Thursday, August 23, 2012


Last week I attempted to reveal the murderous trail that starts from the high Himalayas and through an ancient route, finds its way straight into your boudoir. This week’s fashion victim is nowhere near as exotic as the chiru nor its final avatar anything as glamourous as the shahtoosh. And yet, the silent extinction of a species is imminent and the blood once again would be on our hands.

Every now and then, articles appear in newspapers and magazines about the seizure of skins and bones of wild animals. Tiger and leopard skins, bones and organs, ivory, and rhino horns grab attention and headlines. These flagship species evoke strong reactions from the government, conservation groups, the media and the public at large. Task forces are set up, grants sanctioned, even governments toppled and candlelight vigils held, and I am glad that we care enough for these chosen few for us to be able to hang on to whatever numbers that now remain in our protected forests.

But the unfortunate devil in the details is the fact that almost every news item mentioning a seizure, almost as an aside, also mentions the capture of otter pelts, perhaps far more in number than any of the other pelts and skins but no one, not even the article itself, seems to notice.

Otters lack the magnificence of the great beasts that lay slain alongside them and so they hardly ever seem to get noticed. There have never been any significant researches about otters in this country and we don’t even know how many we once had and how few now remain. What we do know that there was once a time when they were a common sight along our rivers and streams, and today we would be hard pressed to find a family group in even the protected national parks.

I found very little information about the poaching of otters in the public domain and so I went to an old friend who works with WWF (World Wide Fund For Nature) you might have met earlier, Khaled Pasha. When I met him and shared my concerns about the poaching of otters in India, he drummed his fingers on the table, smiled a sad smile and said “Otters have been killed to the brink of extermination in this country. Theirs has been a silent extinction.”

This, incidentally, isn’t the first such extinction of our modern, environmentally aware and concerned times. Vultures (Peninsular India is home to three species of vultures – the slender billed, long billed and Oriental white-backed), once a common sight from trains along the countryside and even in the big cities in parks and woodlands have suffered a mass extinction with nearly 97 per cent to 99.9 per cent of the population dying out due to a veterinary drug diclofenac, used for treating cattle. This drug was a known toxin for scavengers like vultures and was banned in most countries. But the Indian administration refused to wake up to this truth. Efforts are on to breed vultures in captivity and then release them in the wild and this method might actually bring the great birds back to our skies. The successful resurgence of the California Condor through a captive breeding programme is a case in point.

The vulture in India was an accidental victim of administrative oversight and lethargy but the otter is being clubbed , speared and shot to death for its pelt in huge numbers across the country and no one seems to have noticed. Khaled is one of a notable few who have researched the matter and written an indicative paper on the plight of these delightful little creatures.

There three species of river otters found in this country – smooth-coated, small-clawed and the Eurasian otter. These were once so numerous that in the Sunderbans, on both sides of the border, fishermen would train pairs of otters to fish for them. Fishermen would tie them to their boats and then cast their nets. The otters would then drive the fish into the net and thus earn their keep. This relatively harmonious relationship is still alive in the Sunderbans but everywhere else, otters have nearly been battered into submission.

About ten years ago, I would see otters often along the banks of the Ramganga, fishing, squealing and having an otter of a time. But those days are long gone. Otters never really enjoyed the attention and protection that the press and the government reserved for flagship species like the tiger or the elephant. As a consequence, poachers hunt otters with impunity all along our rivers. The flesh is eaten, and the pelt (and the oil) is smuggled through Nepal into countries which have a market. Tibet is a big market for otter skin lined jackets and sleeves. Poaching isn’t the otter’s only problem either. Our rivers are over fished and starvation along some banks is an obvious possibility. And then of course there’s the pollution in our dying rivers.

Sadly, there has been any research about otter numbers in this country so there’s no way of establishing the extent of the ecological loss. As per Khaled’s estimations, otter numbers surviving outside national parks would be negligible and even within the park their numbers would have been decimated. If the otter is not to go the way of the vulture or even over the edge, it is imperative that a task-force is set up that will work on four fronts – a) conduct a census across the nation to establish baseline numbers for all three species; b) protecting otters has to become a specific priority for concerned agencies; c) spread awareness through media campaigns to try and reach out to target groups so that there’s a reduction in demand for otter pelts; and d) rehabilitate otter poachers, hopefully within the eco-tourism set up, to reduce incentives and provide alternatives to communities involved with poaching.

