Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tiger and other wildlife conservation in an anthropocentric world

A few months back, I'd written about a similar topic. The case I mentioned in that post is dragging its feet in the apex court. In the meanwhile, the court has placed a ban on tiger tourism in the core zones of all 41 of India's tiger reserves. Since the ban first came about in the month of July, the conservation community in India has stood divided between those pro-tourism and those against. While listening to the views and counter views, I've participated in a few debates and then pulled out. I needed time to gather my own thoughts on the subject. As a wildlife photographer or a naturalist or a conservationist, I'm an absolute novice compared to some of the big guns out there. So I guess, I'm entitled to take my time to think through an issue as grave as this. The question before the supreme court is one of whether they should allow tourism in its current form or not. The answer to that is pretty clear - not. With all due respect to the honourable court, the eventual answer isn't 'no tourism' either. I'll try to explain my thoughts later in the post. The question before the conservation community is a slightly bigger one. It's a question of identity and realism. I'd like to touch upon some of these issues in today's blogpost.

Divisiveness never helped a purpose

"...all roads can lead to conservation if the intentions and actions are right, and that people from all walks of life can contribute equally." - Shekhar Dattari
This month, Shekhar Dattari wrote a pretty interesting article about conservation. He argued quite rightly that no role in conservation is bigger or smaller than another. I'm not sure if it's me but I notice a huge amount of animosity in some sections of the conservation community towards others who maybe wholly or peripherally a part. For example, conservationists and naturalists seem to look down on photographers. Photographers look down on the general public. The general public looks down upon the forest department and forest dwellers. I like to believe that conservation is an orchestra - everyone plays their part. Sustainable conservation needs people from all walks of life - conservationists, activists, politicians, policy makers, the department, photographers and the common man. Why you may ask? In a country like India, the tiger is the smallest problem for politicians and policy makers to look at - let's be frank about this. Human beings are too short sighted to reconcile how the extinction of the tiger will lead to the crash of our ecosystem and eventually hit our water security. It's a fine scientific argument to pose to people and perhaps an item for long term education, but with 900 million Indians living at less than $2 a day, saving the tiger will never be a politician's priority. And the last I checked, tigers don't get to cast their own votes and even if they did, there's just 1700 of them! So for conservation to succeed, the tiger needs people to rally behind it. So the self-righteous attitude of 'certain people are bad for the tiger', needs to disappear in a hurry, or we'll see our tigers disappear before we can spell c-o-n-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-o-n.
"The tiger is a large hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated; as exterminated he will be, unless public opinion rallies to his support - India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna." - Jim Corbett

Lets get off the moral high horse

I participate on a forum of naturalists - quite obvious given my love for natural history. Recently we discussed the discovery of a flock of vultures in a remote village bordering Karnataka's Raichur and Bellary districts. It was happy news except when one of us jumped on a line from the report and said "...kudos for keeping the location a secret (I think you have already given too much information for picture hunters to swoop in)". To this, Santosh Martin(the naturalist who originally discovered the vultures) responded, "Picture hunters for personal glorification will never be entertained as before. Moreover, picture hunters these days are more focussed on tiger areas... Bellary is too far for them."  To say the least I was hurt by the commentary. I'm an amateur wildlife photographer - and for the record, I detest trophy hunting. Somewhere the term 'picture hunter' made me feel that the two naturalists who used the term equated photographers with trophy hunters. Somewhere it felt that they looked down on photography as a way to appreciate and observe wildlife.

In his defence, Santosh responded to me and said, "Picture hunters are certainly different from responsible wildlife photographers.Wildlife photographers are those who employ their skill to interpret nature for the benefit of those millions who never get the chance to visit see the animals and birds in their natural habitat. They also try and document new species which have never been documented before." While I have immense respect for Santosh Martin as a naturalist, I believe this is the kind of thinking that's detrimental to conservation. A photographer need not document new species. A photographer need not reach millions. If a photographer can, through the observation of wildlife become an advocate for its conservation, that in itself is a big win! If a photographer can show his/ her friends fabulous photographs of a much photographed tigress and get those friends excited about nature, that's fabulous too. As nature lovers we seem to live in our own little bubble - believing that there's already tremendous support for the wilderness, given we already see so much media related to it! The truth is far from it. Bump into someone on the street and ask them if they know about vultures going extinct or what the Great Indian Bustard is. Look for the gaze of bewilderment and you'll know what I mean. We need to convert that guy - and unfortunately we can't do this from atop a moral high horse. I don't have a photography website or even a Facebook page for my photos. I make photographs for my own pleasure and to share with my friends and family. Over the last couple of years, I've got several of my friends thoughtful about nature - I can say this about everyone in my immediate team at work. I haven't reached millions and I have no desire to do so and yet I believe I've achieved a conservation victory of my own.

