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In the natural world

Vivek Menon, a conservation biologist who set up the Wildlife Trust of India, has been advocating conservation of endangered species.

TALKING GREEN: Vivek Menon's achievements belie his age.

HE STRONGLY believes in conservation, is committed to the cause of wildlife protection and even formed the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) whose mission is "to initiate and catalyse urgent action to prevent the destruction of India's wildlife." Within a short span of time the Trust has initiated remedial action to ensure the survival of many hundreds of endangered species and wild habitats. A recipient of the Rufford Award for International Conservation for his work on elephant conservation given by the royalty in the United Kingdom, Vivek was happy that the Asian elephant was centrestage the day he received the award because it is invariably the African elephant which hogs the limelight. He has also authored three books, one for children written many years ago On the Brink (a Penguin publication) and Wildlife Crime.

Vivek's naturalist bent of mind saw him set up Srishti (for Delhi's environment), revive the Delhi Bird Watching Club, setting up Traffic within WWF before the WTI. One caught up with him when he was in the city on a brief visit.

About the Wildlife Protection Act, Vivek said, "according to me, the Act is one of the best legislation we have in Asia. But this has not been enforced properly and that is the main problem. There are already one set of amendments in Parliament which have to be cleared and passed. Another question to think about is whether the proposed Biodiversity Bill and the Wildlife Protection Act will clash at times."There are loopholes and even the schedules need a change, according to Vivek. "Lesser known things like butterflies and corals have been lumped en masse into one schedule following some old list. Nobody has looked at the status of any of them. In 1992, I was part of the seizure of 14,000 butterflies and moths from Himalayas. We had caught a couple of Germans and nobody could prosecute them because nobody could pull out specimens and identify them according to sub-specific level which is how they are listed at the moment in the list. We needed to send them to the British Museum of Natural History to get them identified. These were highly rare and they should have been on schedule 1."

The Wildlife Trust has been involved in supporting many things including rapid action. There is so much of wildlife outside parks and sanctuaries. They can be conserved by "involving the people around. We can't build walls around everything. We need to concentrate on protecting those in a particular area network system and definitely try to protect another 5 to 10 per cent through man and biosphere philosophies not necessarily as projects - but the philosophy that Man can live alongside". Conservation activity is taken up by only a few. Vivek exhorts "you need to get together as many branches of civil society together and bring them to the cause - here the field to make sure that they do something to protect animals. With one billion people, where do we protect our animals but still we have succeeded in protecting the world's tigers. We have 60 per cent of the elephant area, 85 per cent of the world's rhino - this is large mega fauna which we (Indians) have made space for somehow or the other. By and large the conservation ethic is there."

Vivek has been involved in curbing illicit trade for the last ten years ever since he started Traffic in WWF. "I have tried to curb illegal trade in ivory, tiger bones, butterflies and red corals in Andaman. The knowledge of enforcement agencies to this has increased over the last 10 years. When I started, there were customs officers who said they made a seizure of snake skins and gold and seized the gold and threw the snake skins into the Arabian Sea. Today, things have changed. People know. The nexus of mafia and the powers that be does not change. Our judiciary is getting more active but only at the Supreme Court or some High Court levels. We need to be active at the third class magistrate levels because that's where the wildlife cases first go." He emphasises the need for exemplary punishment at some stage.

He argues for wildlife trade to be treated like a crime. And that's the reason behind his book Wildlife Crime. "Nobody thinks of it as a crime. Interpol calls it the second largest illegal occupation in the world. We have a dowry cell, why not have a bird-burning cell. Karnataka has a forest cell in the police. Similarly you could have special CID cells to bust wildlife trade."

Wildlife trade is an enforcement issue - awareness does not help. It is a few people making money using a large amount of middlemen. There are a large number of poachers and in India, it's difficult to stop people poaching small things. There are a large number of consumers - the bottleneck is at the trade. A clear enforcement model is strangulating the trade.

We need to build a intelligence to break the trade and it should be active at all times."

Vivek sincerely wants to do something in Andhra Pradesh although the WTI has not been written to for help. "I think Andhra has a lot of potential. We are looking for like-minded people to collaborate with. One of the ways we run is not by offices. We have only one at Delhi and we work through partners, government, NGOs or individuals depending on the nature of the job. There is so much happening all around that we need to do fire fighting all around to conserve wildlife," and that is the need of the hour.


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