Thursday, April 26, 2012


The camera isn’t my best friend. Not yet anyway… It behaves more like a woman I know, not intimately, but like I know her from somewhere… maybe our eyes met at the club or the library a few times, and then the briefest of hellos on a few others. We touched, shook hands and then we danced. She didn’t move the way I wanted her to, nor did I lead like she would have liked me to. But did we want to meet again? You bet we did..

It wasn’t really love at first sight but there was intrigue, and a hint of old world romance… a vision that we might travel to exotic lands and witness the world from a whole new point of view, a vision that was ours, and ours alone. Every time we meet, we play and get to know each other a little better and once every now and then, while at play, our passions rise when we meet and our visions fuse into one and we have this image, this child of our impassioned immersion into each other and that moment. And then the day seems like it’s been a good one.

But while this affair with the camera is new and flushed with the rush of blooming love, there’s another love that warms the hearth in my heart.

I was a rather shy and reticent kid, with a mouth full of braces and far too many teeth. I wasn’t particularly good at being the teacher’s delight either and so I didn’t feel like I had much to say which the world might want to care about and so kept my own company. But I did scribble, needlessly, endlessly, pointlessly, but I must have enjoyed doing it. While friends, faith and the world beat the reticence out of my bones as the years went by, I still enjoyed scribbling, as pointlessly as ever, but now I was getting paid for it.

Writing words kept me sane through my younger years, and it didn’t matter if I wasn’t a “gift ed” writer. Words were like a sisterhood of childhood sweethearts who urged me to be; like they were daughters of the Muses, playmates of my childhood, anchors of my adolescence and indulgent lovers of my adult life, coaxing me to write them down as and when they choose to appear. I might know only a few plain janes, compared to the many pretty ones that shimmy down the keyboards of others; I might not even know how to choreograph and articulate them in a manner that would show them off to their best advantage, but they’ve stuck by my limitations and I have stuck by theirs… so far.

So this is what it had come to. A dilemma between what says what I have to share best. And it’s an old debate that has been simmering the editorial houses of publications around the world, just like the one in our kitchens about who might be the better role model between dad and mum (I didn’t say parent, because it’s just been ten months since I’ve become one and it’s a no contest. I can’t even begin to hold a candle to all that a mother needs to, wants to and has to do for a child). It’s a soft debate because both sides like each other, and are inspired by each other, and yet, to one who is in love with both mediums, it is a dilemma that gnaws away at one’s experiences as one is pulled towards one medium and then the other.

I’m an impressionable child of my times and so I have spent many happy hours in the dusty attics of writers thinking what wonderful lives they live, pleasuring our imagination, stirring our souls and making money while they are at it. And then I spent a few evenings at photo exhibitions, chatting with nature and travel photographers about their travels into faraway lands, in pursuit of a vision and adventure and romance and coming away with the distinct feeling that a picture indeed was worth a thousand words.

I like writing. Even when chased by a deadline that gains on me faster than I can type, a word well placed is like finding an oasis in the over-heated squeeze between word-count and production costs. And a piece that surprises one’s readers with an unexpected degree of quality is often rewarded with words of such kindness and warmth that one could live off them for weeks and months.

On the other hand, the magical beauty of a story captured in a moment, and touched by the vision of the photographer has the jaw-dropping power to shock, stun and move the viewer in a way that only a picture can.

So as a teller of tales, and as one who would want to tell them best, I have often stopped and stuttered, even as I waded into a story and wondered, which medium would help me bring that moment to those not present? Would the mind’s eye capture the timeless beauty of three giraffes loping, as if in slow-motion, into the sunset in the Masai Mara better than the eye of a camera? Or would a photograph have captured the sense of metaphysical magic and repressed power and angst in the glowering eyes of a tantric who lives all alone in a cave, with a cow for company and a leopard for a neighbor, in a forest on the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border better, than the 1000 words that told his story in this very space some years ago?