Running an inclusive conservation and tourism orchestra 

The fact that the Supreme Court now has this case pending before it, gives the conservation community an opportunity to appreciate the roles we all play to protect our wildlife. We can't be looking for ecocentric solutions to the problems of an anthropocentric world. For conservation to succeed, we need people to support it fully. So the solution that emerges needs to be win-win and this means a few trade-offs. I'm no expert, but if I had any authority, here's what I'd recommend:
  1. Let's ditch the pseudo-science: There's no correlation between tourism and tiger numbers. Simlipal has no tourism and yet has a healthy tiger population and while Sariska and Panna had great tourism, they lost all their tigers in 2005 due to lack of protection and improper monitoring and administration. On the other hand tigers have grown in numbers in Ranthambhore, Tadoba, Corbett, Kanha, Pench, Bandhavgarh and other parks despite the heavy pressures of tourism. If anything, the only thing we can say with confidence is that tourism has no adverse or favourable impact on tiger numbers.
  2. Locals play a key role: Local people pay the heaviest cost for conservation. They usually lose ancestral land (albeit with decent compensation) and often get second class treatment to tigers and tourists. And when tigers kill their livestock, they have to go through a painful compensation process. If wild cattle ravages their crops, they hardly ever get compensated. In such circumstances, wildlife is like vermin to them - better dead than alive. To make conservation successful, locals need to have a stake. What incentives can they get for a healthy tiger population? What part of tourism profits can they share? Is there room for a community centric ecotourism model like Il Ngwesi in Kenya?
  3. Let's not impose human emotions on tigers: If we really care about tigers we need to stop humanising them. We should be concerned more about maintaining the sanctity of the forest than about how a tiger feels when there are people on an elephant beside it. We have no reason to believe that the tiger near the tourist elephant is a 'poor animal'. Let's remember that these are animals that could become invisible whenever they desire and the fact that we do see them indicates their possible tolerance towards us.
  4. Let's appreciate every stakeholder's context: Yes, we all need to operate with compassion and respect for the wilderness, but to be begrudging of others smacks of a holier-than-thou attitude. First time casual tourists need education. Yes, their noisy behaviour is often irritating and admittedly disturbs the sanctity of the forest - yet, the potential that one among them could possibly bat for the tiger in months to come, is a fair trade-off to live with. Wildlife photographers will want the best shot and go lengths for it. Yes, this may be irritating for naturalists and conservationists - but please understand the value of visual storytelling. That photo could be their way to get their family and friends inspired. There's nothing wrong in judging people, as long as you're willing to be judged yourself. The attitude amongst some naturalists and photographers seems to be that everyone; everyone but them, is a disturbance to wildlife. Nothing's further from the truth.
  5. Let's be ready to live with restrictions: This may seem odd coming from someone who is admittedly pro-tourism. I embrace the educational value of tourism but at the same time tourism can't be anti conservation. We need to have proper emission norms for safari vehicles that enter our parks. We need to decide by some form of established science the optimal number of safari vehicles that can ply at any given time without adversely affecting the ecosystem. We need guidelines for resorts that operate in and around national parks. We can't have another Kosi fiasco. We need tourism to be zero impact to the ecosystem - in that it gives back more than it takes from it. The ministry of environment and forests needs to create a scheme of equitable tourism that allows local communities to benefit and participate in tourism. This is the only way they're likely to help increase the forest cover is if the wilderness is worth more alive than dead.
  6. Let's not have double standards: Given our colonial history, we seem to have a sense of disdain for all things brown. So it irks us to see several brown people line up in jeeps to see a tiger cross the road. And yet, the same naturalists and photographers happily go to the Mara and see 60 vehicles line up for a cheetah and 40 vehicles surround a mating pair of lions and have nothing but great stuff to say about the place. The tiger is the proudest piece of our natural heritage and there's a certain beauty in the fact that 80% of the visitors to our national parks are Indians - as against what you may see in Africa. The fact that everyone from the prime minister to an ordinary country bumpkin can see the tiger for a nominal fee is something we should be proud of and strive to preserve. If we believe we appreciate and love nature, then let's play a role in helping others develop the same passion - instead of trying to judge those who may be less informed.

My intent here is not to take a dig at anyone. All I care about is that every person in this country has an opportunity to experience its rich natural heritage. I believe there's a nature lover in every one of us - our culture is one that inherently respects wildlife. You just need to take a good look at our mythology to believe me. I don't want to pre-judge anyone's intent, our wildlife could use every bit of support it gets in a country with huge population pressures and international poaching threats. I cannot bring myself to support a system where in a foreseeable future others will not have the opportunity to enjoy the privileges I've enjoyed in my life. Most importantly, I'd hope for the conservation community to stay together in its purpose.
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