A pioneer of scientific application of camera trapping method and radio telemetry method in India, Dr. K. Ullas Karanth is now a living legend in the field of Wildlife Biology. Academically a student of Engineering, he did traditional job in the technology field over a long period. Later, he followed his passion and became an influential figure in tiger conversation and research in India. In 2006, he received the J. Paul Getty Award for Conservation Leadership. The same year, Sanctuary Asia honored him with the Lifetime Achievement.In 2012, the Indian Government conferred him with the Padma Shri. Ullas’ father, Kota Shivaram Karanth, was also a legendary figure of Kannada culture. Originally a novelist, he was a man of many colors. Being the son of a famous father, Ullas did not allow himself to get covered in his father’s shadow. In this long interview with Soham Das of ‘Vinnosomoy.in’, a naturally-outspoken and fearless Ullas talks about his family, research life, well-known figures in Indian wildlife conservation, technical aspects of the two methods he pioneered in India, tigers of Sunderbans, mismanagement and monopoly of government officials, roles everyone has to play, and future scenario of tiger and overall wildlife conservation.
- Dr. Karanth, the first question I will like to ask you is that, academically you had studied Engineering, so, what was the factor that had driven you to this profession of tiger research and eventually tiger conservation?
See, my father (Kota Shivaram Karanth) was a writer and a polymath. He was vry inspired by Rabindranath Tagore. He was born in 1902 and had been to Santiniketan. He believed in non-schooling children’s education and that is why I had not gone to school till sixth grade. He was very interested in nature, though he was not a specialist. And, I had an aunt (a friend of my mother) who taught me birdwatching. So, I was very interested in nature right from my childhood.
I was born in 1948. Then, in 1965, when I was 17, I had to choose a career. And, at that point of time, if you had to earn a decent income in South India, you had to choose either the Medicine or Biology stream or the Engineering stream. I wasn’t interested in the Biology stream as it was not about wildlife. It was about treating people and becoming a doctor, which didn’t interest me. So, I joined Engineering with the thought that I would continue by birdwatching and wildlife study activities as a hobby while earning a decent income as an engineer.
I went to the National Institute of Technology of Surathkal, from where I graduated. But once I had entered the classroom, I realized that I was finding the subject very boring. I was a bright student till I was brought into Engineering because gradually I lost interest. So, I bunked classes and used to wonder in the forests, watch animals, and thus, learnt a lot about wildlife. Eventually, I managed to complete my course and did a job in the field of Engineering for about 10-15 years.
But in my mind, I was very clear that I wanted to become a wildlife biologist. I constantly tried to become one. It took some time, but I had managed to achieve the transition.
- So, in short, you had started your professional career in wildlife biology a little late in your life. Right?
There are two sides to make a career. One is, becoming a conservationist, and another is becoming a scientist. I was an act-in conservationist ever since I had started wondering in the forest. I got involved in various issues, used to fight conservation issues, when I was in mid-twenties or early thirties. I had professionally become a scientist when I was in late thirties.
- You had just mentioned about your father. My next question, in fact, on him. Though I hadn’t read any of his writings yet, but I had recently read a book on the history of Kannada literature, written by R. S. Mugali, where he pointed out that K. Shivaram Karanth used to explore a lot to pen down his masterpieces. He used regional elements, description of nature, weal and woe of common rural people, societal structure. And, he was also an environment conservationist. So, on that note, my question is, how much did he or his literature influence or motivate you?
Obviously he was a great influence. He was a novelist, but that was only one side of him. At the same time, he was a rationalist, joined the freedom struggle in 1920, gave up his college degree, and was a Gandhian activist till 1930s. Then, he got disillusioned with Gandhiji because he was a modernist. So, he had many dimensions.
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He had written the first children’s science encyclopedia in the 1930s, and first science encyclopedia in Kannada in the 1950s. In a word, he was a multi-dimensional man with only a high school degree. Obviously, when you have such an incredible personality as your father, there is a certain influence. But, I always tried to be kept away from under his shadows. I was much focused on Science and wildlife rather than literature and other things. He was a true polymath, which I’m not. I’m more focused.