I don’t know the answer, but for your sake and mine, I will find out, once and for all, if a picture indeed is worth a thousand words. And when I do, I will share the answer right here, through the medium that will say it best...


Thursday, April 19, 2012


When the buying stops, the killing can too!” WildAid, an organisation committed to ending wildlife trade by reducing demand for wildlife products through awareness campaigns had come up with this slogan. I once got an opportunity to work on one of their projects in India and it had, through exposure and association, become the guiding principle of my conservation philosophy. But this afternoon changed all that.

I had planned on spending the day at the WWF library in Delhi, researching for a story about tiger conservation when I ran into an old mentor of mine, the tallish and amiable figure of Khaled Pasha, now heading TRAFFIC (a wildlife trade monitoring network) India as a research and training coordinator. And just like a mentor ought to, good old Mr. Pasha took me under his wing and whisked me away to his office on the floor above. After we’d brought each other up to speed on the events in our lives since we’d last met, nearly a decade ago, we started talking about what had once brought us together – the conservation of Asian big cats.

Khaled had news for me. China wasn’t the big bad boy of conservation anymore. “The Chinese are really serious about conservation now. They have banned the trade in animal parts. Tiger farms-where tigers were bred in cages like goats to feed the once burgeoning traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) market- that were once widespread are now few and far between. And the Chinese government is taking active interest in international conservation policy development as well as conducting raids that are resulting in significant seizures of wildlife parts.” That was a very big step in the right direction. China had been the prime market for everything from tiger bones and ivory to bear bile and shark fins. Reduced demand from China ought to result in a significant drop in poaching for these products.

Khaled smiled a wry smile and shook his head. “We need to look at wildlife products and the trade in wildlife products like any other contraband.” Remember the 80s when the biggest threat to rhino populations across Africa and Asia was from this demand for rhino horn dagger handles in Yemen and other West Asian nations? Well, through regulation, education and enforcement, the demand was controlled and reduced significantly in the region. But did that mean the rhinos could breathe easy? Far from it! Even bigger numbers have been poached since and India’s parks lost quite a few rhinos to poachers last year. Carcasses riddled with bullets fired from sophisticated assault rifles were found in and around Kaziranga and other parks, their horns sawed off by highly motivated and well equipped gangs of poachers. The horn’s most likely destination – Vietnam.

When demand in one region for a wildlife product falls, a new market spurred by new geo-political factors emerges. Opportunistic wildlife traders fuel this new demand through a well oiled and well timed distribution mechanism, “just like Pepsi ensures you get a Pepsi, and only a Pepsi, even if you don’t want it, in markets it can reach…” quipped the ever genial Pasha. “Vietnam wants rhino horn because of this unfounded notion that it cures cancer…”

So as things stand, the killing won’t stop even if the buying does, because the killers will a find the way to new market more oft en than not… So are the tigers doomed? Will the rhinos become extinct in the wild? Would wild tuskers disappear from our forests forever?

Khaled and his fellow wildlife warriors believe there are reasons for hope. But concrete steps need to be taken to safeguard the future of our wild heritage.

“Non governmental agencies like ours can only provide actionable intelligence – that is information that is precise and timely – but we are not an enforcement agency. We can’t legally arrest a poacher and apprehend a suspect.” And that’s from where the system starts looking all pear shaped. “Most seizures of skins, pelt and bones are incidental hauls. Unfortunately wildlife crimes are not treated with the kind of intensity that they deserve. Follow up action aft er arrests is invariably weak and uncoordinated.” Every year, tigers are killed in Madhya Pradesh, rhinos in Assam and elephants in Uttarakhand. Is it really possible to save our wildlife in the face of such relentless onslaught?

“It is possible!”, said Pasha. “Though few and far between, there are a few examples of ‘0 loss’ from the last year. In Nepal, the government deployed a contingent of the army to protect the rhinos in Chitwan and other national parks and registered a ‘0 loss’ year in 2011. In that same year, India lost more than two dozen rhinos from its national parks.

