SAVING THE SOUL OF INDIA
What are the most pressing conservation issues and major challenges of preserving wildlife in India?
The most pressing conservation issues in India, I think, have to do with habitat: habitat management, habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction. The human population is growing by leaps and bounds every second and that means we have less and less space for people and that is eating into the habitat of animals. Other species have to adapt, surviving in landscapes that are dominated by humans. We have leopards living in sewers, we have civet cats living in attics and fireplaces, snakes that live in the drains in people’s bathrooms.
Wildlife SOS, after it was founded in 1995, had to create a mechanism that would rapidly respond to wildlife disasters. We also looked at the larger conservation issue because it’s not about just patching up the problem, it’s about creating long-term solutions, getting people to think. All of the rescue centers that we’ve established (where we have animals in care and those that we try to release back into the wild) function as educational platforms for people to come and observe: this is what’s happening to these animals, they need to be put back in the wild; why are they distressed and rescued in the first place? For this reason, habitat is a huge issue.
Another issue I would say is ignorance, quite a bit of it. There’s a lack of awareness amongst people about, for example–and this is a sensitive subject– thousands of trees that get cut every day just for burning dead people and also for fireworks, cooking and things like that. This happens despite the fact that there are more responsible, less environmentally hazardous mechanisms for cooking and for burning corpses. So this is a stark issue that people are not aware of. Everyone wants to have an apartment and two cars and a happy life, but they are not going to have any oxygen to breathe if this is the direction that the development goes.
The third thing I see sometimes is a lack of compassion or prejudicial stereotypes, for example an assumption that all snakes are venomous. We have 270 species of snakes in India, out of which four terrestrial snakes are actually venomous and fatal. Still, people will kill every snake that they see. Wildlife experts had to work for ten years with the police department in New Delhi to get them to understand that this was a protected species under the law.
I must say however, that India has some really progressive wildlife laws. The laws prohibit any hunting, hunting is considered poaching and there are laws for tree felling, tree cutting, etc. Everything is pretty much protected. There are good laws, but there is a lack of implementation, which is another problem. My initial plan when I was in school was to actually become an eco-terrorist, an environmental counterperson, but I put that aside.
How has India’s recent economic progress affected conservation, do you see it as a source of additional problems?
I would say economic progress is certainly a problem because it is combined with unplanned and unsustainable growth. Economic progress can be achieved through sustainable planning and a more mature approach, but that, unfortunately, is missing. The population is growing at a pace that is hard to keep up with. I think the government has to kind of leapfrog into accommodating all these people. In fact, in New Delhi, in one of our biggest squares, we have a counter recording the number of people who are born every second, and the counter is racing constantly – thousands of people that are born every single day.
We know about deep spiritual traditions, about animals being revered in India, but we also hear of some very brutal practices. How do traditional beliefs affect the current situation and prevailing attitudes towards animals among the general population of India?
In India, in a way we’re lucky, because every animal from the mouse to the elephant, and I mean every animal, is connected with mythological beliefs and religion in a way – it’s a god or goddess and is worshiped. We have temples for rats, for tigers, for lions, etc. and people do trust and believe, for example, the elephant god Ganesha. There is not a Hindu person who doesn’t have a little worship place at home and doesn’t go to a temple to pray at least once a week, if not every day. That is how strongly they are connected. That said, it is unfortunate that people who revere and pray to animals and animal gods are sometimes unable to connect to what is happening on the ground and how those animals are managed. They go to a temple, they see this elephant, and they want to be blessed by the elephant. The elephant actually will touch them on the head with the trunk and they will be blessed. They will feel very happy and will go away. If you try to rescue that elephant from that location they will resist, they will be hostile, demanding that they want the temple elephant in the temple! But they do not know and are unaware that the temple elephant was captured as a calf from the forest, separated from its herd, torn away from its family and then was beaten into submission over a 3-4 month period. When the spirit was broken the elephant was chained and then sold to a trader and then illegally smuggled from place to place and was eventually sold to the temple where it lives on a concrete floor, is chained 24 hours a day and gets to walk maybe 200 feet. It’s a pathetic life, but people think that what they see matches exactly what they believe. Very often they are unable to connect and complete that loop. I think, it’s a lack of awareness, because once people see and understand what’s happening, they’re often shocked. They’re like: my God, is that how these elephants came here?! Is that why they behave in this manner? Showing people the disconnection between what they understand and what they see, changing perceptions can make a world of difference.
