Worse than a wild goose chase

The idea of celebrating a Wildlife Week is a sham especially in the light of the diminishing wildlife, writes Lt General (retd) Baljit Singh

Are such ground realities projected and deliberated upon during the National Wildlife Week: that the tiger, India’s national animal is close to becoming India’s national shame? That the destruction of prime forests has pushed the Asian elephant out in the open to confront man?

President APJ Abdul Kalam can serve as an apt role model to enthuse children about protecting wildlife
President APJ Abdul Kalam can serve as an apt role model to enthuse children about protecting wildlife

COME October 2007 and the minions of the government will mount yet another annual celebration of the National Wildlife Week (NWW). But whether there will be adequate wildlife left worth celebrating is the moot point.

If we go by a recent report of TRAFFIC (Trade Related Analysis of Fauna and Flora In Commerce), a UN organ, India’s birds and animals are at the edge of a disaster. For instance, one survey revealed that in 2005, 80 tiger skins and 3,000 leopard skins from Indian jungles entered Lhasa for onward transit to markets in China and the West. This is just one sampling of the scale of attrition that India’s wildlife and its associated habitats have suffered without let, for at least the last 50 years.

Are such ground realities projected and deliberated during the wildlife week? Looking at the coverage of the NWW 2006 by the leading national dailies, it is abundantly clear that organisers seem to have a poor comprehension of the factors (economic, societal and political) impacting on the status and future of India’s wildlife. Rather than engage groups from the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, the armed forces, the paramilitary, universities, industry and so on in a substantive annual dialogue about the problems and prospects of India’s wildlife, both the government and the NGOs find it convenient to zero in on hapless school children both as a captive audience and as performers of a sham ritual.

Even the schoolchildren need to be harnessed and addressed more imaginatively. Today Dr A. P. J. Kalam, President of India, is an iconic figure for children from all stratas of society. Why not tell the children of Dr Kalam’s compassion for wildlife on the occasion of the NWW? On June 2, 2004, President Kalam, on his morning walk in the Mughal Gardens of Rashtrapati Bhavan, noticed an inert, adult, male peacock on the ground. Looking more carefully, the President noticed a huge lump wedged between the mandibles of the bird and spreading over its right eye. At once the President spoke to the resident veterinary surgeon, Maj Sudheer Kumar, who found that the tumour had also lodged inside the mouth cavity so that the bird could neither eat nor drink.

After a successful surgery, and seven days later, President Kalam, his eyes visibly clouded with compassion, released a well-recouped peacock. This is the episode, which would have handsomely won the children over to the NWW cause rather than the on-the-spot nature posters and model-making competitions, the preferred option almost all over the country, come the NWW.

Again, there are excellent, short feature films, which, too, motivate children and adults alike. There is one shot by Rajesh Bedi in the 1980s which shows a turtle emerging from river Chambal onto a sandy ledge, digging a deep pit, laying more than 80 eggs, covering the pit with sand with her flippers and sitting over it for a while to make it compact before sliding back into the river. All this takes place in the pitch dark of a moonless night. If jackals or cats do not invade the nest, the eggs will incubate on their own, dot to the expected day. The hatchlings, using their tiny flippers, open the top crust of their sand nest and crawl into the river waters. This process usually takes place by day, exposing many hatchlings to crows and eagles, a necessary step in nature’s scheme of evolution to maintain balanced populations. Rajesh Bedi captures all this in 30-minute viewing time. And now his son and nephew have pipped him by filming superbly the complete life cycle of the most reclusive and threatened Red Panda in its Himalayan house.

Then there is Mike Pandey, who in the last 10 years has won three "green" Oscars. After watching his film The Last Migration, no child or adult can ever remain callous to the plight of the Asian Elephants in India; their shrinking habitat which on the one hand makes food scarce and on the other, it makes the task of the ivory poachers so much the easier in targeting them.

Perhaps the most inspiring story of commitment to protect wildlife came from a schoolboy in Germany in the 1960s. When Paul Grizemeck finished school at age 16, he learnt of one of the world’s largest annual migrations of animals in Africa. Close to half a million animals of various species migrate to and from annually between the Norongora Crater Sanctuary and the Serenghetti Wildlife Park. In between lies the Massai tribes territory where these animals were hunted indiscriminately, twice each year.

Moved by this recurrent massacre, Paul Grizemeck decided to survey from air the precise corridor of land linking the two sanctuaries and have it declared a sanctuary as well. For about two years he gave talks to audiences in Europe and the USA to raise funds to buy an aircraft and learn to fly it. In the next two years, he mapped and filmed the land migration corridor. In the last few weeks of his assignment, a vulture struck the propeller and Paul died in the crash. What awful fate.

MGM retrieved the footage of Paul’s exposed film and with a ghost voice shaped it into an all-time great wildlife movie, Serenghetti Shall Not Die. And I paid Rs 80 rental to a Bombay film distributor to show the movie during the NWW 1966 to the members of an Army Nature Club at the School of Artillery, Deolali (Maharashtra). A few of those viewers are among India’s committed wildlife conservationists today.

What has surprised me the most about the organisers of the NWW is that almost everywhere the favoured mode of inauguration is a welcome song followed by a folk dance. How much more relevant it would be if all participants, children and adults alike, were instead asked by the chief guest to collectively repeat after him (in the manner of an oath-taking) clause 51-A (g) from The Constitution of India (Part-IV-A. Fundamental Duties):

"It shall be the duty of Every Citizen of India to protect and improve the Natural Environment including forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife and to have compassion for all living creatures."

We are all very conscious and demanding of our Constitutional Fundamental Rights. But not many are even aware that India’s Constitution has enunciated equally forcefully 10 Fundamental Duties (much like the Biblical Commandments), which every citizen should feel honour-bound to live by. Today, legislation alone cannot save India’s wildlife unless environmental consciousness also becomes a moral pre-occupation with the peoples of India.