But Orang, a national park on the north bank of the Brahmaputra and a rhino haven wasn’t one of those parks that lost its rhinos. Here, though the state did not deploy a military contingent to protect the rhinos, the dedication and commitment of the park administration kept the rhino safe, at least for now. Unlike parks in the rest of the country where administrators and local villagers are at loggerheads, here in Orang, a proactive administration has successfully integrated locals into the conservation process.
This ensured that actionable intelligence reached the forest department in time for them to take quick and decisive preemptive action.

But even more important than the dedication and ingenuity of the park administration is local political will. “For instance, look at the lion poaching case in Gujarat…” Pasha added. “The Chief Minister parked himself in the park for three days, demanding conclusive action to apprehend the culprits. The whole state ministry, along with central agencies was involved in this mission and the impetus came from the very top. This ensured that the criminals were apprehended and the pride of Gujarat has remained in its only home in the world.

“But we can’t depend on individual initiative if we are to save our wildlife” he remonstrated. “What happens when a forest officer is transferred or a minister loses an election or makes a political shift . His replacement might not share his sense of priority and redirect resources elsewhere. Suddenly the programme instituted by his predecessor would collapse and the animals and forests would be vulnerable again. To counter this, conservation laws that govern protection of our forests, that allow for and insist on coordination between intelligence and enforcement agencies and across state and eventually international borders, and the deployment of resources and trained personnel need to be institutionalized. Changes in government or in personnel should not mean a collapse of the existing machinery.”

Then he looked into my eyes with a probing yet gentle gaze and said, “This is where the media comes in. Beyond just focusing on sensational news of seizures etc., you should also focus on what needs to be done. Take this message forward and make sure that our concerns are heard by all concerned”.

I smiled and said I would. And here I am, doing my bit, spreading the good word. The question is, is it going to be enough. Answers and more in the epilogue to the trilogy… watch this space…    


Thursday, April 12, 2012


Ram Bhil must have been in his fifties, of middle height and a slim wiry frame that must’ve known some strength in its youth, and a child-like smile that suggested a rather simple view of the world. His brothers were soldiers, and he believed he was a soldier too. But unlike his brothers in Siachen and Manipur, he did not prepare for battle believing he would win, and unlike them, he wasn’t prepared to die for a lost cause either.

He believed his ancestors had fought against the Mughals, alongside the indomitable Ranas of Mewar. “It isn’t in my blood to give up and run away from a battle… I would lose honour and my family, even my children would be ashamed of me. But this is not a fair fight… I am too old, too weak… I have nothing but a stick, or an old rusty rifle with a round or two to spare if I’m lucky… there is no plan, no teamwork, no coordination and very little reward, remuneration or recognition… what do I fight for? What will I fight with?”

Sariska had lost the last of its tigers and had just received a gift of a breeding pair from Ranthambhore when I went there looking for traces and pictures. It was during the rains of 2010 and the park was supposedly closed to tourists. But I knew I would be allowed inside anyway. Two days a week, Sariska opens her gates to all comers who pummel into her heart on tractor trailers, buses and truck-beds in a cacophonic cavalcade of men, women and children, ostensibly on a pilgrimage to the temples inside the forest. But huddled amongst those pilgrims would be poachers and their scouts, reconnoitering, prospecting… Perhaps one of them would be carrying a pouch of aldrin crystals. Lace a deer carcass with a handful of those and you would’ve gotten yourself a tiger, dead enough to be dried and skinned and carved for clients as far away as Lhasa, Kathmandu and Shanghai.

While checking at the gate is rudimentary, the pilgrims are only one amongst a horde of other threats to the tigers and the forests. Ram Bhil is at the forefront of the battle to save the tiger. He has been a forest guard in Sariska for a long long time. He has driven out a poacher or two in his time. But they were after wild boars and sambhar, not leopards and tigers. Once, an unarmed Ram Bhil out patrolling the forest stumbled upon an armed poacher and tried to catch him but he had to run for cover after he was shot at. On another occasion, he chanced upon a group of villagers who were carrying spears, axes and country made muzzle-loaders. He challenged them and asked them to surrender their weapons but the group roughed him up and he believes would have killed him if he hadn’t escaped. He knew they were up to no good but when he reported the matter to his seniors, nothing was done about it. When he asked for reinforcements or modern weapons and communication equipment and radio sets, he was told there was no budgetfor it. “Bees saal se koi nayee bharthi nahin hui hai sahib. All the guards here are like me… just too old to put up a fight. These tigers are doomed and there is little I can do about it.”