Otters are a resilient species and have bounced back from the brink in many parts of Europe. Given half a chance, they might do so here as well. All we need to do is remind the government and concerned agencies that our conscience and our rivers need the otters as much as the otters need them.


Thursday, August 16, 2012


Tall and dark, with a nose that seemed to have been carved by the heat of the plains far more than the cold winds that shape the mountains, Riaz Ahmed did not look like a Kashmiri, though he did claim to be one.

He ran into me at the market, introduced himself, asked me where I was from and then said he had something rare and beautiful to show me. I had time to kill and so I took the bait and followed him up a narrow flight of wooden stairs into a small room that sat on top of a restaurant. The room, washed white and blue, in bands, like a flag, had no furniture. Just a rack at the back, with shawls and scarves and bed-spreads and a carpet, stretched wall to wall, on the floor. A window opened onto the street below.

Horse hooves clattered along the road, now wet from the rain. The babel of wood carvings, caps and shawls, and another train of ‘ghodawallahs’ urging their steeds up the steep incline made up the sounds of Pahalgam. And the sights, if you looked beyond the street sprinkled with trails of horse-dung and a 500 metre long stretch, where a gaggle of shops, leaning on each other like a bunch of drunk gangly teenagers, stood out like warts and begging-to-burst boils on Keira Knightley’s exquisite face, was one for the gods.

Green valleys, the gorgeous Lidder meandering its way down the Panjal and a winding boulevard lined with poplars that led away from this valley of shepherds that was once Pahalgam….

“Yeh dekhiye…bilkul nayab! Ekdum asli….” My reverie was broken by Riaz’s practiced pitch. I turned, just as Riaz unfurled a beige shawl. The fabric waved and rippled in the air for a brief moment and settled at my feet.

“This is the real stuff… exquisite and beautiful! Just touch it and you will know…”, Riaz insisted with a twinkle in his eye. I obliged and in that moment I must have betrayed a trace of sensual surrender for he added… “Ah, you like it! I have more… as many as you might want.” I was surprised. The delicate and incredible lightness of the fabric I now held between my thumb and my forefinger reminded me of the time I had held a butterfly’s wings as it settled on a flower. Th at time, I didn’t know that my innocent act had doomed the butterfly but now if I bought this shawl, I knew I would be commissioning the murder of another dozen chiru.

Less than a decade and a half or two ago, most people were not aware of the origin of the shahtoosh – the king of wool. In North India, a respectable dowry was incomplete without a shahtoosh shawl to adorn the bride. From Milan to Miami, no party was worth its wine if it didn’t have a few leggy ladies wrapped in one of these. Weddings, fashion runways and irony of ironies, charity balls and auctions of the best sort were incomplete without one of these. And they had spun a romantic yarn to go with the exotic beauty of the ‘toosh’. If you asked them of the origin of the ‘toosh’, they’d say it came from the upper reaches of the high Himalayas. In those forbidding passes where no man can stay for long, there roam the wary ibex. The billy-ibexes with their scimitar horns and bushy beards would roam these barren wastes and rub their chins on bushes and boulders and leave a little of their beards behind. Tibetan nomads would wander through these passes, looking for their trail, and then collect the downy hair and trade it with Kashmiri shepherds. From there, it would reach the special looms of Kashmir’s famed weavers, who have the only hands skilled enough to weave this fine hair into shawls with the ‘unbearable lightness of being’.

A beautiful garment, a great story and no guilt…. Th at suited everybody just fine until George Schaller came along and pooped every body’s party. Good old George has spent a good number of his days on the Tibetan plateau in his legendary quest for all creatures great and small and had come across hunters with skins of the chiru – the shy and nervous Tibetan antelope. They told him the skin and fur was sold to traders from Kashmir but he couldn’t make the connection until he was approached by a friend from the fashion industry to help trace the origin of the gorgeous shahtoosh. They followed the trail and soon enough, Schaller made the connection between his encounter with the hunters and the shawls hanging in the wardrobes of some of his friends. Th at was in the early 1990s. He urged the international community to ban the use of shahtoosh and while most countries involved in the trade agreed, enforcement agencies took a while to get serious about cracking down on the trade. The Jammu and Kashmir took another 10 years before imposing the ban within the state.

