India should learn from African model on wildlife conservation: Valmik Thapar (Interview)

New Delhi, Dec 15: At the beginning of 20th century, there were an estimated 40,000 tigers in India, but this count has now reduced to a meagre 1,706. It is an alarming figure, but tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar hasn’t given up yet. He feels the national animal can be saved by adapting innovative wildlife tourism modules practised in Africa and by revamping age-old recruitment processes.

“We should learn from Africa. Their wildlife policies allow locals to manage a large part of the land for wildlife. We don’t even match up to the ‘A’ of Africa when it comes to preserving and conserving our wildlife. Their forest departments try all possible models a human mind can think of,” Thapar told IANS in an interview.

“Their Masai Mara park in Kenya is one of the best and successful modules. Local people, resort owners and the government work together in partnership and locals get a share when tourists come to the park.

“This way, locals get more than $100 million a year from revenue generated from tourism. This is innovative tourism of not ruling but serving, something that is obsolete in our system,” he added.

According to the tiger census of 2010, the big cat’s number has dwindled to 1,706, but the 61-year-old conservationist in his new book, “The Last Tigers”, published by Aleph, dismisses this figure and said the number was a mere 1,000 to 1,200.

Thapar, who established the Ranthambore Foundation in 1987 along with a non-government organisation connecting all those who wanted to save tigers, from locals to individuals and governments, has also drawn a blueprint for the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan where only 26 tigers are left.

He has also discussed the changes he wishes to see in the recruitment process of Indian Forest Service (IFS), a force whose role involves wildlife management, soil conservation, surveying, and handling weapons.

Other than talking about his favourite animal, Thapar has openly pointed out in his book about bureaucratic struggles during his stint in the government.

“Our system of recruitment in the forest department is extremely outdated, and we still follow British course structure… like how to cut a tree? We don’t teach them anything about protecting wildlife.

“During my research for the book, I realised that even after independence, we haven’t changed our course and just inherited it!”

“The Britishers’ system was to exploit us. They would cut forests to boost their economy. So you have to change the course of training and recruitment. I feel we never paused to change the system and that is what I believe is essential. If we have good wildlife parks then we need an Indian wildlife service,” he said.

He said the worst the government could do is to fail to appoint right people for the job.

A bible of sorts, this anthology has narratives from many international and national wildlife observers, covering the period from the 16th century to the early 20th century.

The book is complemented with candid photographs and sketches of the big cats.

Author of over 20 books, with thousands of pictures and several documentaries and films to his credit, Thapar was appointed a member of the Tiger Task Force in 2005, a stint he candidly admits as a “complete waste of time”.

“Those 21 years didn’t do any good to me or to the tigers. It was all about discussions, meetings and policies… there was no implementation,” he said.

Defeated, but not crushed by the suffocating bureaucracy, he believes if state governments are passionate about wildlife conservation, they can change these bleak figures into magical numbers and provide a successful model of tiger conservation plan for other states to follow.

“Once a chief minister of any state provides a successful module of wildlife protection in his state, only then we will have an example to show others the working module that can benefit locals, tourism and wildlife,” he said.

“Probably the best would be like we outsourced our airports and worked with private partners. Time has come to join hands with private experts who can change our poor wildlife conservation for good,” Thapar said.

(Shilpa Raina can be contacted at shilpa.r@ians.in)

IANS