- In fact, Ramchandra Gugha had called him the ‘Rabindranath Tagore of Kannada Literature.’
Yes. That irritated a lot of Bengalis. But, I think that is quite true. Shivaraman Karanth was influenced by Tagore. But the portfolio of Shivaram Karanth is much wider than Tagore. He was much involved in science, and took active part in freedom movement against the British.
- And your mother (Lila Karanth), of course, was also a great person in her own regards. She was a dancer, has translated a novel. It means you had grown up in a culturally rich environment. How did this environment, as a whole, contributed in your personal and professional development?
I think that kind of environment was really helpful. Because what parents do is that they ask their children to go for Engineering or sit for IAS. They set very hard rules for their children. Out parents never did that for us. Their message was, you do what you like and grow in that field and be independent; don’t depend on patronage. I think these were good lessons that all three of us got.
- That’s quite nice to hear. I think that should be the message of all the parents. Now, let’s get back to the questions regarding your profession. Please tell me what happened after you had become a wildlife biologist.
See, one can easily wave his arm and say, ‘I’m a tiger-wallah, or I’m a conservationist.’ But, being formally trained was the most difficult part I faced because Wildlife Biology is a good science but was not taught in India. Even now, it is taught in a very mediocre way. I had kind of naturalistic knowledge because I used to wander in the forest, look at animal tracks. So, I had field skills but had no formal training in the proper science of Wildlife Biology. That was the breakthrough.
In 1983, I attended the centenary meeting of Bombay Natural History Society. By then, I had written some articles on tigers. But, it was not rigorous science. I was very passionate about meeting Melvin Sunquist, who was the first person to radio track tigers in Chitwan, Nepal. And before that, my whole quest started by reading George Schaller’s articles in the 1960s.
Mel Sunquist took me under his wing and I ended up taking the GRE. I got good scores because I had Math in Engineering. Then I ended up in University of Florida in 1987 when my age was 39. And that is where I became trained according to the best traditions of modern Wildlife Biology. Many people here just tells stories about animals and claim to be a scientist. I’m not like that. I’m well trained and all of my students are also stars in their own regards.
- I want to talk a little bit about the anthology you had edited, ‘Tiger Tales’. I really liked the way you had made the category division and included the articles accordingly. You had pointed out in the introduction that this book would cover mostly the tigers outside India. We know that three of the Asian tiger species are now extinct – Java, Bali, and Caspian. What is the tiger situation right now in other countries?
The inspiration about ‘Tiger Tales’ came from V. K. Karthika, an editor of Penguin. I hardly knew her but she noticed the experience I had and she said to me ‘You’re the only person who can do this.’ Because all Indians are obsessed about Indian tigers. Like, western Indians are obsessed with Ranthambhore, Bengalis are obsessed with Sunderbans, etc.
But, tiger is a species whose range once covered across 30 of today’s countries – from Iraq to Vladivostok of Russia, and from Armenia to Bali. It occupied that space, inspired people, been driven to extinction across this global landscape, and that is why the idea of the book was to capture all those histories rather than only talking about Indian tigers. I liked that challenge and so I traveled across the tiger range on behalf of the ‘Wildlife Conservation Society’. Wherever tigers are, I’ve been there.
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The situation of tigers in other countries is very different, and the species biology is modified. Even, cultures are different. So, ‘Tiger Tales’ captures that, i.e. the whole variety. I had really enjoyed reading all the stuff and assembling that book. I think, that’s the book I really enjoyed editing. I had included only one chapter of mine in that (‘Understanding Tigers’) but had included different kinds of articles and stories written by other people. It was a pure cultural trip across the tiger-land.
- I had read the article of Frederick Walter Champion (‘Photographing Tigers’) in the book. He had preferred the power of camera photography over the power of hunting rifle at a time when tiger hunting was considered a sport in India. Being a pioneer of camera trapping in tiger census in India, how can you describe Champion’s contribution in tiger conservation?
