Lt Gen Baljit Singh (Retd)
Just as the Bible enjoins upon its adherents to follow the Ten Commandments, likewise the Constitution of India stipulates the ‘Ten Fundamental Duties of a Citizen of India’ to live by! Germaine to the annual wildlife ritual spread over the first week of October is the Fundamental Duty of Clause 51-A(g), unambiguously stated thus: “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 may justifiably take pride that our founding fathers had enshrined in the Constitution not merely the necessity of wildlife conservation, but went way beyond by demanding of its citizens to “have compassion for all living creatures”; thus flagging India as perhaps the only nation to have such an ennobling philosophy.
There were several incidents which had drawn attention of India’s political masters to the rapidly depleting status of our wildlife, beginning with the most unfortunate extinction of the cheetah in November 1947, within months of the country gaining Independence. This galvanised Prime Minister Nehru into prompt action. Related thoughts uppermost on his mind were, could he prevent the last pride of about 14 surviving Asiatic lions and two dozen one-horned Indian rhinoceros from extinction? He led by example, visiting Kaziranga and Gir forests more than once, exhorting those involved in the setting up and management of what were to become the world famous wildlife national parks. The rest is history.
On October 14, 1951, the Government of India announced the establishment of the Indian Board for Wildlife. As its ex-officio chairman, Prime Minister Nehru propounded the necessity that “the youth of today must become the conservationists of tomorrow”. Besides government functionaries, he appointed two self-taught naturalists: M Krishnan, a lawyer of Madras courts who ran perhaps the longest column in the history of Indian press, ‘Country Notebook’, in The Statesman for over 35 years; and EP Gee (a British tea planter in Assam), whose dream was the Kaziranga sanctuary. In line with their collective wisdom, Nehru committed Indians to keep India green forever through ‘Vana Mahotsava’.
No one could fault the exceptional political direction provided by these decisions, but unfortunately, no mechanism was put in place to audit the administrative commitment towards its implementation. So, both the Wildlife Week and Vana Mahotsava soon degenerated into sham annual rituals. Rather than engage groups from the executive, legislature, judiciary, armed forces, universities, corporate houses, etc, to any substantive annual dialogue about the problems and prospects of India’s wildlife and forests, both the government and NGOs found it convenient to zero upon hapless schoolchildren, both as captive audiences and as manipulative performers of a mindless ritual of song and dance.
Can we do better? Of course, we can. Take, for instance, a recently produced video titled ‘Tiger Anthem’ of a mere 3.22 minutes running, which has instant magic of enslaving the young and old to lifelong wildlife and nature conservation. The video has been crafted with imaginative selections from the film footage of Subbiah Nallamutthu, of a tigress in her prime and her one-year-old single cub gamboling in ecstatic love, through the verdant wilderness of probably the Nagarhole National Tiger Reserve.
As for captivating episodes, perhaps the most inspiring story of our times of the commitment to protect wildlife came from a schoolboy in Germany in the 1960s. When Michael Grzimek finished school at age 16, he learnt of one of the world’s largest annual migrations of animals in Africa, when about half a million animals of various species migrate to and fro annually, between the Ngorongoro Crater Sanctuary and the Serengeti Wildlife Park. However, in between lies the Massai tribe’s territory, where these animals were hunted indiscriminately, twice each year. Moved by this recurrent massacre, Michael and his father, Dr Bernhard Grzimek, decided to survey from air the precise corridor of land linking the two sanctuaries to have it declared a sanctuary as well. For about two years, they lectured audiences in Europe and USA to raise funds to buy an aircraft, enabling father and son to learn flying. In the next two years, they mapped and filmed the land migration corridor. In the last few weeks of their mission, Michael took off on a solo filming assignment when a vulture struck the propeller and he died in the crash. What awful fate.
Dr Grzimek had him buried on the lip of the Ngorongoro Crater where a pyramid-shaped cairn of stones marks the lone grave with the touching inscription: “Michael Grzimek, 11-4-1934 to 10-1-1959. He Gave All He Possessed For Wild Animals of Africa, Including His Life”! By a strange sleigh of fate’s hand, when Dr Grzimek passed away in 1987, he too was interned as per his “will” beside Michael’s grave.
As for inspiration from print medium, perhaps the most profound comes from the Book of Genesis in the Bible: “…And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the Earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the Earth…”
Since the Bible points to man as the primary and dominant species in the fundamental scheme of godly creation of life, explicit in that privileged status was man’s obligations: watch and ward over the weaker creatures that inhabit His planet. After all, God did create man “in our image, after our likeness”, which presupposed that man would be just and compassionate in overseeing the health of the Planet.
However, in reality, man’s evolutionary transition from the primitive to hunter-gatherer to homo sapiens (‘Intelligent man’) phases and ultimately as ‘settlers’ in permanent agricultural clusters, led to a degree of hubris with ever diminishing concerns for symbiotic living with surroundings. And, in time, the greatest manifestation of this trend was exhibited by the colonisers of North America with unbridled hunting of free-ranging wild creatures that it prompted the anguished Red Indian Chief, of the Seattle Clan, to write to US President Franklin Pierce in 1854. He warned in essence that “once all the beasts are gone, man will surely die from a great loneliness of spirit”.
The fundamentals of the annual celebration of the Wildlife Week are to understand and propagate that the “Living Planet, the Only Home of Man” is and always has been yoked to Nature’s symbiotic engine that stitches together the ‘web of life’ which must be preserved at all cost. And if one strand of that web is weakened or starved, sooner than later the entire web begins to wither.
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