We are spreading awareness, understanding that we also must show people solutions. Often, highlighting the problem, saying “this is happening, let’s do something about it” is not helpful because people don’t have the time, the place, the ability or the bandwidth to actually find a solution. It’s up to people like us to come up with a solution and say: “this is how big the problem is, and this is what will take us to a solution”, and kind of get people to sign up and get up on that path and drive that movement towards solutions.
Take the dancing bear case, for example. It was a problem that went on in India for four hundred years, so when we decided to solve this huge issue, my colleague and co-founder Geeta and I first spent two and a half years studying it. We said: well, what the hell is happening here? Why are these people abusing and exploiting these bears, getting them out as cubs, putting a red hot poker through their muzzle attaching them to a rope and finally bringing them into the streets? What we found was that there were 1200 bears on the street performing and that some 3000 families depended on these bears. They needed to make a livelihood for themselves. So initially when we went to the government agencies, they would say: this is a complex issue, a controversial one, it’s about a minority community and their livelihood – how can you address it? Many of them were hesitant to be involved with us. Another sector of people said that those were criminals and should be in jail. How can you put 3000 people in jail? Plus, that wouldn’t be a sustainable solution.
We went about it in a very different way. We worked with the women, the children, the communities, created livelihoods for them and got them to surrender their bears to us. People thought it would take us fifty years to solve this problem. We ended up rescuing 628 bears and rehabilitating 3000 families in seven years! The program continues today, we send 1500 children to school, paying for their school fees, uniforms, books, and those children don’t want to go back to begging on the streets with bears. This ended the poaching of sloth bears from the forest. There were over two hundred bear cubs being removed from the forest every single year. The sloth bear is a very endangered species, it’s only found in India. There is a subspecies in Sri Lanka, but that’s it. The mothers of the poached cubs were being killed, their parts harvested for trafficking. We were able to stop the poaching of the bear cubs and the killing of the bear mothers by understanding the root cause of the demand driving the poachers. When we chopped the demand off, these people didn’t need to do it anymore as they were making more money driving auto rickshaws, taxis, making carpets and merchandise – instead of exploiting bears. They said: “Hey, this makes us more money, our wives are making money, our kids go to schools, why should I go on the street and have a nomadic gypsy life?” – which was what they were doing for four hundred years. We showed them a solution and it worked for them.
It’s incredible, and particularly that you managed to do it across the whole country…
We had no choice. We knew they were spread across the country, so we set up one center and then went around the country. In a way, when you create solutions like this, you have to plunge, nose dive into this without worrying about the ability to strategize and develop a plan. We were scared, worried in the beginning. But you know, as Indians, as Hindus, we believe in karma, we believe in fate and destiny, we believe it’s written across your forehead, and it’s going to happen. If you want to do something really badly, it happens. I decided this would be my entire life early on. I started doing wildlife conservation work seriously when I was seventeen – I was working as a field biologist for the New York Zoological Society (today called the Wildlife Conservation Society) on the tiger’s ecological status in India. I grew up in India and I loved the forest, from the time I was a school kid. There were no cell phones back then, so I would tell my mother a big lie that I was studying at a friend’s house, for my exams or whatever, and then me and another friend would take a bicycle and go off to the forest and park the bike and then walk about 12 km (over 7 miles) behind some hills, find a water hole, climb a tree and, on full moon nights, watch wildlife go from below us to the water hole – elephants and bears and leopards and wild boars. That got me hooked, I wanted to do this really badly, and that’s how I started out. I really wanted to dedicate my entire lifetime just to solve that one problem of the dancing bears, but we fixed it in seven years! So we said: “Hey, there’s so much time left, let’s move onto the next problem.” The problem we’ve taken on now is the elephant issue, which is even bigger. We were told the bear issue was an insurmountable problem, too complex, etc. That’s exactly what is being told to us about the elephants. There are 3500 captive elephants in India, suffering, languishing, in temples and all kinds of places. But we know there is a solution and we can find it.
You also mentioned the rescue centers, which may be a solution for them. How is this arranged – you work with the government and government-managed rescue-centers? Do you staff their facilities with your own people, do you train their staff, or just provide general guidance and advice?
Because we are committed to these animals for a long time and we need to provide them a high degree of care that we feel is ethically correct, we staff the centers ourselves, but we request the government for land, for a long-term lease. In some cases, we buy the land. In fact, we are running a campaign called Field of Dreams because we need to expand our elephant center. We’ve got 23 elephants that we rescued in a very short period of time, some of them are really suffering and in distress, and they need to be pulled out of the location and get more space. So we actually need to buy 125 acres. It’s going to cost us 1.7 million dollars, and I’m threatening my team that if they don’t raise the money quickly, I will have to go rob a bank and they will have to bail me out.
Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani, Co-Founders of Wildlife SOS
So, in some cases we have to buy the land, in some cases we can get the land in a partnership with the government. All wildlife in India is technically owned by the government. It makes it very easy for us to implement the law. I think our organization has a very good understanding with the government. We have been working with them for 21 years and have learned to navigate a path and work in a win-win way.
For example, the Kerala government and the people of Kerala who own elephants feel that they know the best management methods because they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. The problem is that their traditional method is primarily using pain and fear. Every elephant has been captured from the wild, it’s been beaten to break its spirit, sold off, and then it is managed constantly with fear. Every elephant is constantly anxious. You can’t walk up to an elephant in Kerala and actually get away alive. You will usually get killed in most cases because the elephants have such a high level of anxiety and fear. There’s also internal hostility towards the men who manage them because the men pokes and use spears. So what we did was, we invited the two most senior people from the government of Kerala to come and visit our facility, just to take a look. It took us about a year to get them to accept the invitation. Finally, these two people came and they were absolutely gobsmacked. They saw that we had a great degree of control over the animals without using brutal force. We use positive reinforcement, and operant conditioning. The animals learn to do the desirable behavior in return for a reward. They enjoy it as a positive experience, and all we need for control of the animals is to check them, to give them medicines, to check their feet, to fix them, because they all come from very traumatic experiences and traumatized lives. They live for fifty years in chains and shackles and are been brutalized all their lives. But they walked away from there. Those government officials actually said that our facility had exceeded their expectations. So then we had our foot in the door with the state which used to be so resistant. Then we were invited by the government to do our first workshop in Kerala. There were 143 participants, elephant abusers, who of course came with a lot of negative ideas. They came in disbelief; they didn’t think it would work. They finished this two-day workshop, and they were shocked. We weren’t telling them that what they were doing was wrong, and what we’re doing is right. We were saying: this is how we manage elephants and we want to share it with you. You may want to consider it because it changes the relationship between people and elephants, and the elephants themselves. You have a positive bond, you don’t have any negativity, any hostility, it’s just good both ways. They went away convinced that this can work. The government came back to us, asking if we would help establish a rescue center along these lines. We said yes, so that will be our next step. Sometimes, tackling things head on and embarrassing people can be counterproductive and can backfire. Working with them can achieve so much more for the animals. Human ego should not come into play. I for one, if need be, will shamelessly beg to help animals who are suffering.
What inspired you? Was there a moment when you said to yourself: okay, this is what needs to be done and I am going to do this for the rest of my life?
There were several moments. One them was when I was in the tree watching this wildlife. It was pitch dark and then the moon comes out from behind the hills and it just shines. When I remember this it still sends a shiver up my spine to just imagine those elephants coming towards us. They would put their trunks up and smell to see if there was any human presence or anything that they should be scared of, because they had little calves with them, and we would be sitting up high. If the wind changed and they could smell us, they would trumpet, turn around, and disappear. So over time they would test the wind, and eventually, we learned that we had to camouflage our scent. We would actually get blankets and rub elephant dung on it and rub ourselves so that they wouldn’t get our scent. That’s a bit extreme, crazy, I know, but it goes to that level. I think that showed me that we had this beautiful biodiversity in our country that we are going to lose if we don’t do something about it. That certainly was a moment that told me that this is what I want to do all my life, even if it means that I’m just going to protect these animals. I didn’t know how to do it back then, but that was what I wanted to do.
What do you find to be the most difficult and the most rewarding part of your everyday work?
The most rewarding part is to be able to spent time with the animals that you have rescued, as well as battling and succeeding in getting that animal out of a bad situation. It is very rewarding, very fulfilling to be able to see an elephant that has been chained for forty-two years walk free, get into the water, play in the pools, and then have two hundred school kids come watch that and say “oh my god!”. The conservation impact that that has, plus the benefit to the individual animals, it’s very rewarding.
What is most challenging, in my opinion, is dealing with people’s mindsets, obstacles, and danger. You have to court a lot of danger almost on a daily basis when you’re working with the mafia, with all sorts of difficult people. Sometimes you work with corruption. Corruption is not necessarily financial, it’s professional corruption, ethical corruption, all kinds of compassionate corruption, etc. That is very challenging. The other really difficult part is the fact you know you need money to solve these problems. I hate that, I hate that money is such a pain. I would love to be given a good printing machine to solve that problem, but unfortunately, I think we all have that problem.
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