I would consider Fred Champion the ‘foremost champion of tiger conservation in India’. You have to keep in mind that he was a forest service officer in the 1920s when a DFO was supposed to shoot a tiger as soon as he joined the service and then keep shooting the tigers as many as possible. F. W. Champion had shot only one tiger for that reason. After that, he never ever shot a tiger.
He was a phenomenal naturalist. Though he was not a modern scientist, he preceded Corbett. I consider him way higher than Corbett in the field of tiger conservation in India. He was appointed as a DFO in his division, and tried his best to watch tigers. In the early 1920s, he already started writing how India was losing its wildlife.
The cameras he brought were very primitive, which were manufactured by a man called William Nesbitt in New York, US. They had to work with a magnesium flare, which was tied to the carcass and the team had to wait for the animal to come. After working for more than 30 years, Fred Champion got nine pictures of tigers.
His grandson, whose name I cannot recall at this moment (his name is James Champion) wrote a book named ‘Tripwire For A Tiger’. It is a biography of Fred Champion, looking through his photographs, archives, school diaries, his experiences growing up in England as a little boy, etc. I was very honoured when his grandson had requested me to write the foreword for the book.
- It is indeed a matter of great honour. Well, apart from getting a population estimate of the tigers, what are the other benefits of the camera-trap method?
Basically, camera trap is a technique that has been there since Champion’s time. But the problem is, you cannot use them unless they are cheap, practical, and easily deployable in a large numbers in an area. Top-rated camera traps are used by organisations like National Geographic to take beautiful pictures. But they do not have the science beyond that.
There are many camera traps, which are cheap and easily available. I was the first person to use such a camera trap in India in 1990. So, that was 31 years back. But, everybody is using them now. Camera traps that you can put in large numbers in an area can actually lead to science. You can count the numbers, get information about survival threats. There is a whole set of uses for identifying individual animals. Whether it’s a tiger or a zebra or a leopard, you can identify them individually. You can use very powerful statistical models to learn all about that animal’s population biology.
That is one use. But, camera traps also have other uses. You don’t know where the animals are. Many species are so rare, like saola or Vu Quang ox. It is very rare Southeast Asian (Vietnamese) antelope. There are only two to three photographs available for saola. So, using a camera trap, you can find where the animals are. You can also use it as a surveillance tool to see where the poachers are.
In fact, cheap camera traps were originally invented by a man in Kansas called Bill Goodson, who sold them to deer hunters. Because, American deer hunters wanted to go and shoot the biggest stags and to locate them, they used camera traps. So, camera traps have many use. You can use them for surveillance, for hunt, or for science. I have used it for science.
- I was watching a video documentation of your work on YouTube. There you had pointed out that the photos that have been taken by the camera trap can also be used to detect which animals have been poached.
Yes. That is an incidental use. See, we don’t have that space to use camera traps effectively. It is because our government makes a mess of camera traps. They buy cameras but do not use them scientifically. But if you properly use them, they can be of great help.
Whenever there is a seizure of a skin in Hong Kong or anywhere else, we can trace the origin of that skin if we have a properly constructed database. Because if we have live photographs of live tigers in the reserves and dead tigers’ skins being caught in seizures, we can link the two. We did a few. I think, in four or five cases in Karnataka, where we were able to link seized skins to living tigers we had camera trapped.
- You have pioneered both camera-trapping method and radio-telemetry in India. I would like to hear a comparative analysis of these two methods.
Between radio telemetry and camera trapping, there is very little overlap. In radio telemetry, what we do is, we physically catch an individual tiger, and then put a collar on it. In past, we used to do ground tracking – a very high frequency tracking from the ground. In that case, we followed the tiger on a vehicle, on an elephant back, walked, or whatever. So, it does not tells us about the numbers, how many there are, etc. What it gives us is a very deep insight into how big is the range of a female or male, how they interact, how they raise their cubs, and many more things.
It is more like a behavioral study tool. Another information that it gives a scientist is about every kill a tiger makes. So, we are able to know about the feeding ecology, or how many kills a tiger makes in a year. These kinds of refined individual tiger data come from radio telemetry. Camera trapping does not give you that information.