Even now, political groups try to score points in the state by raising the issue of removing the ban for the sake of Kashmiri weavers. Well meaning but ill informed journalists write about the possibility of breeding Tibetan antelopes in captivity in order to revive the art of weaving shahtoosh. (More on that in a later issue)

Meanwhile Riaz, having piqued my interest, took out more of his wares. I feigned appreciation and then asked him, isn’t it illegal? “ Don’t worry sir, kuchh illegal nahin hai. No problem. We have been selling shawls to everybody who matters… everybody you can name… Delhi mein logon ko ‘toosh’ ke bina neend nahin aathi…” I was shocked. Here I was led to believe that shahtoosh was banned and once people knew the truth about the cruel trade, it would surely not have a market but as things stand, there seemed to be a thriving trade in the contraband.

Didn’t he or his clients ever get in trouble? Riaz smiled but his eyes were mocking me. “Sir, toosh ka shauk bade logon ka shauk hai. Woh sab kanoon ke bahar hain. Wahi kanoon banate hain… my clients are too big and powerful. They can’t be touched. Even if I’m travelling to Delhi or Mumbai with a big consignment, or even if it’s one of my men and if I get into trouble, all I have to do is make one phone call and all is well… sab theek ho jata hai… You don’t worry… I guarantee you and your shawl will reach home safe” he said and grinned. I wasn’t sure who was the cat and who the mouse in this game of ours. I was wondering what my options were… Option one: I could inform the cops but they obviously knew already and weren’t bothered. Or I could let it be and walk away because nothing would come of it anyway. Or, option 3, I could inform environmental agencies about this exchange… and that’s done. But I’m sure it wouldn’t go anywhere beyond Riaz and his fellow shawl merchants getting hassled a bit and having to make a few phone calls.

The chiru are shot and killed mercilessly for the fleece. New born fawns are skinned while they bleat and bleed. The raw wool is traded in by these hunters from Tibet in exchange for tiger bones. And it has been reported that a fair share of funds from this illegal trade is diverted towards procuring weapons and resources for terror groups and other perpetrators of organised violence. And the sad truth is that it’s people like you and me and mothers of my friends whose vain demands are fuelling this cruel trade that is dipped in the blood of innocents, is pushing not one but two species toward the brink of extinction and supporting factions who will eventually end up hurting us and all we love in the worst manner possible. Th is story has only begun and I will pursue this issue with all who I think can help, but you alone can help far more than the most dedicated enforcers of the law… just promise me that you won’t ever fall for the blood-thirsty charms of the shahtoosh nor let your friends or relatives give in to its lure. And if you have some already, ‘return’ them to the forest department. Actually, I don’t trust that idea much. Burn them all instead. Th at’s what they do to ivory and tiger skins. What’s going up in smoke is not an heirloom, or an example of exquisite craft smanship but the symbol of your naiveté at best and cold vain thoughtless greed on the other. Neither can make you proud. And either way, you are responsible for at least half a dozen murders. And who knows how many more murders, possibly human, your lakhs would have funded.

All that blood is on your hands. Atone now! Unwrap, unfurl and bury or burn…


Thursday, August 9, 2012


Hello history! So who did you kiss on the lips? Won’t you tell us who you’ve chosen to love, whose name we shall remember, forever from this day? They say you chose that gangly Phelps kid who made a big splash in the pool. Of course he is a phenomenal swimmer and all that. He won more medals than he has fingers and toes and that’s more than you can say for many countries put together at the games. The record books would say it is him they saw you kissing. But what do record books know... They are just names and numbers. They don’t have heart or soul. Their blood cannot be stirred nor their souls set on fire by a blaze of Olympic glory.

