Where the wild things are: On restoring nature’s order

Where the wild things are: On restoring nature’s order

By MIHIKA JINDAL | | 3 October, 2015
Wildlife conservationist Sanjay Gubbi, who has been actively involved in national projects aimed at improving tiger habitats in Karnataka, speaks to Mihika Jindal about how best to preserve the wild.
What led you to become a wildlife conservationist?
A. I have been interested in nature conservation since high school. Being a boy scout gave me a lot of outdoor exposure, even though later in life, I went on to study engineering and was mostly restricted indoors. But after working as an electrical engineer for a few years, I realised it was not something I really wanted to pursue. So I quit my job and got into wildlife conservation about 15 years ago. I trained myself and got a degree in Wildlife Biology and Conservation from the University of Kent at Canterbury, England, and ever since I have been involved with nature and wildlife as a full-time conservationist.  
 
Q. Do you operate in an independent capacity, or are you associated with some organisation?
A. I work with the Nature Conservation Foundation, where we have a team of about 18 people involved in various projects. My team largely focusses on tiger conservation in Karnataka. We try to address the problem of “defragmented” tiger habitats, which also entails restricting or prohibiting construction projects that may prove harmful to the animals. We make sure that ill-advised development projects that threaten to damage tiger habitats are either not implemented or are removed from particular locations. Apart from that, we work with the government to ensure that there is a contiguous network of protected areas so that species that need larger living spaces can have just that. This has been our prime area of concern in Karnataka.
 
Q. How do you identify which areas ought to be officially categorised as protected zones?
A. We usually look for stretches of land lying adjacent to areas that are already declared as protected zones. But that doesn’t rule out the argument for having newer, and more far-flung protected belts. To identify these, we have to look at the place ecologically and also from a social angle. Before submitting our proposal to government authorities, we also have to ensure that the selected area has high ecological value and low human density. The government, though, seldom agrees to earmark an area as protected if you only highlight its widlife concerns. So it is important to give other valid reasons — enhanced watershed protection, for instance — to push the proposal ahead. Some of the areas we got declared as protected are crucial for watershed zones connecting to the Kaveri, Tungabhadra and Netravati rivers, which are indispensal part of the ecosystem. 
Tigers often come out of their natural habitats to prey on livestock, and have been known to even attack humans. This signifies that tigers have reached their ecological carrying capacity, which is why they escape their territory to either find more space or to target easier prey.
 
Q. What, according to you, are some of the indicators suggestive of the need for larger tiger habitats in our country?
A. One of the primary indicators, even though negative, is when there are incidents of tiger-human conflict somewhere. Like in Bandipur and Naperville,  tigers often come out of their natural habitats to prey on livestock and have sometimes even attacked humans. This signifies that tigers have reached their ecological carrying capacity, which is why they escape their territory to either find space or to target easier prey. If tiger habitats are better protected, this wouldn’t happen. 
 
Q. What do you mean by protecting an area? Does it mean barricading the entire forest for better protection? 
A. It’s not only about barricading the reserved area. On declaring an area as a forest reserve, the focus of the authorities shifts from forestry extraction to wildlife protection. For example,  in a reserve forest, felling of trees is not allowed; the number of staff authorised to protect the area goes up; 4x4 vehicles are provided for regular patrols; funds for wireless sets and other equipment are allocated; and special measures are taken to avoid forest fires. 
 
Q. When a new tiger habitat is earmarked, how do you ensure the presence of other species in the same space to keep the food chain intact, and to ensure that tigers don’t infiltrate human habitations in search of food?
A. In a protected zone, hunting and poaching is immediately prohibited. And this results in increased prey population, which is something that takes care of the food chain. Species such as the sambar deer, chital deer, barking deer, wild pig, gaur, four-horned antelope and other herbivores are found in abundance in an animal reserve. And once the prey population is revived, large carnivores automatically colonise the area. We are not required to artificially introduce herbivores in a reserve; we just provide for the upkeep of a protected area, where multiple spieces breed and augment their population. In a nutshell, we are ensuring better protection and increased funding from the government, and nature takes care of itself. 
 
Q. How successful have your conservation measures been in Karnataka? 
A. We are actually bearing fruits of an effort that started many years ago. This is not a 20-20 series; conservation is a Test match. You have to be connected to the landscape,  have a proper understanding of it, gather scientific information, and gain the trust of the forest officials, the locals and most importantly, of the government, to be able to execute any plan. Due to our work, an additional span of nearly 2,400 sq km was added to various protected areas in Karnataka in 2012, which shot up the protected cover from 3.8% to 5.2% of the state’s geographical area, the biggest expansion of protected areas in the country since 1970. A new wildlife sanctuary was also set up in May 2013, connecting the BR Hills Tiger Reserve to Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, called MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary. In all, a total of 23 protected areas have been linked to each other in Karnataka.
 
Q. Is your work only focussed on tigers?
A. Besides tigers, a lot of other species benefit from our programmes. There are elephants in areas where we work that have benefitted in terms of a better habitat. On a camera-trapping exercise, we were surprised to spot a honey badger recently, the first ever documented presence in the state. 
 
Q. And is it only Karnataka you are looking at for such projects? Do you have plans to move on to other cities?
A. My focus is on Karnataka, and I have a couple of reasons for that. Conservation is not only about ecology and science. It is also about society, economics and politics, and an in-depth understanding of all these subjects. I can do this better because I am a local. I can go up to Maharashtra and set-up projects but because I am not a local, there, I might not be as effective as I am here in my native state. Being a local helps me to understand whom to approach and how. My whole team is based out of Karnataka, but there are others in our organisation who are doing extensive conservation work in Himachal Pradesh, the Northeast and Lakshadweep. 

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