While you can put radio collars on five to six tigers at a time, with camera trapping you can catch a large proportion of the population, which is about 60-70%. So, if there are 100 tigers, you can catch 70 of them. Camera trapping helps in individual identification, which also include tigers that we cannot catch while doing radio telemetry. That is the power of this model. So, it is more like a population level study tool.
On the other hand, radio telemetry method gives insights on more nuances about the behaviour. Eventually, when we put the population level processors, the behaviour gives us a clue as to why something is happening. So, the two are very different tools, and not meant for the same purpose.
- You had mentioned Jim Corbett’s name just a while ago. I think two people, who are mostly famous because of their beautiful writings about Indian jungles, are Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson. Jim Corbett worked in Northern India, while Kenneth did his hunting in Southern part. They were mainly hunters. Still, they are highly regarded by conservationists. So, what was actually their contributions to tiger conservation? I want to hear it from you.
Compared to Fred Champion, there is no contribution in that sense. Jim Corbett was an inspirational figure for a lot of people because he wrote those thrilling real incidents about hunting tigers. Lot of people read them and got interested in nature. I would not say he was a blood-thirsty hunter. Supposedly, he influenced the United Provinces government in the creation of Hailey National Park. But in the modern frame, I cannot say him a conservationist.
India became independent in ’47, and may be because of pressure from his sister or whatever reason, he migrated to Kenya. He was a great naturalist, the most inspiring figure who can raise interest in not just tigers, but also birds. He was also a thrilling writer. Kenneth Anderson was born in 1910, much later than Corbett. And I personally knew Kenneth Anderson towards the end of his life. I graduated from college in 1971. After that, I went and met him, and even spent some time with him.
Kenneth Anderson never pretended to be a conservationist. He wrote fantastic descriptions about South Indian landscapes, natural history, birds and animals, and was a fun guy to be with. I was 23 and he was 61, but he never let understand the barrier. If you read his book, you may get a feeling that he shot a lot of animals, and he was a blood-thirsty man-eater hunter. I don’t think that many of those man-eaters really existed. I think he just put the ‘man-eater tiger’ character in the story that was in his head. In his writings, you find things like black magic and a Swami turning into a tiger, etc.
Kenneth Anderson’s writings too, when translated in Kannada, inspired a lot of people to get interested in nature. They are not conservationists by my definition. They have inspired people who later became conservationists. One difference between the two is that Corbett actually shot those man-eaters. Though, I have doubts with the story of ‘Champawat Man-eater’ (the man-eater that Corbett first shot, in 1907). I think that was done by more than one tiger because killing four hundred people across India and Nepal is not a matter of joke. But other than that, Jim Corbett’s writings are about real man-eaters. But Anderson’s man-eaters, I think, were not real man-eaters.
- Actually my next question was, whether you had ever met Kenneth Anderson. Because you hail from Karnataka and he lived in Bangalore.
Yeah, I have just told you that. I wandered with him in the forest. He was a great company. He was also a good story-teller. And you know, once I asked Kenneth Anderson, “Sir, did you really shoot those tigers?” He answered, “Sometimes, you had to add some colour to it.” He didn’t give me a direct answer but he was a fun guy to be with.
- Hailey National Park was established in 1936 with a mission to protect these large and beautiful predators from indiscriminate hunting, right?
Whatever reasons there were behind establishing this national park, this park is the first ever national park in India. That same place is now called Corbett National Park.
- So, can we call this as the first pillar of tiger conservation in India?
No. I don’t think so. I think the real tiger conservation in India started by Indira Gandhi in 1971, which really put focus on the topic, thus bringing strong laws against killing of wild animals, banning tiger hunting. We can tell lot of stories but the number of tigers would have gone down the tube completely if at that point in time in 1971, Indira Gandhi, the Indian Forest Service officers of that generation, conservationists like Salim Ali, Zafar Futehally, Billi Arjan Singh, and international personalities like Peter Jackson and Rick Albert had not worked together. Without these efforts, tiger would have been done extinct in India, like Iran, Cambodia, and other places.
So, let’s not push it back into 1936. Tigers were almost gone when I was going into the forests in the 1960s. They were recovered only after 1970-’71. Nobody should get credit before that.
