Cowatch: Protecting tigers

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Cowatch: Protecting tigers
Section: Voices Date:Mar 27,2008

By Bittu Sahgal

One of the world’s foremost authorities on tigers, Dr Ullas Karanth is a senior conservation scientist and Director of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society’s India Programme. The central thesis of his work has been the connection between prey and predator numbers and the arena of most of his fieldwork has been Karnataka, particularly Nagarahole, though he has, of course, studied tigers across India. Winner of the Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Lifetime Service Award 2007, he speaks here with Bittu Sahgal about tigers, science and conservation.

Some would say you live a most adventurous life. You must have a host of unforgettable wildlife experiences to share with our readers.
I think darting of tigers from a precarious tree perch, which was well within a tiger’s leap certainly ranks high in terms of sheer thrill. I will never forget moments like the one from my field diary of 17 years ago: “Then, I spotted the tiger: a brief glimpse of black and sunlit gold. The Randia leaves made a harlequin pattern of light and shade on his body. Padding calmly down a trail, massive head swinging side to side, the tiger was a picture of power and grace? I swung my dart gun around very slowly hoping his keen eyes would not catch the movement? As his shoulder, flanks and, then the right thigh appeared behind the crosshairs, I gently squeezed the trigger?”

Has your life ever been threatened in the course of your work?
Not really. There have been potentially risky moments with elephants while sneaking quietly on transect surveys, or I might have been darting tigers, but I would say I face a greater potential risk by driving on the streets of Bangalore.

How much of an influence on you was your illustrious father, Dr Shivrama Karanth and what were his views on the wildlife issues so close to your heart?
He was a huge and a very early influence. He was the one who pointed me towards nature. He absolutely loved wildlife and read widely about animals. Our home was, in fact, a haven for all sorts of animals, and I grew up on stacks of nature books and Jim Corbett’s tales of man-eaters.

I guess there must have been several other influences from your family.
My aunt Vasantha Satyashankar who gave me my first Sálim Ali book in the 1950s and encouraged me to watch birds; my cousin, senior forester Shyam Sundar who took me to the jungle in the 1960s, and forest ranger and long-time friend since the late 1960s, KM Chinnappa, who taught me field craft in Nagarahole. Of course, looming large as an intellectual influence, there was George Schaller, whose work on tigers I read first in 1965 in Life Magazine.

Where did you actually grow up and where did you complete your schooling, Masters and Doctorate? I grew up in Puttur, a rural town in the Western Ghats region, 50 km. from Mangalore in Karnataka where I studied in a Kannada-medium school. I then went on to study engineering, and worked for a while. I got to study wildlife formally for my Masters degree in Florida and completed my Doctorate in Mangalore.

What does a day of your job entail?
At one time, my day involved getting up early morning to radio-track tigers. Now, I mostly supervise the work of my younger colleagues or students. I do try to get to the jungle as often as I can? when I do so, I go around checking camera traps set in the forest to photograph tigers and identify them in order to count them?

So would you say the rigors of academia are imperative for sound wildlife conservation action on the ground?
Absolutely, while it is really our hearts and passion that lead us to conservation action, unless we ensure that reason and science guide these, such actions may not deliver effective conservation. As in technology, medicine or agriculture, science has a major role in shaping results and letting us know in real time whether we are on the right track.

And Wildlife First, what prompted you to start and invest time and energy into this organisation?
I am an advisor to rather than an activist of Wildlife First. When a mob of thoughtless locals invaded Nagarahole in 1992 and tried to destroy the wildlife that Mr. Chinnappa had protected for two decades and tried to hamper our efforts to learn through science, I realised that focussed advocacy was necessary to counter such ignorance.
I also saw that most ‘wildlife conservation’ was confined to big city folks in India. The need to recruit middle class youth from rural and small town areas was essential to break the barriers of class and English language that isolated conservationists from people who made decisions on ground ? After all, look at passionate advocates of other interests? women, adivasis, farmers – or at outfits like Maoists, communists or RSS – their core cadres come from this middle India. Now my Wildlife First idea has blossomed in the form of other advocacy groups: Bhadra Wildlife Trust, Kudremukh Wildlife Foundation, Wild Cat-Chikmagalur, Growing Wild and others are some newer examples. Another key element of the Wildlife First philosophy is not just to take ‘action’, but take action that is guided by reason and science.

What is the future of tigers in India now that the Forest Rights Act is a reality?
Most breeding tiger populations in India are now confined to some Protected Areas and a few critical habitats – less than 10 per cent of the tiger’s natural range. It is time to show some generosity towards nature. If the Rules framed under the Forest Rights Act ensure that within critical areas, a policy of fair and adequate relocation and compensation should guide the process of redressing past injustices, tigers can still survive. At least those who claim to have interests of both tigers and people at heart must now focus on this win-win approach rather than go on day-dreaming about painless coexistence of tigers and people in the face of increased forest use, even within remaining critical habitats. Conservationists must never forget that, Act or no Act, every forest dweller is free to move out voluntarily to a better life – no one can stop that.
Of course, there are those who say we don’t need tigers or nature anymore and India should be carpeted wall-to-wall with Special Economic Zones (SEZs), sugarcane fields or even tiger farms! I would like to politely differ: as the Earth heats up and becomes less and less habitable, they will, hopefully, change their views.

Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of
Sanctuary Magazine

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