Since that chat with Ram Bhil, two more tigers have been transferred to Sariska from Ranthambhore and one of them was found dead. Killed! Poisoned! Maybe it was one of those guys sitting in the tractor trailer with a pouch of aldrin in his hands. Or maybe it was one of those villagers from the two villages inside the park. Who knows? Surely no one from the understaffed and clueless park administration. The guards will give you names under conditions of anonymity and some of the villagers at the Hanuman temple inside the park will nod at the mention of those names, but that’s about as far as it goes.

And what happens in Sariska is a microcosm of what ails most tiger sanctuaries in this country. They are all fragmented islands of wilderness surrounded by an ocean of cities and towns and megapolises. Ringing these pockets of forests are tribal forest communities which have been disfranchised by new conservation laws that have taken their traditional way of life from them. These communities resent the tourism-economy built up around what had traditionally been their resource – the forest. And the economic fruits of what was once their forest almost never reach them. This is why some of these foresters feel they are morally justified when they become poachers. They believe they are only reclaiming what was theirs and had been denied them.

In the cities and towns that ring these villages prowl people who know they can exploit this angst. They know of the hundreds and thousands of dollars that people in lands far away are willing to pay for a piece of the tiger, the leopard, the elephant or an otter or a rhino. And so the chain of events are set in motion that lead to a tiger or a leopard or an otter being killed every few months in one or the other of India’s ‘protected’ national parks.

I have always maintained that the solution to conservation of and more importantly, a reclamation of territory and rights for India’s forests and its wildlife is educating communities that form the market for wildlife products and at the same time sharing the fruits of India’s eco-tourism economy with those whose lives are intertwined with the forests that sustain that economy.

But what is increasingly likely is the possibility that by the time the education spreads and changes the buying behavior of the next generation and by the time mechanisms are in place that will integrate forest communities with various eco-tourism ventures, it might be too late for most of India’s tigers and other wild denizens.

If we are to save the tiger we need to go beyond just education and profit sharing. Tigers are unfortunately a commercially valuable commodity for all concerned. From hotels and travel operators and wildlife photographers and film-makers to poachers and trophy hunters and TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) stores from China to San Francisco, everybody has a stake in the tiger. Unfortunately for the tiger, those who want the tiger dead and dried in a packet are far more efficient, far better coordinated, and much better equipped to kill a tiger than those who want to keep it alive and thriving in our forests.

Ram Bhil and his fellow long in the tooth and short on ammo forest guards have given up the fight and it really isn’t their fault. And fighting for the tiger on facebook or through signature campaigns would be too little even if not too late. The need of the hour is a well funded, well trained and well equipped set of protection units and intelligence units that work in cohesion to prevent instances of poaching.

Once in a while, you would read in the papers about a consignment of skins being apprehended in transit. But when was the last time you read about poachers getting caught or shot in a forest before or even as they were about to trap or kill a tiger. Until the day you read that in your papers, you would know that the tiger is fighting a losing battle.

The good news is that around the world there have been such crack units that have been set up and for a while all has been good. Poachers are apprehended, some even killed, middle-men are arrested and skins and bones confiscated. But the disturbing fact is, it doesn’t last long. Next issue, in the last episode of this tiger trilogy, we will explore the viability of such units in a dysfunctional democracy like ours and yes, like I promised, I would tell you what you could do for the big cats if you care enough, beyond just sharing your angst over social networks. Until then, keep ‘roaring for the tiger’ like you care… even if the tigers can’t hear you, we believe you!