- So, it took 24 long years for Indian authorities to take the matter of wildlife conservation seriously. So, what can be the reason behind such an attitude?
I don’t blame anybody for it. The thing is, if you go back to those days, we had starvation, foods were imported to feed people, we were desperately poor, and we had an economic growth rate of 2% per year. In such a deprived state, who had time for tigers?
So, I understand why this area was not looked after. Those economic problems had to be solved first. Once the economy was fixed, then we had time for tigers. Look at what China did. At the same period, they wiped out their tigers. I don’t blame people before 70s for not doing enough. There was poverty, so I cannot blame them for ignoring wildlife. I blame people who came after 70s because the commitment we had in the start of this is now losing.
- Over many years, tigers have been hunted. Is this the only reason behind the decline in their population?
Tigers faced no threat of extinction when steel and gunpowder had come. Once we had firearms and later pesticides, things got worse. People wanted more agriculture, and tigers were a menace for them. Hundreds of people were then eaten up by tigers across India. So, the policy was to eradicate tigers.
If we look at a statistics of the period between 1875 and 1925, some 75000 tigers were killed. For two reasons – one is, sport hunting, and the other is, bounty hunting. In bounty hunting, if someone killed a tiger, he would get hundred rupees. That is why poor people killed more tigers than those sport hunters. So, everybody joined and killed tigers.
But the worst pressure above that was killing a prey. Even today, we have lot of beautiful forest covers in Odisha, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Northeast India, but there are no tigers. Why? Because the people had eaten the prey. With all these factors operating, tigers are put on the brink. It is not a simple story.
- What you had actually witnessed is the change in the forest scenario. Forests, which were popular hunting grounds had been converted into protected areas. I want you to explain this change in shift in your own words.
Some of these tiger reserves or protected areas were hunting grounds. For example, Kaziranga or Nagarhole were never hunting grounds. Some places like Kanha or Ranthambhore might have been.
However, if you’re asking me whether the early protection brought back tigers into those forests, I would say that is certainly true. The conservation started in ’71, and tigers were almost gone from most of the places by late 60s. They came back because of protection, irrespective of whether it was a hunting ground or not a hunting ground.
The key was law enforcement. Today people think that you don’t need guards or hard law, and people will protect tigers. This is not true. If you look at what happened in Odisha, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh, you can understand the scenario. People had hunted there without restraint. In Nagaland, tigers are extinct. They were still there in the 50s.
So, we have to be very clear. Hunting should be stopped by law.
- From 2010 onwards, there has been a steady increase in Indian tiger population. But human population is also on rise. Thus, human encroachment seems to be inevitable. So, what can be the future consequences?
I don’t think the government statistics are right. The numbers going up and going down are not accurately being done. There were about 2000 tigers when the project tiger and other conservation methods were taken. And gradually, by late 80s, it had reached about 3000. And today also, we have around 3000 tigers.
All these numbers that you read in the newspapers are based on bad science and junk science. I don’t believe in any of their stories. For example, in 2006, they said that the tiger numbers had decreased from 3000 to 1400. And now they have gone up, have been tripled. This is actually a number game played by uneducated bureaucrats and sub-standard scientists. So, let’s not talk about that.
But if your fundamental question is whether we have more tigers given there is more people, I can answer that. But, let’s not go by these government numbers. They mean nothing. Now, if you look at India today, there are 3 lakh square kilometers of forests, where tigers can live in reasonable good densities. They are reserve forests, and not private lands. So, if we go with an average density of 5 tigers per square kilometer, we can have 15000 tigers in India. If the average density is 2.5 tigers per square kilometer, we can have 7500 tigers in India. And, what is the capacity in the best of those reserve forests like Nagarhole or Kaziranga or Kanha? In Kanha, 15 tigers live per 100 square kilometers.
So, we are nowhere near having the capacity of 7000 or 10000 tigers. For that, we should have a fixed goal. But we have no goal, we have no vision. We have been spending money, saying we have succeeded.
