Plateau. With sanctuaries surrounded by at best indifferent communities, is it realistic to feel optimistic about the future of these big cats, particularly the tigers? Effective protection can be assured only if the Beat Guards and the Ranger Forest Officers are highly motivated and lead from the front by dedicated officers almost to levels matching the military. They should be well armed and authorized to use the weapons within the limits of the sanctuaries.  Fencing, physical or social has to be reinforced by criminal elements being apprehended quickly and dealt with summarily.

Given the socio-economic compulsions of our country, it is rather utopian to ever think of wildlife freely thriving across the countryside. It would be enough if we succeed in giving full protection to the notified wilderness areas and enhancing their wilderness attributes even as the bludgeoning population enjoys them. This alone would call for immense innovation, dedication and integrity. Should we succeed within these rather limited parameters, we shall be compelled to look at other approaches to conservation if indeed we want to ensure healthy populations of large carnivores. The sooner these are examined the better. The isolated populations in widely separated pockets will, in time be effected by loss of genetic vibrancy. Gene pools will have to be established and scientifically managed. These will require approaches ranging from zoos to large safari parks.

When one mentions "zoo……" the existing, totally inadequate and outdated ones come to mind. These old zoos, now within urban areas should be converted into parks or sold at premium rates and the animals moved outside city limits and kept in enclosures where human animal interaction can be of the highest quality available anywhere in the World. Needless to say, state of the art breeding facilities would be attached to the exhibition enclosures along with the best of veterinary provisions. These zoological parks would draw huge crowds and be largely self financing.

Beyond the urban setting, immense safari park like situations should be developed taking in the countryside as the central theme. The vast areas enclosed should encompass not only designated forest lands, but also revenue "wastelands", pastures, seasonal agriculture and farm lands. The communities involved should be made shareholders of the enterprises. With the carnivores in semi captive situation, there would be protection of the vegetation resulting in the improving of water retention on the hills and a total regeneration of otherwise highly degraded commons. More important, the pressure of visitors on the National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries would be eased. The possibilities are exciting.

In a letter to the Chief Minister of Gujarat I have outlined the above concept with the lions in focus. As I developed the concept incorporating more than half a century of thinking, I was amazed to find I was offering an alternate blue print for the regeneration of Saurashtra's largely devastated pastoral and rural economy!  I found that the lion could actually become a reason for an integrated eco-conservation program on a breath taking scale. What is possible with the Asiatic Lion would be possible for the Indian Tiger. While strengthening the protection of the existing, notified Sanctuaries and National Parks, very radical approaches will need to taken totally involving the rural communities that would be intimately sharing space with the Great Cats. If we continue to operate along the compartmental approach that the System is most comfortable with, I can do no better than share a small experience from my own life.
I had visited the Apa Tani Valley in Arunachal Pradesh on assignment with WWF-India – do not ask me the year – to enquire about the Blacknecked Crane that were reputed to winter there in the flooded fields of the Apa Tanis. Needless to say, there were no crane. They had stopped coming for some time now since the time the tribals acquired shotguns. This was to be expected since these people were animists unlike their neighbors in Bhutan to the east and Tibet to the north. There, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Arunachal Pradesh very kindly offered to take me into the Subansiri valley and then down to the railhead in Assam. Attendant was the local Range Forester of Bengali extract. It turned out that this obsequies subordinate had developed a strong working relationship with the tribes of the area putting to good use his knowledge of homoeopathic medicine. Passing one of the settlements, I expressed a wish to look inside one of the large, well constructed huts on stilts. The Chief Wildlife Warden, a hearty Sikh gentleman with all the expansive attributes of his tribe demurred, claiming that "These people are not very hospitable …….." His subordinate, for a change took the initiative and hailing a villager suspiciously eying us spoke to him in the local dialect. We were unhesitatingly ushered up into the dark hut were, once the eyes adjusted to the gloom I noticed a central fireplace around which were seated what seemed the entire household. The eldest was introduced as the Headman of the community and then with great courtesy we were made to sit beside him. An ancient lady came forward with mugs containing what with a smile she said was "Arunachal Chai!" It was the local millet brew not unlike the "Chang" or rice beer of Himachal Pradesh. Mr. Singh (Lion) began to speak of the need for not killing the tiger since so few were left and in time, the younger generations would not be able to see any. After what became a long monologue not unlike all the pep talk "environment educators" spew out to children on World Environment Day, and time for the matter to be translated into the local dialect, the Head Man gravely responded. The essence of what he had to say was that "Tigers attack our women when they go into the forest and are a danger to our children and our livestock. Our children will be well rid of a continual danger. We shall kill tigers……" After another round of the Arunachal Chai and courteous handshakes we clambered down and into our waiting jeep. I could not help having a dig at my official host…"In all honesty, you cannot fault the argument. Yours and my illustrious ancestors clear felled all the forests and extirpated the lions and tigers of Gujarat and the Punjab to leave behind prosperous Singhs and illustrious Sinhs and our children seem not to be any the worse for the fact".  
 Lavkumar Khachar.

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