Shekar Dattatri who has been on Nature's trail for 25 years tells CHITHIRA VIJAYKUMAR that being human should be synonymous with being an environmentalist

“One thousand five hundred feet,” he says. “That's how deep they've dug in Salem; but they still can't find enough water.”

Over the next couple of hours, there would be many more such facts — appalling figures that could make the Apocalypse seem like a welcome respite. And yet, strangely, when we leave his studio, it is with a resolute conviction that there is still so much that can be done.

That is what Shekar Dattatri does. He doesn't palliate his words or facts; but at the end of his films, you don't throw your hands up in despair and climb weeping back into your ivory tower.

“I make advocacy films, because I'd like to wake people up and offer realistic solutions for conservation.”

The award-winning filmmaker began more than 25 years ago, making natural history films dense with the exquisiteness of the natural world — the familiar documentaries with the camera descending dramatically into the mysteries of the untamed, unseen wild. “But it all changed about a decade ago. I was in New Zealand, wrapping up the post-production work for a film, when I stopped and wondered — what exactly are these lavish films going to do? Most channels cringe if you try to include a strong message of conservation.”

So he turned his back on television, and on the millions of viewers that slots on channels such as Discovery and National Geographic promised. “Television is primarily about entertainment; education is just a bonus. It wasn't the medium for me.”

Shekar's films changed. He gunned not for the many, but for the few, the core groups who could make a difference. And “Mindless Mining — the tragedy of Kudremukh” was just that — a film that compressed a complex story into something policymakers and the courts could digest. It worked. Thanks to the environmental destruction portrayed in the film and a hard-fought campaign by conservation groups, the Supreme Court ordered that the mines be closed by 2005.

There have been numerous issues that Shekar's camera has distilled — the Olive Ridley turtles, the King Cobra, the Silent Valley rainforest and more; and several awards, including the Associate Laureate of the prestigious Rolex Award, the Arlette Vincent Prize and the Edberg Award came his way. In fact, the finishing touches on his latest film are on — the succinctly titled “The Truth About Tigers” — which he promises will “remove the fog of confusion regarding tiger conservation”, besides offering insights into the reasons for their decline, and what ordinary people can do to help.

“Our government tiger census previously used an unreliable method called the pugmark technique. They would trace the mark onto a sheet of glass, and if it looked different from any of the other drawings they had, they concluded it was a different tiger. The four paws of a single tiger were, sometimes, counted as four different tigers.” Which is how the Sariska fiasco blew up in the face of the officials in 2004, when every single tiger from the reserve was found to have disappeared, while authorities continued to insist all was well.

“To estimate the number of tigers in an area, you need two things: first, figure out how many prey animals there are, using simple line-transects, since it is the abundance of prey that determines how many tigers a forest can support. Second, set up camera traps on trails on which tigers prefer to walk, to photograph them.” The point, he explains, is not to capture every single tiger on camera, but to see how many they could recapture, for statistical analysis.

“A tiger's stripes are absolutely unique, even the ones on the tail. So if a skin is seized somewhere, you can match it to the exact tiger, the reserve it was in, and perhaps even the official who was in charge of it.”

Now, the old pugmark method has been officially abandoned by the Government, in favour of these scientific techniques.

Working with renowned biologist Dr. K. Ullas Karanth who developed the method, Shekar made a 45-minute training video about these techniques, which is freely available at www.youtube.com/monitoringtigers.

Shekar's stint on the National Board for Wildlife is winding to a close; and he is almost acerbic in his disappointment. “The Board hasn't met even once in the last two years, and there's always tremendous pressure to pass several projects unconducive to conservation. If they do not begin to set things right, it will all have been a farce.”

But after a quarter of a century in the battlefield, has the fight become easier? “No! Look, more than 95 per cent of the land in India has been dominated by humans and human activity; protected or reserved areas for wildlife are only about four to five per cent, and there is huge pressure on these last few outposts as well. What conservationists are fighting for is this space, only this space.”

“If you put every one of our 30 tiger reserves together, it comes to about 40,000 sq.km. of land. That's about the size of a single reserve in Brazil, which is 35,000 sq.km. Several hundred rivers originate from natural parks and sanctuaries, and the blueprints of so many pharmaceutical drugs come from the forest. It's not just about saving the ‘poor animals'; if you must look at it that way, it's about saving ourselves.”

In fact, plans are on for a six-lane highway through the Pench National Park, one of India's prime tiger habitats. “Being a human should be synonymous with being an environmentalist,” he smiles. “We've already lost so much.”

(Wildlife photographs by Shekar Dattatri)