EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
What is it about the tiger that first captured your imagination?
The tiger means everything to me. I have served it for nearly 38 years. It captured more than my imagination when I first saw it in 1976. It was evasive, secretive and it was a great challenge to follow it and record its secret life. For me, it has a mesmerising beauty that moved my soul, and continues to do so even today.
How have your efforts to spread awareness about conserving tigers changed your worldview?
In the four decades that I have been engaged with the cause, I have seen the horrors of politics and governance both at the Central and State government levels. The tiger walks on the richest parts of India, which are her forests. I have visited diverse parts of this country and seen the feeble attempts to save this animal. I learnt about some of the harsh realities of this country and also met some incredible individuals — both inside and outside the government — who battle to save this animal against incredible odds.
In Tiger Fire, you have expressed your disappointment with the government’s efforts to save the tiger. What are the shortcomings?
The government’s efforts to save tigers involve more talk and very little action in the field. Many decisions and recommendations to provide relief to tigers get lost in a maze of bureaucracy. We need radical changes, where the forest department creates genuine partnerships with people and local players in the field of science and tourism. There has to be a sharing of decision-making and governance, where those in government services can collaborate with those outside. Since this gap is never bridged, both the government as well as the NGOs fail in their missions, and, as a result, tigers suffer.
Do you see the Ranthambore Foundation’s model to help people who were displaced with the creation of Ranthambore National Park as a success?
I created the Ranthambore Foundation in 1988 and left it in 2000. The foundation has multidisciplinary activities and working with displaced people was only one of such efforts. Such models fail primarily because the government does not know how to work with or trust those outside the system. This is because the institution of the forest services that administers such parks was essentially inherited from the British and is exploitative in its approach. Therefore, it is unable to partner in true sense of the word.
What, according to you, is the greatest threat to the survival of tigers in India?
The greatest threat to tigers is bad governance and feeble administration. This evil allows poaching and loss of habitat. And both result in declining tiger numbers. The only way forward is for the forest department to join hands with other partners — be it the local people or those who engage effectively with the natural world. Here, tourism can play a critical and positive role.
What mechanisms can be put in place in the tourism industry to help the cause of saving tigers?
India has no tourism or wildlife tourism policy. We need to learn from Africa, the amazing models that have converted large degraded areas into wildlife refuges and generate millions in revenue for the locals. To do this, we need innovative partnerships between the government, the tourism players and the locals. Sadly, for this to happen we need a change in the mindset and that could take decades given the rate at which we are progressing.
Do projects focusing on saving the tiger require integration with schemes for protection of animals within its ecosystem as well?
When you save the tiger, you save the smallest insect in that ecosystem. Project Tiger was based on this premise.
What is your most cherished memory of the Ranthambore forests?
The forests of Ranthambore are special as they merge with the splendours of history; ruined palaces, the fort, endless monuments dot the landscape. It offers an experience of the natural world that only a few places can compete with. There is not one, but innumerable special memories.
You have been a fierce critic of the government’s policies, but what are the lessons to be learnt from the successes and failures of the Ranthambore Foundation?
My active work with the Foundation ended 14 years ago. And that has nothing to do with government policy. As explained earlier, change will only come with radical reform in the functioning of the forest department. That will be determined by how many new partnerships they strike with those outside the government. The future lies in a completely new model of wildlife governance.