‘The hog deer is as important as the tiger’

Face to Face: Dr. MK Ranjitsinh

Akash Bisht Delhi

Dr MK Ranjitsinh is a legenary name in wildlife conservation with an unmatched passion for the Asiatic lion, tiger, cheetah, snow leopard, barasingha and other wild species. His efforts rescued the central and eastern barasingha from the brink of extinction and, as a tribute, the species was named after him. Belonging to the Wankaner princely house in Gujarat, Ranjitsinh joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1961and was instrumental in drafting the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. In his two-year stint as secretary for forests and tourism to the government of Madhya Pradesh, he was responsible for the creation of 14 national parks and 11 wildlife sanctuaries. As Chairman, Wildlife Trust of India, he has been single-handedly pursuing the reintroduction of the cheetah in India. Hardnews caught up with the veteran environmentalist.

How far have we come in preserving our diverse flora and fauna?

Protection within national parks and sanctuaries has certainly improved, but I cannot say that about the rest of the country. The forest department has not been able to come up with the kind of expertise one had hoped for. It is the duty of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to train forest department personnel, and that has not happened. Even the slots for the annual training course for the states are not subscribed. States do not send their representatives and the few who do attend are not always posted back in wildlife.

Unfortunately, the junior-level staff try to leave wildlife sanctuaries as soon as they can, and use political pressure to get posted in the territorial division. One does not mind the
fluidity between a normal IFS posting and a wildlife posting, but those who are keen to continue in wildlife
should be given full support. The management of national parks has improved and so has the
protection,but the understanding of the park management could have been better.

The growth in tiger tourism has led to mushrooming of hotels and resorts in the periphery of national parks. Your views on this crass commercialization.

There is a positive impact, and then there is a harmful one. Tourism has certainly helped in bringing attention to wildlife. Also, visits to some areas have even helped in preservation, and over the years I have seen an increase in numbers of wild animals and birds there. It also has an impact on the peripheral and buffer areas. Encouraging visits to these national parks is the best way to educate people and help them have empathy and enthusiasm for nature, wildlife and even tiger conservation. On the other hand, and I say it with great dismay, there is overutilisation and misuse of park safaris. Vehicles with packed tourists, who create a ruckus inside the forest, are under no one’s control. They are too loud, they concentrate on small pockets to see tigers. It is not an edifying experience to see tourists chasing tigers — sometimes literally hounding them.

You have to have resorts, but there should be greater control over their location so that they don’t impede animal movement. They should not overwhelm the carrying capacity of the wild animals and should be allowed to move freely. Another issue is that of diversion of ground and surface water — a scarce resource in deciduous forests where rainfall is rather scanty. Depletion of ground and surface water can have a serious impact on the future of these reserves.

You had mentioned that the hog deer is on the verge of extinction. Why do you think this happened?

When public interest in something is lacking, it ends up getting ignored. This is what happened to the hog deer. When I had first gone to Corbett National Park, some 50 years back, there were more hog deer than cheetal. And then the Ramganga Dam submerged prime hog deer habitat. The cheetal adapted to this new situation and is doing very well, but the hog deer population shrank drastically. I have seen more tigers than hog deer in Corbett. So if you say that the hog deer is not as important as the tiger, then that’s a flawed approach. Doesn’t it bother us that this food of the tiger is going extinct?

If one tiger dies, it is on the front page of all newspapers, while we don’t care about other species. Many don’t even know what a hog deer is. This is a failure on the part of all managers. Why is the media talking about tigers alone? Why is it not informing people about this great tragedy?

You have been a proponent of grasslands and initiated several steps to sustain them. How do you react to claims by experts that India has only cultural or man-made grasslands?

Who says there are no grasslands? Those who say this do not know the history of this country. We had extensive grasslands, otherwise how does one explain rhino presence in Punjab and Haryana. How did Babar kill rhinos in Hisar? In fact, these grasslands came into existence after forests were cleared for agricultural purposes. But that was ages ago and it helped several grassland species to come into existence. The hog deer, barasingha, Manipur deer, spid hare, great Indian bustard, pygmy hog, among others, are specifically grassland animals.

They are burning the grass in Corbett to attract cheetal and elephants, and that is bad for the hog deer. They need grasslands for their young ones – to breed and to hide. If the main purpose of tourism is only to ensure that tourists get to see the cheetal, for instance, then it has adverse effects on conservation – that is not eco-tourism.

You were the architect of the snow leopard project. Where does the project stand now?

We are the richest country in mountain fauna, but no one cares as our only focus is on tigers. That is why I started the Snow Leopard Project in 1988. Later it died down, but recently it has picked up again — a welcome development. The fulcrum of the effort lies in building up public interest in mountain areas.  If that happens, these species could live longer. Many foreigners go trekking in these high altitude areas, and if this kind of tourism could be encouraged, people might go to see the snow leopard as well, helping save pristine mountain habitat and its wild inhabitants.

Increasing man-animal conflict is taking its toll on various species and has created a host of issues to deal with. How do you think this conflict can be addressed?

The lessening of man-animal conflict is perhaps the most important dimension in the future of wildlife conservation. Since you cannot eliminate the conflict, you need to try to reduce it. The compensation part is crucial in any carnivore kill. Indeed, the damage to crops by elephants and wild boar is humongous, and needs to be handled carefully.

If lion and tiger populations increase inside a park, which is bound to happen, then they will start moving out of it. These dispersing animals would then kill livestock in order to survive. With human habitation at their doorstep, the animals are in direct conflict with man.

Can man and animal co-exist in harmony?

This whole business of man and animal living together in harmony is a myopic view of reality. Agricultural fields in the periphery of national parks will be raided by wild boar and other animals. Livestock are bound to be killed by tigers, and sometimes even humans can fall victim.
How long would you treat these people as anthropological exhibits?
They want to join the so-called mainstream and no longer want to spend nights on machaans, guarding their crops. They too deserve education, better health services, clean water, electricity and other
basic amenities.

Those who are willing to be relocated should be given a package that they cannot refuse — not only Rs 10 lakh, but also other facilities needed to make a positive change in their lives. Settle them in an area acceptable to them and get NGOs to facilitate
this. They should also be given allocations from the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority.

The sorry state of corridors is creating islands out of our national parks. What are your views on this?

I am worried about the state of corridors in the country. Forest continuity should be maintained. Our national parks are witnessing increasing islandization and animals have nowhere left to go. Where would larger mammals like elephants go? To stop this, even buffer areas should be turned into sanctuaries, protected areas, community reserves, and even critical wildlife habitats. Otherwise, we will have a population explosion and greater man-animal conflict.

To mitigate the adverse impact of this continuing shrinking of forests, we could also explore the option of group capture of animals and their release in other forest areas where they do not have a sizeable presence. Otherwise, people would either poison or kill these animals.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2012