But what of history then? Will she make an Olympian her own without him stirring her soul like no one else can? Did Michael Phelps really do it? Will history remind us of him with the same passion fifty years from now as the papers do today? Is he really the greatest Olympian of all time? I think the answer might lie with a woman who believes history kissed her first…

She’s old now, about 77, and lives in a little town called Semenovskoye in Russia. If you go there when the sun is out and the air is warm, you might find her tending to the vegetables in her garden. The veined freckled hands that pluck weeds with grace today once helped her vault into space at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. And by the time she tumbled, turned and somersaulted her way back to earth on her dainty little feet, she had around her neck a total of 18 Olympic medals across three Olympic events. She is Larissa Latynina - the woman whose record Michael Phelps broke to win the most medals in Olympic history. A record that stood for 48 years. “If you want to know the greatest of all time, the first thing you look at is how many medals they have won…”, she once told an interviewer, and today’s papers, as they hold up the ‘Phelpenomenon’ to the skies, would seem to suggest that she’s right.

Well, I say they are wrong! Larissa and Michael may have been kissed by fate, fortune and glory but definitely not by history. And history is not what sleeps in dusty books in musty libraries but what lives in memories which forever beat in the hearts of those that saw, in memories that made poets of sportswriters and in memories that make eloquent raconteurs of the most taciturn observers; memories that make you want to say, ‘I was there that day!’ Larissa was a great gymnast but was she a great Olympian? What makes an athlete a great Olympian?

Olga Korbut, who won only six medals in her time at the 1972 and 76 Summer Games shines far above Larissa even within the sport. She was the first gymnast to be inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, nearly a decade ahead of Larissa, and still rules the hearts of gymnastics fans, many of whom would be hard pressed to recognise Larissa the person behind the statistics. Larissa was coach of the Soviet gymnastics team when Olga went to compete at the ’72 games. Rumour has it that Larissa tried to keep the Belarussian Korbut out of the team and wanted an all Russian team instead. Korbut replied with two individual gold medals and became the star of the games. When asked who she thought was the greatest gymnast of all time, Olga replied “…to win medals (alone) is not the best. To win the hearts of people… That is best! I think I was good at that!”

In 1999, at the World Sports Awards of the Century, hosted in Vienna, Larissa was nominated as one of the contenders for Best Female Athlete. Here too she was pipped at the post by the greatest name in gymnastics, across genders - Nadia Comaneci. But Nadia had won a mere nine Olympic medals, just about half as many as Larissa. Greatness obviously wasn’t about the number of medals one had hauled across time.

And that’s only fair, for while gymnasts, fencers, swimmers and track athletes have the opportunity of winning multiple medals at each of the summer games, boxers, weight-lift ers, wrestlers, footballers and hockey players etc can win only one medal at best. But does that fact alone disqualify them from reaching for the tag of the greatst ever?

There had to be something else that charms history and immortalises a legacy. Victories make an athlete great but what, beyond a mere medal, makes an Olympian the greatest ever. It has to be an act of greatness that goes beyond the arena of the event, beyond even the grandeur of the Olympics and has to touch lives beyond mere sport.

Beyond medals but within the realm of the sport, it is records and longevity that establish the dominance of an individual over the sport. Records quantify the degree of excellence, even sporting greatness, and by that count, sure Michael Phelps is a great athlete. Even greater are names like Usain Bolt, Sergei Bubka, and the afore-mentioned Nadia Comaneci. They have dominated their sport with margins have stood for decades but does that alone make a great athlete a great Olympian? I think not. Records, not matter by what margin, are meant to be broken or set. Jim Hines, Shane Gould, Paavo Nurmi, Abebe Bikila, Vasily Alekseyev are all names of record breaking athletes, who stunned the world with their supremacy over their rivals and past records. But they are not the names we remember today as those who took their place in the starting blocks after them raced ahead of them as would those who follow the Bolts of today.

So if it isn’t records and it isn’t medals, then what is it that greatness seeks? What is it that makes a moment last forever, that makes it shine brighter than a pile of gold, bronze or silver It would have to be acts of glory that have made the Olympics what it has come to be… the greatest, and even today in respects, the purest prize in sport. The Olympics were envisioned as a glorious celebration of the human spirit, athletic excellence and national pride, relatively still far removed from the commercial machinations of other mainstream sports. The fact that commercial rewards eventually follow at least some of the winners is indeed welcome, but even here, the amount of money Usain Bolt might hope to make after his blaze of glory run in London will dwarf the combined earnings of a dozen archers, shooters and shuttlers put together. But that would not, even for a moment, taint the happiness or pride of the medal winning archers, shooters or shuttlers. Million dollar athletes like Roger Federer, LeBron James, Lance Armstrong and Lionel Messi have rubbed shoulders with little known champions from Burundi and the Bahamas, all in pursuit of the one thing that a Grand Slam tournament or an NBA or a LaLiga can’t bestow on these titans – an Olympic medal.