Now, given the economic growth, can this happen? Yes. What economic growth does is that it takes people away from the forest-attached lands to urban or semi-urban areas, thus reducing the pressure of grazing, hunting, and living off the land. If managed properly, economic growth can take people away from forest covers. We had witnessed it in Uttarakhand, in the mountains of Karnataka, where people have been moving from the wilderness areas to small towns and urban areas.
And even if you look at the Northeast, you will find complete migration of people from wild protein in certain places of Arunachal Pradesh has been reducing pressure of hunting. The biggest driving factor that has led to the decline of wildlife is the hunting, whether it is of tiger, prey species or any other species. If people eat wildlife for normal protein that they need, wildlife have no hope. So, I don’t see development as an enemy of conservation. I think the main focus should be on where we are having conservation and where we are having development.
- Because of the human-tiger conflict, is there a change in the tiger’s diet getting noticed? Is there any shift in it from wild ungulates to cattle and livestock?
I don’t think so. I think the shift is on the other way. In the 1920, 30s, or 40s, most of the tiger’s diet was cows. Now the tigers are not widespread, they are restricted to protected areas. So, their prey is wild prey. Hundreds of years ago, it was cattle because at that time, people were hunting and eating tiger’s preys.
- Regarding human-tiger conflict, I want to know from you, what is the main driving factor behind the Sunderbans tigers being man-eaters?
Tigers are generally afraid of human beings. They do not usually hunt on human beings on systematic basis because human beings have hunted them since long. The hunting was not like snare hunting, it was mass hunting. So, over the time, tigers have developed an instinctive fear and avoidance of humans.
In Sunderbans, the habitat is such that it is not possible to do drive, catch tigers in any kinds of methods, hunt tigers from elephant backs or do beats. It is also impossible to kill tigers by snaring or poisoning. That is why I think, Sunderbans tigers have less instinctive fear of human being.
Secondly, there are very little wild prey. These are small tigers, much smaller than tigers found in Terai or Western Ghats. Sunderbands do not have large ungulate preys. So, tigers readily take on human beings in vulnerable situations, and the chance of them being hunted after taking a human being is far low. So, the behaviour I think is more widespread among the tigers here. If not every, a large proportion of tigers take on human beings when they see them, and it is applicable both in India and Bangladesh.
Well, I’m not saying this based on any data. It is just my speculation based on what I know about tiger behaviour.
- So, is it not connected to the presence of saltwater in the region?
No, I don’t think so. There is nothing to do with saltwater. Tigers in Vietnam and Indonesia live in a similar brackish water environment, but they are not natural man-eaters. So, there is no connection to saltwater. Some British guys had said the reason as saltwater and we had readily accepted that. The two main reasons are lack of prey and lack of fear of human beings.
- Number of Tiger Reserves is increasing every year. Recently, India got its two new tiger reserves in Meghamalai and Ramgarh. Big investments are being made, but in many areas, no resident tigers are documented, as per scientists’ reports. I personally had this experience when I visited Jayanti, which is a part of Buxa-Jayanti Tiger Reserve. A local person told us that there is no resident tiger in Buxa over a considerable time. Still, huge money is coming and there is not at all any sustainable development in the adjacent settlements either. Then, what is the main story behind such a thing?
I don’t know exactly about Buxa, but India’s Tiger Projects are not based on science, logic, and reasons. Originally, there are nine places that can be called Tiger Reserves, but that number is over 50. Tiger Reserves are being randomly declared because someone on the board wants it, some politicians want it. Good areas are being left out because politicians or some bureaucrats don’t want it. So, there is basically no logic behind why these areas are tiger reserves and some of the best places are not tiger reserves. That is one issue.
Number two, declaring a tiger reserve has become a negative factor because it brings NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority) and its inefficient bureaucracy with hundreds of rules, which don’t help the state government in any way. Now, Tiger Reserve means only a label. Earlier, when a tiger reserve was declared, it meant something. Central government could guide the policy, get the officers of choice posted, but all of that is gone now. Now, TRs have become a budget line, and when it is declared a TR, lots of money can be received.
