NOV 2019  
In Conversation
A Lifetime of Serving Nature and Elephants

You have often said how your formative years, in school and college, played an important role in your decision to become an environmental conservationist. Many naturalists have said that inspiration to explore nature took root in their family. What was the inspiration in your case?

My family had no background or interest in nature and neither did most of my teachers, when I was growing up. However, in middle school we did yearly excursions, that lasted a couple of weeks, into the Himalayan high ranges. So, I went on trips to Rohtang and Sach passes in Himachal Pradesh and discovered the wonders of nature. However, none of the teachers knew any details and to my curious mind the search for what was the bird I was seeing or why the flower I was looking at looked different from the others, was not being answered. I delved into books, as there was no TV or Google available in those days, and kept copious notes. Also, my interest in birds meant I kept a large number of birds, and some snakes and turtles and monkeys, in my parents’ home without anyone knowing about it!

 You joined this field when it was an extremely offbeat career option – and over the course of the years, you founded not one or two but five environmental organizations. What were the biggest personal and professional challenges you had to overcome and how did you do that?

The first challenge was to get started. My father had enrolled me in a chemistry graduation as he thought I would help him with an industry he ran. I had to convince him to switch to zoology. For someone like him who has very little empathy for nature, it was remarkably great that he agreed without much problem. The engineer dad and doctor mom both encouraged their child to follow his passion, and take a career in nature study that had absolutely no prospects in those days.

To add to that, I did not have very inspiring teachers. Even when I joined the venerable Bombay Natural History Society for a degree I did not get a teacher who could inspire me. I had many colleagues who I learnt from, but not from my guide. This made me drop my educational career, without completing a doctorate. In many ways it helped me become a serial entrepreneur in nature.

I had to look out for myself. So, I formed organizations first by myself and then with others. I started Srishti, a nature conservation organization for Delhi, cofounded the Delhi Bird Club, then TRAFFIC-India, Venu Menon Animal Allies Foundation, and finally the Wildlife Trust of India.

How would you explain your work in combating wildlife crime and law enforcement to a lay person, for which you have recently been awarded the Clark R Bavin Wildlife Law Enforcement Award by CITES?

I stumbled into wildlife crime enforcement through keeping birds. I used to go to the bird market and buy birds that I kept in cages. I did not know how to feed them and many died. So, I went back and bought more. Slowly, I got to know a lot about the live bird trade and wrote a long piece in the Indian Express on it. Ashok Kumar who was an Advisor in the Ministry of Environment and Forests read it and asked me to join him in starting a wildlife trade monitoring unit in WWF. From there the two of us converted it into TRAFFIC-India. For six years, I researched the rhino horn and ivory trade, including going undercover for many months in more than 10 countries. In 1992, I started attending CITES as a TRAFFIC nominee. Over the years, I joined the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) delegation and then the Indian delegation. I have helped India take a clear stand on not trading ivory, rhino horn or tiger parts and put up a defence for these and many other species in the complicated, diplomatic, and political world of CITES. I suppose the award is a result of all that!

The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 is the oldest law on environmental conservation enacted in independent India. What have been some of the notable achievements and failures of this legislation? 

It is by far the most effective piece of wildlife legislation in Asia. The fact that we have 65 per cent of the world’s tigers, 75 per cent of the Asian elephants, 85 per cent of the one-horned rhinos, and 100 per cent of the Asian lions, is a testament to this law. But, like anything, there are weaknesses. The major one is the exclusion of local communities in wildlife conservation. The whole law is based on a fortress concept of the government doing everything. Even when others are involved, it is at the pleasure of the government. This is a serious weakness.

Elephants occupy a special place on your portfolio. What draws you to these gentle giants?

Elephants are near persons. If personhood can be defined as a combination of attributes like consciousness, memory, self-recognition or the ability to grieve or be joyful, then elephants, apes, and cetaceans will come close to being persons.

I love elephants as they are big, intelligent, social beings. They are gentle, but can be menacing too. I was happy to be part of a force that made the elephant the National Heritage Animal of India.

I have done a lot for elephants. Three decades of anti-poaching and anti-smuggling work, CITES level diplomacy to stop ivory trade from reopening, starting the first elephant rescue and reintegration centre showing that elephants can go back to the wild, creating a manual on welfare in training and keeping captive elephants and the Right of Passage work, documenting and making the government agree to the 101 corridor theory and then going on ground and securing these corridors – it’s been a lifetime of serving nature and elephants. I wish I can do just that little bit more…