So the greatest Olympian in the history of the games, at least the summer games, would have to be the one who makes the Olympics what it is; the one who adds inches to the stature of the greatest sporting event in the history of man. And who is that man, or woman? Not Michael Phelps, nor Larrissa Latynina. Not Usain Bolt, nor Nadia Comaneci, no matter how spectacular their moments of glory. No not even Cassius Clay for making America a better place by chucking his prized medal into the Ohio river. No, not Fanny Blankers Koen, the ‘Flying Housewife’ who once and for all demolished the notion that a middle-aged (30 was definitely middle age in the 1940s where most countries were lucky to have an average life expectancy stretching beyond 55) mother of two could win Olympic medals and set records. And no, not even the truly great Jesse Owens, even though he did show up an American President (FDR) to be an even greater racist (in his home country, Olympic gold medalist Owens had to go up and down hotels in freight elevators to attend felicitation ceremonies because coloured folk weren’t allowed on ‘whites only’ lobby elevators) than Adolf Hitler (who was appalled at what he thought was a ‘near ape’ defeating his Aryan champions in sprints and jumps).

Nay, the honour of being kissed long and slow by dame history is one Olympian’s and one Olympian’s alone and that man is Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson. Teofilo Stevenson was a brilliant boxer, perhaps the best to have ever entered a ring, at least an amateur ring. At 20 years of age, he beat world beating heavyweights to win the gold medal in 1972, in Munich. Gold medals followed in Montreal and Moscow. A fourth Olympic medal would surely have been his in 1984 in Los Angeles if not for the Cuban boycott of the games. That same year, he beat the Olympic champion Tyrell Biggs for consolation and was World Champion in 1986. The ‘88 Games were also boycotted by Cuba and so at the age of 36, teofilo retired as one of only three boxers in history to have won three consecutive gold medals.

But that is not what makes him the greatest Olympian of all time.

What makes him the greatest is the fact that on five separate occasions, he had the opportunity to make millions of dollars by turning professional and each time he refused to take the bait. If he had signed on the dotted line, he would have been one of the richest sportsmen in the world and you wouldn’t have needed this column to hear of him, and he knew it all and yet he refused, each and every time.

Olympic champion Teofilo Stevenson’s house in Havana had no running water. Promoters were offering him mansions in Miami with swimming pools, gardens and a fleet of Cadillacs in the driveway but Teofilo didn’t want any of that. “What are a million dollars against eight million Cubans who love me?” he’d say with a smile that would reiterate his happiness with his lot in life.

It is such men and women, and there are very few, who make Olympics what they are today. The event stands humbled in the presence of such a champion, such an Olympian. Teofilo Stevenson died just a few days ago, on 11th June 2012, aged 60. The world and the Olympic movement are poorer with his passing, but RIP Teofilo, for history shall not forget you, for no one kissed her the way you did, before, since or ever…


Thursday, August 2, 2012


The brown speck in the windshield grew bigger in the rain as I drove back to work… it must have been about five in the evening and I was rushing back to work for I had this column to write. The brown speck, lying on the right lane near the divider had looked like a brown sack from a distance, but as I drove closer, I realised it was a dog. It was odd for a dog to sit in the face of oncoming traffic like that… something had to be wrong. As I drove up close, it seemed to be fine. The head, and forequarters seemed fine but then as it saw my car and tried to get out of the way, I saw it struggle to lift its back and hind quarters but failed. I swerved out of the way and slowed down to a stop and realised the dog must have been hit by a car and was either in shock or had broken something. I pulled over and tried to figure out a way in which I could help the poor beast. Cars and motorcycles sped by, barely avoiding the forlorn figure stretched out on the road. Each time a vehicle would draw near, the poor beast would struggle to raise itself, flail around for a while and then give up as the wheels drew near, awaiting the inevitable. Each time the vehicle stopped merely inches away and then reversed a bit and drove away while the driver wondered why the stupid dog was squatting in the middle of the road.