In some states, that work. But state like Karnataka had declared that they don’t want any more TR. It is a nuisance, and actually doesn’t help. I think, we need a new tiger task force to review the whole non-sense of declaring TRs and NTCA’s bureaucracy. I don’t know particularly about Buxa, but this random declaration is not a solution.
- Because of the decline in the tourism economy recently due to pandemic restrictions, authorities had decided that two main national parks (Corbett and Rajaji) will remain open the whole year. Other national parks and tiger reserves can also take the same step. On that note, will it be practical to keep the parks opened even in the mating season?
I don’t understand this process of alternate closing and opening. National Parks in South India are open through the year and we don’t face any problems with that.
- Tigers of forests like Ranthambhore are habituated to see tourists, tourist cars, and they have been seeing these over many years. Still, in some instances, tigers are found chasing the cars. So, is intense tiger tourism creating enormous stress on them?
We shouldn’t have intense tiger tourism. I think we should have more areas in the reserves so that people can see tigers in a less stressful circumstances. Instead of hyping up tiger tourism in less reserve forests, we should spread it widely across the country.
- I had read one of your interviews taken by filmmaker Krishnendu Bose. There you had expressed your grief over the internal politics in the scientific community, especially what happened with Raghu Chundawat. You had also mentioned about cases filed against you on the grounds of trespassing into forest. What factors influence these kinds of anti-scientific matters in a scientific community?
We’re now talking about tigers, talking about science. But right now, science means only government officials can do the research and others will be denied access unless they take subsidiary roles like assistants or helpers. If anyone is critical of the government, he is blocked from doing science.
I don’t think this encourages good science. This is why the Indian wildlife science is set back. The country is filled with healthy, young, very enthusiastic scientists, who are well-trained, but they have nowhere to go. They are going back into the laboratories to do genetics. Because mediocre scientists paid by the government are monopolizing the research and they are not allowing others to come in. this problem is getting worse.
I’m finished with my research and now I’m worried about the fate of the young researchers in this ‘sarkari’ monopoly of science. Everywhere else the government is telling us to be ‘atma-nirbhar’, we should open up, we should allow others, and we should allow creativity, start-ups. But in the sector of wildlife, there is complete government monopoly, just like Stalin’s Soviet Union.
- You had also mentioned the name of P. K. Sen, the former director of Project Tiger. He passed away this year, right?
Yes, P. K. Sen passed away this year due to COVID. He was one of the most remarkable forest officers I have seen in my entire career. With all his vision, his ability to get things done, his open-minded approach to science, his openness to anyone who had talent, he was a very capable person. He did his best. He retired in 1997, I think. Even after retiring, he was one of those persons who had large impact. He was a person I really admired. He was really one of the best forest officers I met in my entire career.
- What roles can the urban community play in forest and tiger conservations?
As India is becoming more urbanized, urban people will have more influence directly to government and civil service, and through the media. But, they have to first understand the issues and do what is good for wildlife. The problem is that they are all lost in Facebook and fake solutions. They’re not using their real power of changing policies. Instead, they often end up feeding dogs in cities and doing things like that. They’re not using their real traction that they have. They can obviously do a lot of things. The media, the chamber of commerce, the businesses, start-ups – the power is in urban India. But, urban India is not intelligently using its power to save nature.
- We have come to the last question. Right now, areas of forests are being cut down due to industrialization, resulting in enormous pressure on tiger habitats. On that note, what do you think the future scenario of the whole matter?
First, we have to recognize that the biggest loss in forests in India after independence is not due to industrialization, it is due to farming. Clearing forests for agriculture is taking away forests more than other things you’re talking about, like industrialization, hydro-projects, etc. I’m not saying they’re good for environment, I only want to say that we have to recognize.
So, if we have to bring back the forests, a lot of this has to be done by recovering the farmlands. The marginal farm areas must be converted into wildlife reserves. The big loss of forests had been done due to the expansion of agriculture. Now, how do you make agriculture more efficient?
We shouldn’t keep so much lands for producing basic food and raw material. We should use modern technology so you can grow more crops is smaller areas with less water and less pesticide. The places where efficient agriculture and shrinking agriculture are happening, offer the biggest scope in bringing back nature.