Vivek Menon believes in using cultural factors to aid the cause

Conserving wildlife involves only 15 per cent knowledge of biology, while the remaining 85 per cent is all about social engineering.

So says Vivek Menon, executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), and one of the petitioners in the case which led to an interim order by the Supreme Court banning tourism in core areas of tiger reserves.

“Tourism is also social engineering, which is also not always a good thing. Only when it is done for the right purposes in the right way at moderate levels, it is beneficial,” Mr. Menon said and added that this was not his comment on the case which is still sub judice but an overall observation on tourism.

He was speaking toThe Hindu after a lecture he delivered in the memory of Dr. Vijay D. Anand, titled ‘Conservation is the art of the possible rather than the science of the impossible’.

He cited examples of conservation initiatives by his team, which leveraged social and cultural factors to its advantage in saving specific species of wildlife from peril, at the same time not giving in to the idea that traditional practices were always right.

“The method of using resources that worked for tribal communities many decades ago may not work now, given that commercial interests tend to come into play,” he said.

For instance, the WTI team found that there was some truth to the fact that Tibetan antelope or chiru was being exploitatively used by the Kashmiri weaving community to make Shahtoosh shawls. “It was used by the social elite, particularly among women, for whom it was a fashion statement. So, we got a fashionable woman to endorse our campaign that a product that killed antelope cannot be haute couture,” Mr. Menon said.

Training for weavers

“Simultaneously, we arranged for training of 25,000 Kashmiri weavers to be trained in Pashmina and also arranged for marketing of their products which faced stiff competition from Pashmina of other regions.”

His team has not shied away from using people’s religious and cultural beliefs either. “In Manas Forest Reserve, there is a village that is continuously attacked by elephants. Yet, when the villagers threw stones at them or chased them away, they would only call them ‘Ganesh!” Mr. Menon narrated. “This religious belief was leveraged to explain to them that elephant calves need not be domesticated or used for labour, but need to be rehabilitated in the wild.” The same method was repeated for the one-horned rhino which is a cultural symbol for the Assamese Bodo community.

Saving the fish

That is how, according to him, Manas was declared out of the UNESCO Red List, which features sanctuaries with its wildlife in danger of being wiped out, in 2011. The same method was used to save the whale shark living off the Gujarat coast. “It is the largest fish in the world, and was being poached for its liver which is used to waterproof boats,” Mr. Menon said. “An elderly leader spoke to coastal communities about the fish being the daughter of the State. After that initial push, the movement took a life of its own, inspiring school and college students too.

“And so, Gujarat, a State obsessed with its lion became proud of a fish.”