I held up my hand towards oncoming traffic and moved closer towards the dog. Its hind legs seemed ok but were splayed at an odd angle. I could see a little blood but the wounds seemed superficial. I wanted to move the dog away from the road but was worried about further damaging the dog’s condition. Also, one must ensure that the dog’s mouth is secure during such maneuvers because a creature that is both scared and in pain might just snap and bite in fear and frustration. I realised I would need help… I raised both hands and asking for help as I stood beside the dog and soon enough a kindly biker stopped and parked his bike right in front of the dog to create a barrier of sorts between the dog and the traffic. Together we secured the dog’s muzzle and then, as gently as possible, we picked her up and gently set her down on a muddy knoll by the side of the road. The dog needed help and fast. I poured out a little water for the animal in a coconut shell, thanked the biker for his help and rushed inside the car to flip out the phone and call any one of the various shelters for help.

And here’s where this sad tale hangs its head with shame. For two hours, two friends of mine and I went back and forth between various animal welfare groups without a single ambulance showing up in response to our efforts. As the minutes went by, the dog’s eff orts to get up grew weaker. Her tongue hung out from the side of her muzzle and had a dry crumpled look and her eyes had grown a little distant. We intensified our efforts, calling up animal welfare groups and organisations from all over the city but the problem was that the location was a little out of the way, on the very edge of the city.

But each of these animal welfare groups seemed reluctant to drive all the way to where this dog was lying, suspended between mind numbing pain and a slow, agonising death.

We tried the Sanjay Gandhi Hospital, who suggested we try a few other non governmental organisations close to our location. None of them responded. We then tried Wildlife SOS who along with Friendicoes have always been very accommodating whenever I have taken rescued birds, injured dogs and once even an endangered star tortoise that had been kept as a pet. They were kind enough to suggest a few more names around the area, failing which they volunteered to send their own ambulance to rescue the poor suffering animal.

Here, I must mention the Circle of Animal Lovers. This shelter was closest to our location and had been suggested by all the people we had spoken to. I expected little from them though, for the last time I had called them because I wanted to bring in an injured puppy to their shelter, the lady running the place had snapped at me for crashing through her siesta, then cut me off and probably gone back to sleep. So there I was, shunned at her doorstep, and left with an injured puppy that I had to travel another 10 kilometres with, before I could hand him over to the kindly folk at Wildlife SOS/Friendicoes.

This time, an equally rude gentleman received our call and before we could fi nish, he cut me in mid sentence and hollered “Ab kuch nahin ho sakta… nothing can happen now… too late… band kar diya hai… we’re closed for the day”. Mind you, we hadn’t called them at lunch hour or anywhere near midnight. Th e clock hadn’t struck six in the evening yet but the circle of animal lovers had already shrunk top noting for the day

Another one, Shanti Ashram, refused to take calls on one line while the other was always engaged. Finally, we got through to Raj from PAWS and he immediately offered to send down an ambulance to pick up the dog. Meanwhile, the poor animal’s struggles had tired her out and she was resting her head on her paws. As my friend got off the line with Raj, we walked towards the little brown mongrel in the hope of comforting her as much as we could while we waited for Raj to arrive, but alas, the poor thing had given up hope a little too soon. She had gone cold and stiff . Ants were crawling around her open mouth and flies flitted in and out of those now opaque eyes. Help had come but a little too late for that little brown dog tonight.

little too late for that little brown dog tonight. Why did the little brown dog die? Did it have to? If we hadn’t been waiting around for two hours before we could get help to arrive, could a life have been saved? Who knows! But at least we would have done our collective best.

Of course, in the capital of this country where accident victims cry out in pain in the middle of the road while mildly curious but rather busy vehicles drive past them without raising an eyebrow, a dog dying its dreadful death means little. And yet, my blood boils at the thought that there are institutions in this country that claim to work selflessly for the welfare of the hapless, voiceless ones; seeking funds and recognition in their name and yet refuse to raise a finger to justify their existence.

In issues to come, we will take a deeper look at this malaise. We look forward to your suggestions in helping us recognise the welfare groups in your region, both human and animal, that deserve praise and support and those that deserve condemnation, so that precious minutes aren’t lost in seeking help and compassion from quarters where none would be forthcoming…